Donald Trump may be the most polarizing figure of this election cycle. And he's ridden a wave of social media and earned media to go from political oddity to the man to beat in the Republican primary, besting competitors who've outspent him exponentially. So it's no surprise that many in adland might be tempted to see him as a marketing case study.
There's no arguing with the results so far, but a lot of what works for Mr. Trump would seem like brand suicide for a traditional marketer. The juvenile attacks on the competition, his lack of messaging consistency over the years, the absence of a detailed product benefit and a questionable relationship with the truth -- which has been called out by fact checkers, the media and the competition -- are all things that would likely sink a brand tempted to embrace them.
But there is a method to the madness, and from finding a need and filling (or exploiting) it to the use of engaging live events to tapping into consumer emotions, lessons can be gleaned from the campaign.
"Whether by instinct or design, Donald Trump is without a doubt the most modern and sophisticated marketer of the Republican candidates," said John Barker, president and chief idea officer at independent advertising shop Barker.
Mr. Barker said Mr. Trump, "a natural showman," understands that being in headlines is more important than being loved or consistent. Case in point: his unveiling of the Chris Christie endorsement just as opponent Marco Rubio started turning up the heat.
More important, he gets "postmodern marketing." Other GOP candidates, such as Ted Cruz and Mr. Rubio, are mistakenly thinking they should focus on policy to get voter attention and they're not gaining traction. Mr. Trump, however, is tapping into the emotional core of Middle America, talking to people "who feel left out and left behind, and he's saying, 'I know you're angry, and I'm angry too,'" said Mr. Barker.
"Postmodern marketing is about the fact that consumers are drawn to brands that share their core opinions. It's about aligning your brand with an opinion that's of critical importance to your consumers," he added. Take successful efforts like Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign and Always' "Like a Girl," or more recently, MAC's decision to sign transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner.
Mr. Trump might not be the poster child for actual authenticity, but recognizing authentic voter anger and tapping into it not only earns him consumer confidence, but also a lot of leeway.
Going into Super Tuesday on March 1, Mr. Trump was being attacked from numerous fronts for, among other things, not immediately denouncing an endorsement from former KKK leader David Duke. It didn't matter: Mr. Trump went on to win seven states. He did eventually denounce such groups, but he didn't apologize for his previous misstep.
His refusal to take part in the apology cycle -- say something, get criticized, apologize, repeat -- is also part of the appeal and something marketers can tap into.
"People love him because he is who he is. He's very raw and authentic, but that's his brand," said Lee Carter, partner at Maslansky & Partners. "We need to help our clients who are advertisers and marketers become more fearless and unapologetic for who they are, what they offer and what they can bring to consumers."
Michael Maslansky, CEO of the eponymous firm, echoed Ms. Carter's views, saying he thinks many companies today are in a defensive posture, where they get attacked for something and then have to apologize. Marketers can learn from Mr. Trump, he said, by figuring out what makes them proud about their brand and then reframing the conversation around that. "There's a crisis of confidence in a lot of corporations around who they are and what they stand for, and when push comes to shove, they're not proud of who they are in a lot of ways, so they need to go back to that," said Mr. Maslansky.
Flip-flop? So what?
He added that the instances in which Mr. Trump has flip-flopped on specific issues -- hot-button topics like the war in Iraq and abortion rights, among others -- don't affect his sense of authenticity because his attacks, off-the-cuff remarks and "ability to channel the public mindset is authentic."
"In that context, people are less focused on specific policies than his overarching narrative that he will make America great again," said Mr. Maslansky. "People who oppose Trump like to focus on his inconsistencies. People who support Trump uniformly argue that they support him because he will shake up the system. The policies to do that are less important."
And while critics and Republican opponents have repeatedly lambasted Mr. Trump's lack of concrete policy proposals, keeping it simple also seems to be appealing to voters. Ms. Carter noted that Mr. Trump has outlined his plan (such as it is) to "Make America Great Again" by communicating broad key issues that Americans care about, such as jobs and safety, in a simple way. His campaign website, for example, has five positions outlined, unlike Hillary Clinton, who has dozens of issues on her site. (It should be pointed out, however, that in recent nationwide polls, Ms. Clinton beats Mr. Trump in head-to-head competition.)
In addition to his streamlined messaging, some of Mr. Trump's victories can be attributed to the GOP's marketing missteps over the years, according to Surya Yalamanchili, a former Procter & Gamble brand manager and a contestant on "The Apprentice" in 2006. In a column for Ad Age, Mr. Yalamanchili, who ran for U.S. Congress in 2010, wrote that the Republican Party in previous cycles has been driving voter turnout by stoking "the emotions and fears of their core supporters."
A key marketing tenet at P&G, Mr. Yalamanchili wrote, was to be "careful how you train your consumer." In P&G terms, that played out as making sure that short-term promotions didn't come at the expense of long-term success.
"By constantly remind[ing] their voters that they were living in dangerous and desperate times, they succeeded in driving voter turnout," he wrote. The method resulted in short-term electoral wins, but the GOP effectively primed the pump for Mr. Trump.
While there so far seems to be little to no limit to what Mr. Trump can get away with in this primary race, it goes without saying that it's different for brands. Consumers might like and reward unapologetic authenticity, up to a point. Think of the fans who rallied around Chick-fil-A during the outcry over its anti-gay-marriage stance, or the people who supported Cheerios for its multiracial advertising. But there's still a risk. Chick-fil-A backed down after its political position became the story and may have threatened sales as it sought new markets in more liberal urban areas.
Jaime Prieto, president of global brand management at Ogilvy & Mather, said while Mr. Trump drives conversations by being provocative and unfiltered, some of his actions could compromise his brand over time. Marketers, he said, should definitely push the envelope a little when it comes to their viewpoints, but there's a limit. "Unfiltered is probably too much. When brands try to be unfiltered is when you have those epic Twitter fails and 'what were you thinking?' moments," he said.
"What Trump is doing is unprecedented and unpredictable, and most brands don't want to be playing that context," added Mr. Prieto.
Indeed, a number of brands Mr. Trump has done business with have dumped him in the wake of his comments about Mexicans and his calls to close the border to Muslims. The list includes Univision, NBC, Macy's, Nascar, Serta, the PGA, ESPN, Perfumania and Dubai-based home decor chain Lifestyle.
About that earned media
But it's Mr. Trump's success with social and earned media that is probably the most tempting draw to marketers who spend big on the paid kind.
Mr. Prieto said that Mr. Trump is an "incredibly disciplined brand and marketer," who's also very agile.
"He reacts, responds and anticipates what's happening in social media and in his competitive set and what he's hearing from consumers and his voters. It is real-time marketing in the political arena, which is something so many brands wish they could do, and he's pulling it off on a daily basis," said Mr. Prieto.
As Mr. Trump has been focusing on social and earned media, his opponents have been spending millions of dollars on advertising.
Jeb Bush, who recently dropped out of the race, racked up more than $80 million in cumulative ad spending after April 5, 2015, on broadcast, cable and satellite TV and radio running for president, according to an Ad Age analysis of data from Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group. Meanwhile, the report shows that Mr. Trump's cumulative ad spending is around $11.5 million, which is about one-fourth of Ms. Clinton's spending of more than $41 million.
"Jeb Bush proved without a shadow of a doubt that paid media isn't necessarily the answer. It's about the message," said Mr. Barker.
Kevin Goldman, senior director at APCO Worldwide said brands, if they have a strong social following, can learn from Mr. Trump that they no longer need to rely on traditional media; they can use social to bypass traditional to still get out their messages.
But you have to build that following somehow, and Mr. Trump has done that by saying outrageous things and saying them often.
That in turn leads to his earned media. Mr. Trump doesn't have to spend much on paid media, according to Mr. Goldman, because TV news executives realize that featuring him and his rallies equals ratings. But packaged-goods products and automobiles aren't going to generate the ratings that will get them the earned media Mr. Trump has received.
And Mr. Trump isn't relying on social media in a vacuum. Another way Mr. Trump has been garnering attention is through raucous live events that are more like WWE matches than the typical political rally.
McCann Worldgroup Chairman-CEO Harris Diamond noted that live events -- whether on-ground activations at sports venues or concerts or social tie-ins to the Oscars or the VMAs -- are increasingly key for brands too.
"They're great places because people pay attention and participate, they're involved and aware, and they tweet and discuss," said Mr. Diamond, who added that it's better to integrate events and earned media than to solely focus on paid.
But he was careful to add that brands and agencies can't minimize the importance of paid media because all marketing elements are necessary for a 360-degree effort.
It's unlikely that even Mr. Trump is going to have the luxury of forgoing paid media if he is the nominee and gets locked into a pitched battle with Ms. Clinton or Bernie Sanders.