On Being Trumped

3rd March 2016

Trump is not a leader. He is the result of failed leadership.

Hillary Clinton is using an interesting term, of late, to describe the plight of working-class and middle-class Americans: hollowed out.

She used it in her speech on Super Tuesday, as she addressed the elephantine presence in the room: “We know we’ve got work to do. But that work, that work is not to make America great again. America never stopped being great. We have to make America whole. We have to fill in, fill in what’s been hollowed out.

That’s a phrase worth decoding. Hollowed out. That is to say, what does one do when one discovers that the great comforts in one’s life have all but gone up in smoke? When one awakens to find the privileges one enjoyed have evaporated?

Hollowed out is exactly how the Republican party is likely feeling at present, too. The steamrolling of its conventional leaders by Donald J. Trump represents a routing of the establishment which is oftentimes the opening chord of revolution.

And Trump’s rise is not just the conquering of one man, or the dethroning of eleven other would-be kings and queens. The Republican Party has long been hollowed out, and it is as if no one cared to notice. Remember the ridiculousness of Sarah Palin, and the triumph of her brain-dead populism? Remember the Tea Party’s rise in the late 2000s which seemed mostly to stand against stuff, its formidable root and branch network extending to over 700 individual organisations across the USA? Remember the fuckery of the ‘birther movement’ born in an obvious lie, which proceeded to assert its fakery in an effort to discredit America’s first black president?

The comedian Andy Borowitz tweeted recently that ‘Donald Trump is the inevitable result of the Republican Party’s decades-long war on facts’. I agree. Trump is no surprise. It is the hollowing out of the Republican Party over 15 years which has invited his Trumpian, bigoted self into the vacuum. Big organisations do not simply implode or spontaneously unhinge. Failure has roots.

Which brings me to the world of brands.

It is an axiom of marketing that ‘the only way is down’ for big successful brands. It’s tough being big. No matter the category, being leader means that you must fend, and defend all of the time. It is hard to stay on top, and harder still if you’ve run out of fresh ideas.

Indeed, some brands seem to fail catastrophically. Look at Nokia, at Blackberry, at Abercrombie & Fitch. Now, of course, it’s easy to see, in retrospect, where things had hollowed out for them. Nokia was left in a stupor of disbelief at Steve Job’s iPhone. Blackberry simply didn’t get the touch screen revolution. A&F believed that kids in 2015 were wannabe look-the-same models, when twenty-something social equity has moved clearly away from tribalism, towards individualism.

The more interesting question is to observe leader brands which are actually trying to call and cope with the hallowing out of their enterprises, before it is too late. The media often characterises this as panic and disarray, but actually it is quite the opposite. Course correction is the principal act of leadership. Our job in marketing is to understand where things are hollowing, and to take action.

It took Netflix some time to figure out its business model in a post mail-the-DVD world, but they got there (and not without a little crisis from time to time). Twitter, newly under the reigns of one of its founding fathers, is tackling the structural elements which impede its growth (my guess is that this is a move towards simplicity and ease, and that change will be greeted with doomsday soothsaying). The European Union, subject of a head-wrecking economic and social catastrophe over the last 8 years, is surely hell-bent on its own reinvention. The reforms will be painful, but I expect the Union will muddle through, Britain in tow.

Trumpery happens when a vacuum created by discontent and lack of leadership is left gaping. Trumpery occurs when the hollowing is ignored. The seeds of the Donald were sown way back. And the Donald could have been avoided.

Big brands do not spontaneously combust. It is the role of the brand owner to call out and fix the hollowing when it begins to happen, lest an imposter of Trumpian proportions should arrive, and proceed to eat its lunch.

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