January 27, 2016

Political reporters can roll their eyes over the stunning ascension of Donald Trump, presidential candidate. That now includes his supremely confident (and, to some, confounding) refusal to take part in Thursday’s Fox-sponsored GOP debate.

But their bosses might take heed of another Trump: the brilliant marketer.

For sure, “every industry is different and has its unique challenges and dynamics,” says Tim Calkins, a branding and marketing expert at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who finds the Trump campaign a window onto effective branding principles.

“But the fundamentals of branding apply very nicely to the world of media and the challenges in media with people having so many options today,” Calkins says. “It’s such a competitive market that having a brand that is distinctive and resonates with a distinct group is so important. The problem is today that world of media so cluttered, some of the barriers to entry are falling and it becomes so important for brands to think through their branding and trying to decide with whom they are trying to connect.”

In the case of the campaign, Calkins notes how, at heart, candidates in each party are trying to build their “brand” and convince people that it’s in their self-interest to support that brand. Trump has managed to be rather masterful, so far, says Calkins, who teaches MBA students and executives.

First, he notes, Trump has generated enormous attention. “That is the first thing you need to do to build a brand; to get people to notice and not to fade away into the clutter that exists today.”

Then, he’s been able to differentiate himself through positions and comments unlike those of any rival.

Finally, he’s linked his positions to a clear and simple perceived benefit. Journalists may fact-check to death his “unique positions,” as Calkins describes them, but Trump ties them to the benefit “of ‘making America great again.’ He’s puts it all together in a pitch that resonates with people.”

Calkins concedes that politics is different in certain respects from many industries, including media. Your goal is to win an election. It’s a time-constrained activity. It’s over at some point. When done, candidates don’t really have to deal with one another. If Trump and Ted Cruz badmouth one another now, it’s possible they don’t really cross paths when all is over.

So it’s a bit easier to trash one’s rival in politics and not worry about protecting a relationship or protecting certain standards. If you’re in media, you don’t necessarily want to continually attack rivals since, Calkins says, it might just damage the whole industry.

There are clearly exceptions, with Fox News Channel being one example of huge success that’s included irreverence towards cable industry opponents. It’s perhaps fitting that it’s now in a war of words with Trump.

But if Trump doesn’t actually show at Thursday’s Fox debate and improbably comes out the better for it with voters, then he will have at least again suggested a marketing necessity: The power of nervily staking out different territory than your competitors.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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