What Donald Trump Means to Copywriters
What can you say about Donald Trump that hasn't been said 100X already?
But how about this?
Sure, Mr. Trump is not sitting in a coffee shop, banging away on his Mac. Still, it's clear that he thinks like a direct response copywriter.
In short, his unorthodox campaign for the Presidency conformed to a four-step process direct response copywriters use to sell. Those steps are:
- Study the market
- Find a hungry audience
- Woo them
- Make an offer
Before going further, let me say this. I neither love nor loathe Donald Trump. As a New Yorker, I'm used to him. He's been a local celebrity since... forever.
You may disagree with my assessment, but here it is: the office of President is 90% theater. It's a distraction from real life. Trump's Twittering is just the latest example of that.
As Paul Begala said, "Washington is Hollywood for ugly people!"
Still with me? Great!
Because however you view Donald Trump, his win is a case study in direct response tactics. The tactics he used to win can be applied to any product or service.
Read on to see what I mean.
The market for Presidents
Unlike Donald Trump, the Washington establishment does NOT think like direct response copywriters.
Why would they? Once elected, they're as hard as splinters to remove. That kind of job security breeds fat, lazy thinking. Further, living in Washington D.C. seals them off from their constituents (i.e., customers).
So, it's no surprise that prior to the 2016 election, all the "experts" on cable TV were trashing Trump. He was going "off message," they said. His brash, loose talk was killing his chances for advancement.
The pricey consultants who advise politicians don't interact with real people. As you'd expect, the isolation skews their advice.
How? They advise Presidential hopefuls to stay "on message." Apparently, the way to do that is to mouth a few quips, ad nauseum, like a robot gone haywire. The goal? Get voters excited about a poised, polished, and predictable candidate.
Judging by past presidents, no doubt this advice works.
But things were looking differently in early 2015.
Trump spotted an opening. There was an untapped market, just below the surface, giving hints about themselves. Might this patchwork of voters be hungry for change?
A foretaste of Trump
In mid-2015 Donald Trump announced his intention to run for the Presidency.
The D.C. elite laughed.
"He's a joke!" they said. "DOA!"
Of course they were wrong. Donald Trump's politically incorrect talk greased his path to the White House.
More than that, it endeared him to voters hungry for a human politician. This invisible market was just waiting for someone it could trust.
Why didn't anyone else in Washington realize this?
Three reasons: bias, laziness, and stupidity.
In their defense, living, working, and socializing in the D.C. bubble blinds even smart people. The dynamic world outside is non-existent. Politics is the only game in town and everyone plays it.
Donald Trump didn't live in D.C.
Really, he didn't live anywhere. He spent the bulk of his campaign crisscrossing the country, pressing the flesh, and talking to people. He tapped into a hungry audience; they didn't find, ask for, or create him.
Piling on his initial discovery, Trump hustled. He outworked competitors, appearing at more events and rallies. The direct response copywriter in him A/B tested messages without resorting to canned scripts.
Human wrecking ball
The other candidates (in both parties) hated Trump. Still do, in fact.
Why? He embarrassed them. At every turn. Seemed to glory in it (as did his growing fanbase!).
You see, to the D.C. crowd, Trump was an outsider muscling his way into a closed club. He breached protocol. To a large swath of voters, however, he looked like a regular guy and not a pretender.
His cracks against other challengers torpedoed them. When he called Jeb Bush "low-energy," voters cackled with glee. It was a succulent picture word.
Likewise, with every throwaway comment, Trump forced the other candidates to respond... react... play catch-up.
None of them had the instincts (or stomach) to do battle. They might have... if they truly understood the audience they were pitching. Instead, they relied on standard, finger-to-the-wind guesswork.
Trump dominated the headlines... sucked the oxygen out of the room. He was both plucky startup and market leader.
The media HATED giving him free publicity but had to cover him. His name juiced ratings.
Trump was already an established PR master. Prior to politics, he did whatever was necessary to gin up interest in his business projects. In his own words from the 1980's:
"The show is Trump, and it is sold-out performances everywhere.”
We belong together
What the political, media, and... yes, even the advertising establishment got wrong was the order of events.
This matters. Trump didn't create an audience for his product. He sold his Presidential product to an existing audience. He wooed them by word and deed.
Take for example, his fights with the press. He mocked them with the "fake news" slur. They were powerless to respond, no matter how hard they tried.
Why? Because they had overestimated their importance to voters. Technology has been fragmenting and reducing the influence of the press for decades. On top of that, large swaths of voters DESPISED the press. Nobody in D.C. realized the degree of hostility, until Trump came along. His candidacy was what flushed it out.
The result was that voters started identifying themselves even more with Trump. When he attacked the press, he was fighting their fight... doing what they had always wanted to do.
Previously, no politician had ever fought the press and won. With every scuffle, Trump's popularity rose.
Donald Trump's call to action
"I invite you, friend, to make me your next President."
Donald Trump kept winning. He outlasted all his primary opponents and then sealed the Republican Party's nomination.
Even after accomplishing that, the D.C. establishment "resisted" him. Until the very end, all predictions and polling showed him getting CRUSHED by Hillary Clinton.
The non-stop barrage of insults, smears, and innuendo would have been too much for another candidate. However, with Trump, the attacks backfired. They reinforced the bond with his audience.
In fact, at his lowest point in the race for the White House, Trump supporters rallied rather than dispersed. He sent out a fundraising email with the subject line "Trump vs the World." They flooded him with money!
He needed the boost. Any candidate would, actually. Why? Because voting takes work... effort. It's easier to NOT mail a ballot or drive to a polling station. Inaction, as direct response copywriters know, is the norm.
So, as the election got closer, Donald Trump kept up his torrid pace. He continued with the trash talk... the fights with the press... the personal insults ("Crooked Hillary").
Early polling showed him doing better than predicted. Naturally, the press explained it away, refusing to rethink their position.
Also overlooked during Trump's campaign was his slogan. Despite his non-stop braggadocio, "Make America Great Again" was modest. That is, the HERO of it wasn't Donald Trump, it was the voters. They -- not him -- had a chance to do America right.
In contrast, the hero in Hillary Clinton's slogan ("I'm with Her" ) was Hilary. Narcissistic messages, as it turns out, aren't good for pushing casual voters to respond.
Donald Trump motivated enough of his audience to act on their beliefs. His conversion rates bested Hillary's. That's why he won the big prize in 2016.
Copywriters for Trump?
Commending Donald Trump for his campaign shouldn't be controversial. But it is. Especially in large, left-wing ad agencies. Creatives can be awfully sensitive! As such, it's hard for them to separate the man Trump from his winning tactics.
Be that as it may, don't let yourself drink the Kool-Aid. While hating Trump might now be part of your job duties, you still must think in direct response terms to have the best chance for success. Remember, industry bias, laziness, and foolishness is what caused the D.C. establishment to underestimate Trump.
Good copywriters don't live in bubbles:
- They read far and wide
- They borrow ideas liberally, even from wildly different industries
- They ask tons of questions -- both the smart and "stupid" kind
- They think in long, isolated blocks
The next time one of your colleagues complains about Trump, remind him or her about the order of events. Donald Trump wasn't the Pied Piper. He didn't lead otherwise sane citizens to the deplorable part of town. Rather, an existing market CHOSE him to be THEIR President after he made the OFFER.
Is Donald Trump really divisive?
Politicians, media types, and marketers keep saying that Trump and his supporters are divisive. It's "tearing the country apart."
But if that's true (and not merely opinion) ... so what?
Why is it bad to alienate certain voters? To make enemies? Nobody says. Instead, they spin a word salad of cliches and emotive non-sequiturs.
From a marketing perspective, division and polarization isn't necessarily bad. In fact, it's often unavoidable and sometimes... a very good thing!
Why? One, because it's normal. Humans have ALWAYS taken sides, self-segregated, and formed alliances. That applies to competing candidates, products, and services.
Two, because it can be enormously profitable. Ask yourself this. Would I rather have a small loyal base of customers who see themselves in my product, or a larger base of casually-indifferent customers?
Study after study says the former is better. Hillary Clinton spent twice as much as Donald Trump in her run for the White House and still lost. Why? In part, because she was targeting a wider group of voters. Naturally, some of those groups had competing interests. That meant, she had to stay above the fray by speaking in generalities rather than specifics.
Generalities hardly inspire loyalty. The fact is, any company (off the record, of course) would eat glass to have customers as loyal as Trump supporters!
Staying the course
The Trump victory was a reminder to us copywriters. Elevating feelings (how you'd like things to be), over facts (the way things are), yields faulty conclusions.
Donald Trump has stumbled badly post-election. That's obvious. What's interesting is that most of those bumps are self-inflicted. He loses when he deviates from the campaign formula.
I'm not talking about policy changes. Presidents have always reneged on their campaign promises. They lie all day, every day.
No, what I'm talking about is pure language. When Trump tries to stay "on script" and sound like the President, he flails.
As savvy, direct response copywriters know, politics is a game. It's not about reaching "consensus." That's certainly what we were taught in high school. Maybe it's a nice sentiment, but it's bogus.
Here's the truth: politics is about imposing your will. Winning. That's all.
While Trump certainly hurts himself by reneging on promises, the damage appears to be worse when he tries to build bridges.
Why? His enemies will never, NEVER like him. They HATE him with a passion! Nothing he does will change that. However, if he keeps trying to please them, his supporters will jump ship.
As direct response copywriters know, you can't serve two masters!
Love friends, hate enemies
Before politics, businessman Trump clearly knew the audience for his real estate projects. He pitched people with money, who enjoyed living (or appearing to live) the luxury lifestyle. That means, for example, he never tried marketing his opulent, gold condos to historic preservationists.
Put another way, neither the politician nor copywriter can create mass desire. They, as Eugene Schwartz would say, can only channel and direct it.
That's why President Trump should give up on trying to be the "people's" President. That ain't happening! Instead, he should focus on the one or two metrics that matter.
I don't know what those are. But they HAVE to include keeping supporters happy.
In business, it costs 5 to 25X more to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing one.
That's why when hiring a copywriter, you need to steer clear of one who objects, on principle, to polarization. The plan, of course, is not to be divisive just for kicks. That'd be dumb.
However, if that's what what it takes to persuade... convince... pull the trigger... then yes, he or she needs to "go there." Push those emotional buttons hard!
Chasing acceptance by non-customers and industry competitors is a fool's errand. Like the Presidency, it will lead you to neglect loyal customers.
Besides, mass acceptance in business is usually an illusion. Sometimes, it's even the kiss of death!
Think about it. Was Facebook better off once grandmas started friending their grandkids? No. The grandkids ran away screaming -- into the waiting arms of Instagram. Mr. Zuckerberg then bought Instagram, but that's another story.
No shortcuts allowed
Last thing. Clearly, Donald Trump had distinct advantages in his bid for the White House. There's no getting around his broad name recognition, deep pockets, and clean slate (i.e., political voting record).
That said, those advantages would not be enough by themselves to win. In the last three years, several celebrity business moguls like Trump (Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina) have come up short in their bid for higher office.
They failed because they skipped the four-step, direct response process that Donald Trump followed.
As copywriters, "shortcuts" are risky. It's better to do what Trump did. Gather information in the early stages before making a full commitment to a campaign. With enough feedback, you'll get the audience, the message, and the offer right without blowing a fortune.
PREDICT THE NEXT PRESIDENT?
Presidents come and go. Direct response tactics stay put. Grab the PDF version of this article (no opt-in) and you'll call the next President months before the pollsters!