Marketing Lessons from Donald Trump

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender looks at them and says, “OK, what’s the joke?”

Don’t like that one? How about this? Three governors, two former governors, three senators, a brain surgeon, and a reality-TV star walk onto a debate stage in Cleveland. America looks at them and says, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

That’s right, folks, Campaign 2016 is here! The first Republican presidential debate is tonight! Political junkies are quivering with anticipation. NBC’s Chuck Todd is so excited he hasn’t been able to sit still in a week.

10 candidates will take the stage to make their case in Cleveland tonight. Each candidate will get about 9 minutes to speak, which makes the event more like speed dating than the Lincoln-Douglas debates. But expect fireworks – one commentator says it could make “Lord of the Flies” look like a picnic.

There’s really not a whole lot of difference between the candidates. They’re all conservatives, all pro-life, all against same-sex marriage to varying degrees. They all favor lower taxes, less government regulation, and more robust national defense. They all hate Obamacare with the white-hot heat of a thousand suns. And they’re all marketing themselves to the same Republican Party voters.

Does that sound familiar? When you go out to market your business, do your prospects see you as just another suit on a stage? What lessons can you draw from the Republican debaters to distinguish yourself?

Most of the candidates are positioning themselves as champion of some sort of experience or ideology – logical appeals that they hope will lift them above their competitors. Jeb Bush is the “smart” Bush, the one that should have run in 2000. Scott Walker has won three elections in a purple state, taking on public-sector unions and winning. Chris Christie has won two elections in New Jersey and promises a trip in the political way-back machine to when Republicans could compete in the northeast. Mike Huckabee is the culture warrior, fighting to preserve his vision of traditional American values. John Kasich is the so-called “grownup” in the room, presenting himself as an electable choice from a crucial swing state.

The three senators in the race are looking at alternate paths to the nomination. Marco Rubio is the fresh, young, Latin-friendly face of conservatism from another swing state. Rand Paul is the forward-thinking voice of inclusion, with bold plans to take on the tax code, looking for appeal beyond the stuffy old white guys who dominate the Republican base. Ted Cruz is the fighter. He’s willing to alienate everyone in his own party’s establishment while opposing every word out of President Obama’s mouth, including “and” and “the,” and appeals to hard-core Tea Party partiers.

But the real elephant in the room is real-estate developer and TV-host Donald Trump. He says he’s so rich, the financial disclosure forms can’t keep up with him – “OVER TEN BILLION DOLLARS.” Bloomberg News says he’s worth a more modest $3 billion. I don’t think it matters, either way – even if it’s just $3 billion, that’s $3 billion more than you or I have. Trump’s genius in the post-Citizens United era is to look at all the candidates groveling at the feet of billionaire sugar daddies like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers, then realize, “Hey, I’m a billionaire, too… why don’t I just run myself and cut out the middleman!”

Trump doesn’t appeal to the voters’ logic. His “policy proposals” are vague generalities: build a wall along the Mexican border and get Mexico to pay for it (sure!); repeal Obamacare and replace it with something “terrific” (like what?); turn the White House into the Gold and Marble House (ugh).

What Trump appeals to is his supporters’ emotions. Voters are sick and tired of the partisanship, the gridlock, the government-shutdown brinksmanship, and all-around game playing that defines today’s Washington. Trump isn’t a politician, so he’s not part of that problem. His fans love his blunt willingness to speak his mind, even when it offends vast segments of the electorate, and even when it makes no sense. It doesn’t even matter that the specific emotion Trump appeals to is a negative one (their disgust with the party establishment). Emotion still trumps reason.

Add it all up on paper, and you have a candidate with no business even running. But here he is, dominating the polls and dominating the headlines. Why? Because he appeals to the voters’ hearts and not their heads.

The only other candidate with similar appeal is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. No political experience, so he’s not part of the problem. (Has the guy ever even run a faculty committee?) But he’s a bona fide brain surgeon in a roomful of intellectual lightweights. He’s a soft-spoken alternative to a roomful of loudmouths and blowhards. And his life is an amazing, authentic, up-from-poverty story that illustrates American opportunity at its best. Again, on paper, this guy has no business being in the room with the others. But he appeals to the voters’ hearts, and they’ve rewarded him with the fifth spot in the polls.

So what’s the lesson?

First, be yourself! Let prospects and clients see who you are. Remember, they want to do business with people they know, they like, and they trust. Give them reasons to know you, like you, and trust you.

Second, give your clients a different reason to do business with you. Tax savings are great. Really, they are. But if you want to build a lasting business, you have to give your clients more. Don’t just appeal to their logical brains. Appeal to their emotional hearts. Tell them you’ll build a wall between them and the IRS.

Donald Trump won’t ever be President. But he’s in this race for the long haul, and he’s going to last a lot longer than most of the pundits think. (It’s ironic… Ted Cruz has gone out of his way to praise Trump lately, in hopes of picking up Trump’s voters when Trump drops out of the race – but in the end, Trump will wind up winning Cruz’s voters after Cruz exits.)

Why is this the case? Because he tugs at the public’s emotions in a way that his competitors don’t. Love him or loathe him, there’s a lot to learn from that appeal.