Why shameless Donald Trump is a challenger brand

Donald J Trump. The Donald. Mr Drumpf.  Purveyor of monuments to arrogance, high quality steaks and shirts made in China. A tower of orange ignorance in a bad toupee. Donald is a loathsome figure. He represents everything I hate and fear in modern civilisation. I am team John Oliver. But he is a challenger brand. He shares many hallmarks of the successful challenger brands that we study every day.

I am team John Oliver. But he is a challenger brand.

My colleagues at eatbigfish don’t agree. They can’t bring themselves to utter the words, and admit that “the Donald” shows plenty of characteristics that place him along a number of other challengers. Mark Barden puts together a great argument as to why he’s not one here. However, I don’t agree with Mark and here’s why.

Donald is shameless

For most people, that is a negative quality, and it’s largely unheard of in Western politics. Election campaigns are famous for their airing of dirty laundry, vice, sin and unfortunate choices during those experimental college days. It’s the crucible in which many a candidate has been burned, and after their public apology we never see them again. They disappear with their campaigns in tatters and reputations besmirched.

But Donald, like his hair, seems to be made of more resistant stuff. His complete lack of shame is repellent in more than one way… nothing sticks. He marches on. He doesn’t care. He’s taken everything that the media (including Fox News), the Republican establishment, the left, the right, the pundits and the tabloids can throw at him, and he’s taken it on the chin. He’s ducked none of it.

Go and talk to the team at Nando’s in South Africa, a challenger brand poster boy, about their run ins with the authorities, the bans and boycotts. What about Brew Dog? Neither get shamed, neither apologise, but instead they ride it and build their publicity with it.

The same goes for the Protein World furore that struck London in summer 2015. Huge billboards that were clearly fat-shaming women, and asking them whether they were “beach body ready”. While many people bemoaned these crude, almost trolling tactics, sales boomed, and Protein World would not apologise.

Anyone that seems free of that moral compass is fascinating to us. It’s these ones who challenge the status quo.

This brazen approach to life in people and in brands is, I think, innately fascinating, because it is so unusual. We are all dependent on our own moral compasses. As humans we want to be liked, to be part of a society, and anyone that seems free of that moral compass is fascinating to us. It’s these ones who challenge the status quo (even if their intentions are nefarious) that creates fascination.

He sticks to his identity: “Make America Great Again”

Now, I’m not going to pretend that there’s a huge amount of substance behind it, in fact, I think it’s pretty vacuous stuff. But hear me out.

Donald has picked his audience. He’s sacrificed huge swathes of the American public (the sane ones, it seems) to overcommit to an audience of devotees with one simple message. “You, the white American lower classes, are being screwed by the elite, Washington and un-Americanism.” And after 7 ½ years of supporting rhetoric, aimed squarely at this demographic, spun by Fox News and the political right, that is exactly what they believe.

It’s a lighthouse identity, and acts as a filter. Anything that makes the above statement more true is “in”, and anything that is un-American, or intellectual in anyway is “out”.

He wants to enter popular culture

Remember his presidential bid announcement? Pure symbols of re-evaluation. You don’t like immigration? We’re going to build a wall. You’re worried about China? I’m going to bully them into submission. You’re worried about the intellectual elites? I’m going to talk about killing journalists. (Seriously.)

Donald is grabbing onto a conversation that is already going on, with his own unique (despicable) approach and making hay. He, or more likely the person running his campaign, is clear on what is going to get him publicity, and coupled with his shamelessness, and a clear sense of who he’s appealing to, he goes for it.

This is all classic challenger behaviour.

He doesn't care what you think

Finally, and this is the killer, he doesn’t care what you think. You’ve been sacrificed. Challengers are not interested in being universally tolerated, endured and respected. They want the love and hate that only controversial “take it or leave it” messages can provoke. Those masses who adore him (and there are masses and they do adore him), they “take it”. Hard.

We’re projecting our own idealised liberal sensibilities on this. When did we decide that challenger brands are here exclusively to save the world? They aren’t. They have their own self interests squarely at heart. A lot of the times, those interests are most appealing to us because they do seem to want to create a better world, but many don’t. Is Paddy Power any less of a challenger brand because of it? Is Diesel?

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but Donald’s a challenger. God help us all.

(Read an alternative view here)