How to train your Donald: Can he unlearn the luxury marketing tactics that helped him win?

There’s this scene in one of the Game of Thrones books where the Khaleesi learns that riding dragons is not the same as riding horses. With horses, you spur them on the side opposite where you want them to go, since horses flee from danger. But with dragons you have to do the opposite: kick them the direction you want them to fly, “for a dragon’s first instinct is always to attack.”

Donald Trump has, historically, been the same. He seems to thrive on doing the opposite of what he’s supposed to. Back in 2015, he showed up at campaign stops in a helicopter instead of a truck. Instead of dodging questions about water-boarding, he bragged he’d bring it back. He seems just as happy to pick fights with people in his own party – sometimes even his own cabinet members – as anyone else.

He dives into so many conflicts, which traditional politicians would side-step, that sometimes you forget about them.

Political “experts” like me have been dumbfounded at how bizarrely rule-defying Trump’s campaign and presidency. (I have to use the quotes because clearly we all have a new playbook to learn.) What I’ve realized is that Trump wasn’t breaking any rules: he was just following a different set.  

To win the presidency, Trump ignored traditional political strategy (and frankly common sense) and instead employed the principles of luxury marketing, a practice he’s refined over decades as brand ambassador for his own hotels, entertainment, and other services.

Luxury marketing, very much like a dragon, flies in the face of traditional marketing practices. Entrepreneur Magazine called the principles of luxury marketing “anti-marketing,” because they’re so unusual. Instead of casting as wide a net as possible, the goal is to maintain social distances, thriving on the kind of elitism that we otherwise all try to ignore, say, when we slip through first class into the rest of the airplane. It’s aspirational in a way that’s almost aristocratic.


Luxury practices include:

It’s not about brand positioning, but brand identity. Differentiating these two terms may seem like splitting hairs to anyone without the word “brand” in their job title. But Trump never positioned himself as a “new Reagan.” He has only ever been himself.

Be superlative and not comparative. This one ties into the last one. Ted Cruz wanted to be the candidate for social conservatives. John Kasich was the elder statesman. Marco Rubio was a Republican Obama. Jeb Bush was safe bet. Carly Fiorina was a lady Mitt Romney. Trump didn’t waste any time wading into typical comparisons with political competitors: he was a celebrity and everyone else was a loser.

Forget perfection: no flaws, no charm. This one kind of speaks for itself. Trump has avoided the painstaking effort most politicians take to polish themselves until they shine, craft every word to perfection, and focus group everything you can. Nope. Not for Trump. I think the only time he used prepared remarks was at the RNC.

Resist clients’ demands. Oh goodness. Have you ever seen a politician more defiant to traditional political counsel? Members of his party and elsewhere have begged (and in some cases demanded) that he change his stances or his tone. But he picked a fight with the Pope on Twitter (after singing his praises). Speaker Paul Ryan declared he wasn’t going to defend Trump anymore and Trump still carried his home state of Wisconsin.


Advertise outside your target segment. While the NASCAR-ization of the Republican Party has been happening for years (you notice the Dems don’t shake their fists about “the party of the rich!” anymore?) the Rust Belt has been a “blue firewall.” Trump rampaged through this enemy territory in a way not seen since Sherman went through Georgia.

Luxury products should be difficult to buy. For most consumer products, the goal is to make it as easy as possible to get in front of whomever you can. (One time I agreed to meet a friend at the “Starbucks in Dupont Circle” without realizing that could be one of three locations.) But to maintain the elitism that luxury products require, you can’t do that. You have to make a designer handbag a destination purchase so difficult to get that anyone carrying also gets to brag about their trip to Paris.

This is absolutely true for Trump. Those people who got on board early had no shortage of opportunities to get off, and the more contrarian he behaves the more loyal his core stays.

The Entrepreneur article includes 24 points, which we don’t have time to go into, but just scanning the list – Do not hire consultants. Do not test. Do not look for consensus. – they all sound very Trumpian.

Luxury marketing is crazy. You practically build obstacles for your customers and tell them they’re lucky to have you. But it works. People spend billions a year on luxury products, and the principles that drive that business drove Trump to victory.  

This strategy worked for Mr. Trump. As employed by President Trump, the first year’s flight has been a bit bumpy. His call for unity at this weeks’ State of the Union seemed to fly contrary to his, well, contrarianism – but maybe he’s adapting. People certainly seemed to like this shade of the Donald – with 75 percent approving of his message and tone! –  and we’ll see if it sticks.

Members of Congress in swing states are just hoping that in 2018, they don’t get burned.