Understanding The Donald Trump Phenomenon – Strategy With RS

After 8 November, when the US presidential elections will be held, Donald Trump may well emerge as the world’s most powerful man, even though many see him as a highly divisive person.

Trump may well be an extreme example of a leader who uses every trick in the book to polarize people and win. In business and in other facets of life, the chances are that you may come up against a Trump-like leader. How do you combat them and prevent them from negatively influencing the organizational agenda?

In a nutshell, you can do that by being a professional yourself, avoiding emotional confrontations and delivering results that do the talking.

But it is important to first understand exactly how they, like Trump, manage to manoeuvre themselves into a winning position.

Also, regardless of our opinion about Trump, the fact that he has come thus far in the presidential campaign offers valuable lessons on the power of effective strategy and the power of persuasion in moulding public opinion.

Let me make it clear here that I do not support Trump’s style of functioning. My limited intent is to present his techniques so that we may understand the Trump phenomenon—and maybe learn how to tackle it if we encounter it.

Building brand Trump

As a businessman, Trump was single-mindedly devoted to promoting brand Trump by garnering mindshare and making it valuable—whether it was through his hit reality TV show, ‘The Apprentice’, or by attaching his name to various businesses. “Of the 515 companies that Trump has a part in running, 268 bear his last name…. Yet not all of the buildings emblazoned with Trump’s last name are owned by him; for many properties, he merely licences his name to other developers,” reported ‘The Washington Post’.

Since he owns the brand, the more valuable it became, the richer he became.

When he decided to contest the presidential elections, his strategy was to gain voters’ mindshare. Here are the contours of that strategy:

1. Understanding voters’ pain point: Trump’s vote bank comprises less affluent, white Americans who are sensing that the American dream is eluding them. In their perception, two major global events seem to have led to fewer jobs and at lower wages: outsourcing of manufacturing activities, and immigrants gobbling up a large share of the remaining jobs at extremely competitive salaries, thus bringing down the wage plateau for all (even though that view is disputed).

Trump’s promise is to restore their entitlement by “making America great again”. (In 2012, he registered a trademark for his slogan, “Make America Great Again”.)

2. Appeal to voters’ emotions: He does that by appealing to their self-interest through his trademarked slogan. He reminds them that by voting for him, they are actually voting for themselves. He then gives them “rational” reasons to vote for him.

Meanwhile, other candidates share policies they would implement, which appeals to the rational and analytical part of the voters’ brains, and not their emotions.

3. Make promise believable: Research indicates that when a brand advertises using paid media (TV, press, etc.), the believability of the message is 24-62%. When real people speak about the brand, the believability jumps to 70%. And if known people speak about it, the believability is 90%. While most presidential candidates have been burning money by advertising on paid media, Trump is levering “earned media”—social media, buzz, PR. Hence his message is more believable and his cost negligible.

4. Demonstrate promise: Trump “demonstrates” that he can deliver on the promise by offering a logic which may appear flawed to many, but seems to be working: he tells voters that he made himself great by becoming a billionaire many times over and he can do for them what he did for himself.

5. Embed behavioural science principles into the campaign:

• Likability Principle—people are more likely to be influenced by people they like. His core voter base likes him because he appeals to their emotions.

• Confirmation bias—people tend to interpret information in a way that confirms their preconceptions. His voters want America, and therefore themselves, to be great. Trump’s promises resonate with this desire.

• Mirror Neuron Effect. They empathize with Trump because they want to be like him (rich).

Why the flaws escape notice

Trump has changed the rules on many relevant dimensions, leaving his opponents perplexed.

He has positioned himself as an expert who uses logic to buttress his arguments and backs them up with evidence. Though an analysis by PolitiFact indicates that 77% of his facts are proving to be inaccurate.

He gets away with that because:

1. People hear what they want to hear: They do not have time to cross-check facts, particularly when the content resonates with them.

2. Diffuse the question by answering it with a question:Trump said he will build a wall between the US and Mexico. When he was pointedly asked how he will get the resources to build it, he answered with a question: How did the Chinese build the Great Wall of China? And then he answered the revised question: If they could do it then, why can’t it be done now? The original question remained unanswered.

3. Us versus them: Trump has presented himself as someone who wants to make America great again. Anyone who opposes him is labelled anti-America.

So how do you counter this strategy?

In our professional careers and social engagements, we sometimes come across people who use similar strategies to divide. How do you neutralize that? Let me share a personal experience.

I had joined as president of a packaged consumer goods company and for the first eight months, my predecessor was to work with me so that I could gain complete understanding and control of my new responsibilities. Unfortunately, he felt threatened and began to behave in a counterproductive manner.

Here’s how I handled it:

1. Do not get into a direct confrontation: Figuratively speaking, such people tend to “roll in the mud” and I too would end up in the mud.

2. Do not react to his provocations, but respond to situations created by him: If I had reacted, it would have made me appear defensive and at a disadvantage. Plus, I would have inadvertently allowed my emotions to get the better of me. Instead, I decided to respond in a thoughtful, reasoned manner, based on logic and facts.

3. Change the rules of the game on relevant dimensions:Instead of focusing his energy on making the business stronger, he was focused on strengthening his relationship with members of the family that controlled the company. I played to my strength—which is to present myself as an extremely confident and competent professional. I arrived early and well-prepared for all meetings, and responded to questions with logic, facts and insights. I implemented a business strategy that got the business moving at a faster clip. As results started trickling in, I was able to position myself in the minds of key stakeholders as an extremely competent professional. The contrast was apparent to all.


*This article first appeared in the Mint




In this series, Rajesh Srivastava, Business Strategist and Visiting Faculty at IIM Indore gives you a regular dose of strategy case studies to help you think and keep you one step ahead as a professional as compared to your peers. Rajesh is an alumnus of IIM Bangalore and IIT Kanpur and has over 2 decades of experience in the FMCG industry. All previous Strategy with RS posts can be found here.