Tribal Marketing As Demonstrated by Donald Trump

Love him or hate him, (which I am pretty sure are the only two options), Donald Trump is showing the world the power of tribal marketing. As a marketing strategist, I couldn’t help but jump on this as an obvious demonstration of several key principles of marketing which are often so hard to communicate. If you, dear reader, can put aside politics for just a moment, you will see that Trump's surprise success has some very practical elements of sociology. Also, I will explain the very NOT POLITICAL reason Trump can’t make it to the White House.

First of All, We Buy and Vote and In Tribes

While more commonly known as “demographics,” society is grouped into clusters of common interest. However, while demographics traditionally group people by features like age, gender, income, etc., the concept of tribes looks at people a little differently. Championed by Seth Godin in “Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us,” tribes is a concept which understands that people relate around ideas, values, and culture more than external features.   

A fun example of this is a 2014 study (see below) showing that different political parties prefer different candy. Basically, I don’t buy things because I happen to be a 30-something-year-old middle-class male, I buy things because I believe in a way of living and want products which reflect that. (In my case, “rugged minimalism”)

Tribes Are Usually NOT Represented Well

So here is the first reason Trump is so popular. When people make products, they want them to appeal to as large an audience as possible. Therefore, they attempt to make their messaging as sterile and universal as possible, while still hoping to stand out. This is part of the reason we all tend to feel so “weird” - no one seems to be marketing to US. Politics is the same, with candidates wanting to be as ubiquitous as possible.

The problem is that people are not sterile, they are weird and diverse. When someone actually stands up and speaks for a large-yet-still-too-small-to-for-mass-marketing tribe of people, that tribe gets excited. “FINALLY! Someone cares about MY interests!” Trump has tapped into this for sure, and to his benefit, the tribe he appeals to is relatively large.

Tribes Will Shift Priorities When Validated

So the bottom line is that while few of us are the ONLY ones who think or feel a certain way, there may be LESS of us than others. Tribes feel a sense of catharsis when someone stands up and makes their thoughts part of the world stage. For the most part, this can be the only thing we care about. Because of this, tribes often have a “priority shift” where they will make decisions, buying or voting, putting aside certain values and beliefs in order to support the “good of the tribe."

This doesn’t just happen with Trump, it affects all political parties. Society has demonstrated over and over that certainly daily values, like honesty or character, become less important to us when we feel like someone is championing “our cause." This is also is why attacking someone’s character seldom gets any response.

BUT, Tribes Are Still Limited in Size

If you are a startup business, or launching a new product, nothing will grow you faster than a solid tribal marketing campaign. Your market will respond quickly, and spread the word. It’s a great strategy for any underdog to get a boost. However, all tribes have a ceiling. For businesses, this usually isn’t a problem as long as your tribe is large enough to support you, but for a politician, it can be deadly. 

Trump won’t win the White House. His tribe may be large enough to have a chance of winning him the Republican nomination, but not large enough to win nationally. The downside of tribal marketing is that once you embrace a tribe, you are also rejecting others. If you distance your tribe, you will be considered a traitor. 

The Larger Your Tribe, the Less They Care

The bottom line is that the more people you market to, the less those people have in common. If you are selling gas, which everyone needs, you can stay boring and generic. However, if you are selling the world’s best mustache styling cream - you probably need to play up your tribal uniqueness. Ultimately, the presidency is mostly gas, and that is something I think we can all agree on. 😃