Regardless of what you think about him, the fact is that Donald Trump has stunned everyone. He has lasted longer as a presidential candidate than anyone presumed, and he has garnered far more support among the Republican base than anticipated. His brash, off-the-cuff, anger-driven style has resonated with a lot of people, and it has gotten him more attention and media coverage than all other candidates combined.
Whether or not he wins the Republican nomination or even the presidency, there’s a lot to be learned from his performance during this campaign season. Organizations seeking to build a larger base of support for their work or their cause should take notes from Trump’s success – and his failures. Here are some key lessons to consider:
- Have a strong brand. There’s no doubt that Trump has a strong brand. Just the mention of his name conjures a certain impression of the man, what he represents, and the kind of experience he creates. The strong emotional responses that people have to him are indicative of his distinct style and presence.
- Keep it simple. Carnegie Mellon University did an analysis of Trump’s campaign speeches and found that they contain language commonly spoken by children ages 11 and under. His overall vocabulary ranked around the level of an eighth grader. Is it no wonder that he has been able to reach so many people? Too often organizations use words or syntax that are difficult to understand, which keeps people from connecting with or supporting them. Keep your language simple so people have no trouble agreeing with you.
- Tap into emotions and values. Trump has run for president before, but this time he has gotten much further in his pursuit, and that’s in large part because he has tapped into the anger and frustration of a lot of Americans. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of anger and frustration about the economy, immigration, terrorism, and our government. People respond to Trump (and similarly to Bernie Sanders) because he speaks out about these issues and he shares their feelings. What he says about immigrants, terrorists, politicians, and the economy reflects their own feelings and it resonates with them. Organizations wanting to grow and engage their own bases of support should similarly find ways to tap into their audiences’ emotions and values, and show how their work will benefit the things they care about.
- Be authentic. A lot of people connect with Trump because he tells it like it is (in their view, anyway). They admire him for side-stepping political correctness and just speaking his mind, unfiltered. This is a big contrast to most politicians, who measure their words carefully and, as a result, come across as duplicitous or untrustworthy. Though organizations should probably be culturally sensitive to avoid the kind of negative attention that Trump has garnered (see the last point below), they should strive to be honest, straightforward, and true to their values in their work and their communications.
- Be consistent. Trump is consistent in his style and personality, which reinforces his brand. Consistency also breeds trust and loyalty, because people know what to expect from him, and this in turn reinforces the relationships he’s built with supporters. On the other hand, he has not been very consistent in his policy positions, and though he has dismissed such accusations, it has caused problems for him. People find the inconsistencies in what he says to be cause for mistrust – someone who says two different things is less predictable and therefore less trustworthy – and such mistrust erodes your base of support. Organizations should be sure to be consistent in both their brand – their presence, personality, and messages – and their positions – what they stand for and believe in. If you dramatically or frequently change your brand or positions, you will lose some supporters, and it will make it harder for you to gain new ones.
- Don’t be afraid to turn people away. If you’re going to have a strong brand that is authentic, taps into people’s emotions, and takes a hard position on the issues, you’re bound to say things that will turn people away. And that’s okay. If you’re trying to appeal to everyone, you’re probably appealing to no one, because you end up washing out your brand and your messaging by taking too many positions or dampening your language too much. Organizations should be confident in what they stand for and be comfortable communicating as much, even though there may be people who disagree with them. The people who disagree are not your target audience, and trying to appeal to them means you risk losing those who do agree with you by downplaying or moving away from what they care about. You probably don’t want as many people hating you as Trump has, but don’t feel that you need to appeal to all those who disagree with you either.
- Back up your word. One of Trump’s weaknesses is that while he has an opinion about a lot of things, he doesn’t really have any evidence to support his positions. This makes him vulnerable to attacks from those who disagree with him. Organizations who will take positions on issues should be able to support their claims and justify their rationale with concrete evidence from reliable sources. This not only defends you against any attacks from naysayers, but it builds your case for support – and it makes your organization look more expert and professional.
- Own up to your missteps. Trump is never shy to boast about his accomplishments, and a big part of his brand appeal is his success as a businessman. However, many have pointed out that many of his so-called successes were actually failures (Trump Steaks, anyone?). Trump refuses to admit any failures or weaknesses, and as a result, some have questioned his qualifications for Executive-In-Chief. After all, a sign of good leadership is accepting responsibility for your mistakes and then learning from them so you don’t repeat them. Similarly, organizations should step up and admit mistakes when they occur, take responsibility for them, and then learn from them so they don’t happen again. No one likes to admit failure, because they think it is shameful and will make people dislike them. But consider the alternative: hiding your failures takes a lot of effort, covering them up makes you vulnerable to those who might uncover them, and ignoring them increases the chances that it will happen again. And denying your failures only to defend them instead will make you look foolish, unprofessional, and untrustworthy. Just look at Trump.
- Stay positive. Trump was quick to go negative in his campaign – against those he didn’t trust (he insulted Mexicans when he launched his campaign), against anyone he didn’t like (politicians, Obama, Megyn Kelly), against those who didn’t like him (the media), and against his competition (Republican candidates and the Democratic candidates). While those who supported him and his positions may have been energized by such attacks (and his willingness to speak his mind openly), it certainly turned a lot of people off, and it raised questions about whether or not his disposition was appropriate for the office of the President. As noted above, it’s important to stand for what you believe in, but that doesn’t mean you need to take down others too. Staying positive doesn’t mean you can’t talk about problems or crises. In this context it just means not offending or insulting others, including those who disagree with you. Especially in a world where social media and word of mouth can make or break a brand, it’s important that you earn people’s respect by behaving professionally and civilly. It will help you keep those who do support you, get positive attention from those who might support you, and minimize conflict from those who don’t support you.
Love him or hate him, don’t let Donald Trump’s candidacy pass you by without taking away some important lessons. His success and failures are similar to those of many organizations, and like Trump, they will rise or fall because of them.