Donald Trump has been ahead in the polls for the Republican presidential nomination since July.
What the hell is going on?
He’s made sexist comments, racist remarks, and taken ideas straight out of the Bluth family playbook. He has broken every rule of political communication and become stronger as a result. Love him or hate him, the man is a master of communication, and his style resonates with the times we live in.
His candidacy will change how politicians approach communication. But the implications of his success are much broader. The bigger question is what lessons leaders and companies can learn from “the Donald” about how to connect with and engage their own skeptical consumers.
A Man for Our Time
We live in a post-trust era where the public looks at every institution -- from government to business and beyond -- with incredible skepticism. Voters are anxious, angry, and open to alternatives.
Into this void steps Trump. Gaffes aside, Trump uses five strategies that have established a billionaire blowhard as a trusted man of the people:
- He has a clear narrative; a master story that he sticks to.
- He understands and taps into simple, emotional truths.
- He speaks the language of his audience.
- He reframes every debate into language he prefers.
- He is deliberately, decidedly different in style and approach from his peers.
While most politicians are constantly repeating the same refrains, Trump offers an alternative approach to communication. Let’s break down his communication strategy.
1. The Master Story
Donald Trump is the only candidate who consistently relates all of his ideas back to a master story: “Make America Great Again!”
Jeb Bush, by contrast, has yet to figure out what he stands for. As far as he’s concerned, being anti-Trump is enough. There’s no consistent narrative or tone, and nothing he says ties back to one single idea.
By practicing consistency and discipline in his message, Trump ensures his campaign carries momentum.
2. Emotional Truths, Not Rational Arguments
Elections aren’t fought on reason; they’re fought on emotion. Trump recognizes it, and while his rivals focus on debating the issues, Trump is busy leading a movement.
Lindsay Graham had the best technical understanding of any of the candidates, but he dropped out because he couldn’t tell his message in an emotional way.
With his three young “USA Freedom Kids” by his side, Trump speaks to the heart.
3. The Language of the People
He might be the richest of all the candidates, but Trump stands out as the most human, and he pulls it off by using the vernacular. While his rivals overcomplicate conversations, Trump cuts through the rhetoric and talks like an everyday American.
Rand Paul might have more populist ideas, but his language is too academic and sophisticated.
Paul speaks to an intellectual elite; Trump speaks to everybody.
4. Reframing Instead of Defending
Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comment derailed his campaign. He had many of the same vulnerabilities that Trump does today, but Trump deals with those problems more effectively.
Accuse him of being racist, he says he’s for security. Accuse him of being sexist, he’s against political correctness. Accuse him of going bankrupt, he says he knows how to use the system to help the people.
Whatever the issue, Trump reframes the debate into terms that are more favorable to him.
5. Being Different, Not Necessarily Better
While his peers fight to be better than each other, Trump focuses on a simpler task: being different. Most voters can predict what will come out of the mouths of most politicians, but Trump keeps us interested with the threat that he’ll say something unexpected.
Every other candidate sounds similar to each other, but there’s only one Trump.
From his style to his message, he’s just, well, different. And when voters are wary of politicians, distancing yourself from politicians can help.
The Lesson for Businesses
Too many business leaders fall into the same pitfalls as politicians. When they get into issue debates, they try to fight attacks on merit. But the way to persuade people is to tap into what matters to them emotionally and to tell a good story in a new, exciting way.
Whether a company is struggling to stand out from the crowd, fighting issue advocacy battles and critics, or struggling to translate engineering and technological prowess into an emotional response, Trump has the answer. If you’re left scratching your head about the best communication strategy for the future, ask yourself, “What would ‘the Donald’ do?”
He would probably call you an idiot and say you’re ruining America. But after that, he would find a simple, emotional way to put himself on the side of his audience members and leave them feeling like only he knows what they really want.
A version of this article was originally published on PR Daily