Despite his reputedly tone deaf self-promotion, Donald Trump has proven he can listen and learn – and then apply that research to market expansion. And the passing of Prince last week underscores another element of his absorbing what works and gaining market share.
Take a look at how Trump melded the lessons of political and entertainment celebrities to forge an entirely new formula. Pundits have started to pick up the echoes of the 1980 Reagan phenomenon, citing how coverage initially personified Reagan as a joke – celebrity and entertainment, then long shot and seemly overnight, the embodiment of the forgotten American.
By that time, any Stop Reagan movement was too late. Of course, there are differences – Reagan had a political reason for being, which he packaged into the candidate and president roles he played.
Trump’s is more about power and glory, but the packaging precedent applies, and the consumer buys it.
What did Prince show Donald? His persona, built on a base of otherworldly talent, was all about mystery and constant change. You never knew what you’d get, but it would always be entertaining and engaging.
Many obits characterize Prince as inventing shape shifting. Bowie was really the trailblazer there, and Madonna played it well, but Prince lived it.
Trump is the first candidate to truly embrace this style – controversy is good, labels are bad, consistency is boring. Surprise sells. New sells.
But it was Bob Hope who had the biggest influence on Trump. Hope (and Crosby) were masters of the concept called “breaking the fourth wall.” That’s when a character steps out of role in the middle of the show to remind the audience that it’s all just acting.
With the “Road” pictures in the 1940s, Hope won over the audience by directly addressing them: "Crosby's gonna sing, folks. Now's the time to go out and get the popcorn."
Trump steps out of character as a candidate, and speaks directly to his audience. He’s saying that this political stuff is just another show. I’m in on it, and I’m letting you in on it, too.
That empowers his supporters and makes them feel good. He makes them feel smart and powerful because they really do know what’s going on.
Trump’s success is going to change marketing overall, even when he inevitably loses the general election. Watch and see how many digital and broadcast campaigns for products step out of character and wink at the audience.