Borrowing a buzzword from adland, Republican candidate Donald Trump ‘disrupted’ the 2016 US presidential election, delivering a victory that surprised almost everyone and debunked all the polling models (providing a good lesson about data bias and assumptions).
Trump barely had the support of his own party, and he was universally loathed by elite media companies, summarised a Forrester report. Yet, in some sense he proved himself to be a good marketer, or more of a self-promoter as described by critics like Jay Milliken, senior partner at Prophet Hong Kong. Well, Trump understood and responded to the needs of the customers (voters) better than his opponent. He spoke to them directly instead of advertising to them like Hillary Clinton did. And he played the emotive card consistently. (He also had help from broadcasters who gave him incalculable airtime for free).
The consistency of short and speedy communication by Trump beat Clinton’s nuanced, detailed and long-form communication, explained Richard Edelman, global president and CEO of Edelman.
“Trump came across as more genuine, Clinton as less than transparent,” Edelman said. “Trump engaged directly with his community. Clinton spoke through the media in a careful and less frequent manner.”
These are all marketing best practices. The Trump presidency is now a fact (come January). Given his protectionist stance on trade with China, the temptation might be for Chinese brands to call it a doomsday for themselves.
Jane Lin-Baden, APAC CEO of Isobar, certainly expects to see disruption for brands.
“We are moving into an age of great uncertainty in area of trade and tariffs,” she said. “This will certainly have great impact to the branding business and expansion plans in Asia. There will be implications to marketing spending, as it is a function of the strength of business.”
Indeed, Chinese brands may face resistance to their US market entry or expansion plans, agreed Simon Young, CEO of agency SyEngage.
“Trump’s victory and the accompanying voter sentiment might give pause to what was an exciting new trend of ‘proudly made in China’ brands, because if Trump wants America ‘great again’, he will take an anti-globalisation stance,” Young said. “It feels like a backward step and a pity, but that’s apparently what the US people have asked for.”
If Trump pushes through threatened trade tariffs against Chinese goods, it may lead to a public backlash. Alibaba founder Jack Ma already publicly said if the new US president-elect doesn’t work with China, “it’s going to be a disaster”. Alibaba has more businesses related to US commerce than its internet peers Baidu and Tencent. At present, everyone is guessing, of course.
“We will now wait and see how this changes US attitude to China,” said Philip Romans, general manager of DDB Guangzhou and regional business director of DDB Asia Pacific.
The rhetoric of the Trump campaign about China stealing jobs from the US is out of date, he pointed out, and Trump will have to take a more realistic view now as president-elect. The days of US brands moving jobs to China are over, a large pool of cheap labour no longer exists in the country.
Meanwhile, the reality “should dawn on the Trump administration” that the US is a saturated market in many instances, and that to grow, US brands still need success in markets like China, where the urban population is set to grow in the next 10 years from 400 million to 800 million, Romans said. Take Facebook, with its mission ‘to connect everyone in the world’, he pointed out. “They cannot do this without the biggest market in the world,” said Romans. “Mark Zuckerberg is working hard to get FB into China. This will continue with other US brands.”
Hedi Wen, China head of marketing of American location-marketing agency xAd, said xAd’s strategy and development plan in the mainland won’t be affected, and suggested that the same may be true for most companies.
“As for Chinese brands entering the US market, I believe if there is any new policy under Trump’s government, then they will need to comply and figure out how to adapt,” Wen said, stressing that his personal opinion does not represent that of his agency. “This is how this world works. Global commerce is going to happen as it is. And even at-risk Alibaba can also adapt their international development strategy, such as shift focus to other Asian regions or the EU. What’s more, Chinese brands adapt super fast; it’s a known fact.”
Wen added that much of what Trump has said while campaigning as a politician may be considered “words for performance” and he may, as a shrewd businessman, know how to balance business and politics, eventually.
“Trump is more a marketer and a salesman, than a politician,” SyEngage’s Young remarked. “And like politicians, marketers must not only fish where the fish are, but also provide the best bait.”
Isobar’s Lin-Baden believes that Trump’s stance may eventually filter through to brand messaging.
“The result poses potentially more profound [questions about] impact to culture shaping,” Lin-Baden said. “If global sentiment were to move towards isolation and protectionism, this sentiment will impact branding language. What would brand messages be in this ‘new age’?”
Undoubtedly, American national culture has changed and Chinese brands need to adapt to this changing terrain, stated Kestrel Lee, executive creative director at George P Johnson China. From now on, buying ‘made in America’ brands may have stronger appeal, so Chinese brands may need to pursue a very pro-American or at least America-relevant branding in the States, he said.
Many Americans are tired of the torrent of in-your-face advertising messages in both online and traditional media, Lee advised. Chinese brands may want to steer clear of a direct marketing approach and focus on softer, cultural-driven influencer approaches to bringing their products into the American consumer’s radar.
Just like Trump, Chinese marketers may also need to take note of the bipolar preference elicted by the election process, Lin-Baden concluded.
“The implication is, if politics = marketing, that marketers should learn to never be in the middle.”