The Ingenious Marketing Strategies Behind Trump's Success

A conversation with a longtime media and advertising executive about how the president-elect sold himself to the public

Mike Segar / Reuters

In May of 2016, I edited an essay by Jerry Cave, offering his analysis of Trump’s success in the Republican primaries. Cave argued that “by taking [Pat] Buchanan’s positions, blending them with [Howard] Stern’s tactics, and adding in his own talent, Trump has managed to produce a success that is all his own.”

I often thought of Cave in the months that followed, and not just because we maintained a regular correspondence, in which he endeavored to convince me that Trump’s election was inevitable. Cave had been a news-radio executive, an advertising manager, and a magazine publisher, and is now a media consultant. He approved of Trump’s message, and enthusiastically supported his campaign. But more than that, he drew on his own decades in media and marketing to explain why he thought Trump would be more successful than polls or pundits were predicting.

I promised that I’d call him up when the election was over, whatever its result, to talk through what he’d observed. And so we spoke last week; our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Yoni Appelbaum: What was the moment at which you thought that Donald Trump was actually going to win this election?

Jerry Cave: Two times. One: His very first speech on illegal immigration, because it was not about illegal immigration. That speech—if you read into it—said really everything. It was really about blue-collar jobs that had been outsourced to manufacturers and insourced with both skilled and unskilled labor. So he was speaking to the blue-collar market, which has been underserved by politicians both rhetorically and in fact. That I knew was the key to this. The second time, I’m literally sitting on the couch in January. He hammered Jeb Bush and they said ‘Why are you hammering him?’ and he goes, ‘Well I figured he’s the guy to beat, but he’s so weak I gotta pick somebody else.’ He said, ‘I gotta pick somebody else.’

I literally sat my fat butt up in my seat and I go, ‘Oh my God, I got exactly what he’s going to do, and this will work.’

And the important thing is he went after it … by making the villain government policies: trade and treaties that have destroyed the jobs. He didn’t villainize the Chinese people, he didn’t even villainize their government—he villainized our stupid politicians. But what that gave him, from beginning to end, was credibility and sincerity because his message did not change from the beginning to the end of his campaign. It was ‘Our government is screwing you’. So the enemy was the Republican elite, the Democrat elite, the media as their propaganda arm, and the corporates.

Appelbaum: You’ve made the point to me that Trump was masterful in understanding how to manipulate the press and that he reminded you, in that respect, of Howard Stern. Can you tell me more about that?

Cave: Stern, when he got syndicated, Stern had to get his audience figures very quickly. And he couldn’t be ahead of his opposition by 10 percent because the ad agencies would buy around him because the show was controversial. But because it was controversial, it was compelling. So what he had to do was to get a huge advantage in ratings mass really quick. He did it by attacking the opposition—starting with Imus in New York, then he went to Boston. And when those guys were stupid enough to violate their own rule—which was to respond—that advertised Stern to Imus’s audience, and enough of them liked it because Stern’s show is compelling great content for what it is. It ain’t my bag, but it is for the people who like it. He became number one in ratings in every major city—showing the technique is effective.

Appelbaum: And you saw this in Donald Trump?

Cave: Instantly, when that sentence was said. And my confidence that it would work was constantly reinforced as I watched it play out. I was watching this whole thing play out, laughing at all the Republicans who took the bait. Trump was brilliant. He would say something to attack the other guy, and then the media would talk and say: “Oh my God, he attacked Jeb Bush and even [George] W. Bush in South Carolina. Jeb, what do you think about that?” At which point Jeb should say: “Well, Donald Trump is not a serious player and I’m going to be your president,” and make his own case. But he didn’t do that; he talked about Trump. Trump was talking about Trump, he got the media talking about Trump, and he had the opponents talking about Trump. How brilliant is that?

Appelbaum: One of the other things that Donald Trump did that was unconventional was that rather than focus on raising money for advertising, he spent much of the campaign doing mass-audience live events. A lot of political pundits questioned that choice; you looked at it and saw something familiar, right?

Cave: Imagine you’re a business and you need to market yourself. There’s a lot of different media, so the people that are successful in marketing themselves, pick a media that they can dominate to create consumer awareness. And they might have a secondary media that they own. But they don’t take their money and spread it evenly between newspaper, radio, television, and all that. This goes back to legacy marketing.

Appelbaum: So what did Trump pick?

Cave: The media that all these stupid Republicans always pick and the one that Hillary was all prepared for is paid television advertising. Well, there’s a lot of things wrong with that. Number one, people can tune it out mentally. Number two, they tune it out digitally. Number three, it’s not credible. And if you know anything about TV campaign advertising, it’s a waste of goddamn money because they dump 60 percent of it in the last two weeks. That’s a waste because the impact of the commercials falls below the margin of diminishing returns. The consultants want to dump the money because they get paid a commission for placing and running the advertising. He knows that Hillary is going to have $700 million of it, and the PACs are going to have another $300 million. So he would need to raise $1 billion to compete, to reach parity. Why spend a billion for parity where he can spend less and be dominant?

Appelbaum: So what did he do instead?

Cave: Number one, he didn’t pick the paid part of television, he picked the editorial part of television and he owns that for two reasons. She ran away from it because she’s terrible at it and she could not afford the exposure to questions about her controversies. Remember, she did very few press conferences. He did it because it played into one of his communication strengths—which is what we call the “personality sell” in business. Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler by personally getting on television instead of having a spokesperson. So Trump goes into the editorial part and he can own that for two reasons: He’s a master at live television and he’s willing to be on TV morning, noon, and night and he knows he can own it compared to Hillary. That’s one. The next one he goes for is social media and he dominates that….

The second thing is he does email, just like everybody else, so there’s no advantage there. He had supporters text into the campaign so he could reach them without the clutter of email.

But the events thing is something that he wins. Events reach more than the people who show up to your events. You have the event. People talk about it before. They go. They talk about it afterward. The people who want to go but know they can’t get in want to talk about it on social media. You’ve got local coverage. So it has exponential growth. If it attracts 10,000 people, it’s on national TV, it’s on local TV, and everybody’s talking about it.

Appelbaum: And you saw a parallel there to established marketing practices?

Cave: It’s the selection of media. What he selected from media was editorial portion of television, social media (Twitter and Facebook), the email (but that’s just parity), texting, and the events marketing. And he picked media that he could dominate.

Appelbaum: Mario Cuomo famously said that you ‘campaign in poetry and govern in prose.’ If you campaign in social media and event marketing, how well does that translate to the challenges he’s going to face now? Can he continue to maintain his direct connection to his supporters as he moves into the Oval Office?

Cave: I described for you his marketing and communication strategy...that’s the communication of a message. It was the message and who he is and all this other stuff [that enabled him to win], so I just want to be clear on that. … But that has nothing to do with who’s governing. You know whatever I did marketingwise back in the day to get you to come into Maryland Motors to look at the price for a Town and Country van has nothing to do with once you get in the showroom, other than the fact that you’re predisposed to buy it. Then the salesman works everything out with you, negotiates the price, and shows it to you. You like it, you don’t like it; you like him, you don’t like him. And then you got a car that was completely independent of the advertising agency that brought you in. They’re two separate things.

Appelbaum: Anything else you want to add before we finish here?

Cave: There’s one other really important point I need to make here. When he chose the blue-collar thing through the illegal immigration and the outsourcing manufacturing—that was a geographically-based, numbers-based thing. That market is in the Midwest. All the other Republicans thought they were going to get Romney’s states and add Florida and Ohio. They’re at 253 electoral votes, they need 17 more and they figured ‘OK, we’re going to win Virginia or Colorado or something else.’ Trump looked at those as being lost, better ground games by the Democrats. Trump was going to pluck those 17 Electoral College votes out of the Midwest—one state would do it. And those numbers work better.

The thing you need to understand the most about Donald Trump is that he is risk averse. He only goes into deals that he creates where he has a high chance of winning, and then he structures the deal so he wins. You have to understand that the risk to Donald Trump of losing this election was not money. He could lose $2 billion and it would mean nothing to him, but if his brand was damaged, the personal pain to him and the financial pain to his properties would have been immense. He only went into this because he saw his prospects were much better than anybody else’s and his prospects for victory were better.