The rise of Donald Trump and the power of challenger brand thinking

Matthew Charlton is the CEO of Brothers and Sisters. He was a founder of BETC London, has run agencies in London, Amsterdam and the US and has worked on brands including Johnnie Walker, PlayStation and Sony Ericsson.

Can marketing learn anything from the spectacular rise of Donald Trump as the potential Republican presidential candidate? If we can just peek through our fingers as they cover our eyes in horror we will see it is in fact the biggest marketing story on the planet right now.

It's easy to recoil at the spectacle of Trump as he swings like Tarzan around our screens, more hair than Lenny the Lion and all the tact of a pissed Morrissey.

His track-record in advertising has been focused mainly on writing his name on everything. Using a really big font. Buildings, helicopters, planes, casinos. His ex-wife. I am pretty sure the Trumpet was named after him actually. So he must be a marketing muppet, right?

No. From a marketing perspective he is more Super Trump than Forest Gump.

Underneath the blizzard of provocation is something very smart. A fascinating combination of challenger brand thinking coupled with genuine celebrity status and massive business credibility. What some see as irresponsible others see as untameable.

He positions himself cleverly as the anti-politics politician. The guy that can get stuff done when everyone else is stuck in gridlock. The man who summons up spirit, endeavour, danger and straight talking. The saviour of the struggling American middle-class. John Wayne meets John D Rockefeller.

There is a very good reason why he says the unsayable. He knows exactly who his audience is and he gives it to them every time.

Marketing has been talking for years now about challenger brands. The power of setting yourself up in opposition to the conventions of the market. Eat Big Fish by Adam Morgan, Disruption by Jean-Marie Dru are two great books on the subject.

Trump yet again proves the astonishing power of finding a really strong challenger position vs the market convention and then going for it, full on. All in. 100 per cent committed.

So few brands truly challenge the market. I don't know if it's because of the apparent rise of accountants as CEOs. I fear since 2008 and the banking crisis the conventions have just looked more attractive. Of course there are some but not that many. I hate the fact we may even be seen as a generation so threatened and scared by having lived through the collapse of the global finance system that we follow the convention because we can't deal with change.

To me it's no co incidence that one of my favourite agencies ever, HHCL, thrived in the 90s, the era of challenger brands and thinking. An era of Britpop and New Labour when a sense of change and reinvention swept through our culture. We were all confident. Maybe overconfident. Then, conventions were there to be ridiculed and turned upside down.

I see Donald Trump like Corbyn or Boris. Whether they win or lose, ultimately there is evidence that people are starting to rebuild confidence and strike out for challengers.

From a marketing perspective perhaps more brands and more CEOs will be ready to follow their audience and challenge the unchallengeable. Until someone does and wins.

Follow Matthew on Twitter @MJCharltonesq

Matthew Charlton

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