Marketing in the Age of Trump

New Rules for a New Reality

President Donald Trump, Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Last Friday was a big day for the United States — and indeed for the whole world. Regardless of whether you were delighted, indifferent, or terrified by the new arrivals in Washington, there was no denying that we are experiencing a seismic change in more ways than we can likely grasp in this moment. We’re feeling changes in the role and functioning of government and its relationship to the press and public; we’re seeing new rules written for political discourse and the use of language; we’re feeling more challenged than ever to know what’s real and whom to trust; and we’re challenging and re-evaluating our previously unquestioned relationships with friends, relatives and even brands. Marketing leaders in this new reality must confront the profound implications to their brands in order to stay healthy and relevant in the coming years. I’ll explore these issues in a three-part piece, closing with recommended actions for CMOs.

One unfortunate birthing of this election cycle is the thing called Fake News. And we’ve most recently welcomed “Alternative Fact” into our lexicon. Now let’s be honest, we have lived with fake news ever since the first printed word — and probably well before, as I’m sure there are cave paintings that inaccurately touted the dweller’s hunting prowess. Fake news has had many names over the years — propaganda, yellow journalism, Tabloids — and has typically been used to variously titillate, divide, and incite. The explosion in social media as a consumer ‘s source of information has certainly added to the mix — perhaps best evidenced by Eric Tucker’s spectacularly successful and false posting about busloads of paid political protesters. Even putting aside the deliberate, cynical violation of the truth, we have long understood and accepted that we need to consider the source: like the classic movie Rashomon, the same “truth” will look unrecognizably different on Fox News than on CNBC. Not surprisingly, consumer trust in the media is at an all-time low, as they must continually question the integrity and authenticity of the information they take in.

The sad truth is that this new doubtfulness comes at a time when trust in institutions and brands is already at or near all-time lows. Large established brands are seen as the vehicles of larger, uncaring, profit-driven corporations. We can see this is in many consumer product categories — beer, snacks, sparkling beverages — where all the growth is coming from newer, smaller craft brands. What these brands bring, beyond the functional product benefits, are a compelling story, an authentic three-dimensional persona, and a clearly articulated set of values and beliefs that the company proudly displays and lives. These choices stand in stark contrast to the household name brands with their massive budgets, which offer little sense of flesh and blood values vs. corporate machinery and a ground wire to Wall Street.

In an era where distrust of big brands is now turbo-charged by generalized cynicism and uncertainty around what to call true, it will be more important than ever that brands declare themselves and put their values on display. It will no longer be one strategy among many to latch onto some theme or value or cause that is brand accretive. Brand owners will need to dig deep and stand ready to hang their beliefs and values on a shingle and — most importantly — live up to them every day in every choice, every action. This does not mean aligning with one political party or the other, but rather having the courage to go beyond the typically cautious “offend no one” approach to clarifying a position. Rule #1 in marketing is that you need to know your audience, and that trying to appeal to everyone means resonating with no one. Declaring what you believe risks alienating some, but opens the possibility of forging more powerful, enduring relationships with many more. The era of fake news raises the ante on that principal and demands that brand owners bravely and proudly own their values. Because there’s no #alternativeauthenticity.

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