Make yourself appear great – What Donald Trump teaches us about self-marketing

Written by Katharina Heüveldop

The election result in America has split the world emotionally. Feelings ranged from euphoria on the Trump side to total horror and shock amongst the rest of the world. Still, various forecasts and experts predicted this outcome (Stevenson, 2016;Primary Model, 2016).
When Trump is good in something than it is self-marketing. It is perhaps the only characteristic shared by Obama and Trump and presumably the only part in which Clinton was in an inferior position in this year’s election. In the end, it was exactly these communication and self-marketing skills which appeared to be crucial of the election, outplaying traditional values like honesty, mutual respect or former political experience.

The term of personal branding was first mentioned by Tom Peters (1997) in his article “The Brand Called You”. With the rise of social media its importance has increased tremendously. Personal branding has become an important marketing task for everyday people (Shepherd, 2005) and can be seen as a form of conspicuous self-presentation (Schau & Gilly, 2003). According to Goffman (1959) the goal of self-presentation is to create an intentional and tangible component of identity. Achieving this in the age of Web 2.0 involves the creation and maintenance of social and networking profiles, personal websites, blogs and the use of search engine optimization techniques. Together they foster access to one's information (Labrecque et al., 2011).

The importance of self-marketing can be further demonstrated through the amount of specialized literature, training programs and personal coaches congesting the market since the late 1990s (Nessmann, 2010). In each mentioning you will find advice on how to best brand yourself in today’s online and offline environment (Arruda and Dixson, 2007; McNally and Speak 2002; Montoya, 2002, Rein et al., 2006).

But instead of incessant background reading I would pay attention to recent events. A perfect example of outstanding self- branding resides right under our nose: Donald Trump.

Below you will find the five main criteria that characterize Trump’s successful self-branding strategy.

1.     Be present

2.     Know your target group

3.     Have a good sense of correct timing and place

4.     Believe in yourself

5.     Be authentic

Trump’s success is best explained against the background of Bourdieu’s findings about cultural capital and habitus (Bourdieu, 1983; Bourdieu and Passeron, 1990).

Cultural capital is defined by the knowledge, skills, education and advantages that a person has. Together those components lead to a higher status in society. Cultural capital includes formal and informal knowledge. This means it embraces not only diplomas or linguistic competence but also specific attitudes or personal style (Bourdieu, 1983).

Hillary Clinton, as Yale graduate, former first lady, US senator for New York and secretary of State definitely succeeds in terms of formal knowledge. However, Trump conquered with regards to informal knowledge which, with the election result in mind, seemed to be of greater importance.

1. Be present

His eruptions and insults, as controversial as they might be for a presidential candidate, gave Trump publicity.  He thereby made great use of the social media channels. Proven to generate for more traffic than a public or official campaign website, social media channels play a vital role in today’s politics (Kumar & Natarajan, 2016).

Trump’s tweets on Twitter allowed him to express his opinion directly and at anytime without media construing his statements. And he was successful. With 16,1 million followers on Twitter (Clinton has 11,3 million) and 34.000 tweets (Clinton tweeted 9.338 times) he made sure that his words spread the world (Twitter, 2016a; Twitter 2016b). His online presence and statements created attention which led to the fact that people’s online search interest for Trump was in average 7 points above Clinton’s over the last year (Google trends, 2016).

This also applies for our daily life. Without being present your self-marketing strategy will not create much attention. Make sure to keep your social media profiles updated, like and comment your fields of interest and build up a strong network. Your presence also increases with the amount of social media platforms you are engaging on.


2. Know your target group

Trump knew his supporters. He was the one who addressed their fears and persuaded them of building up a better America. Although, being definitely a person from the establishment, he behaved like a normal person, as one of his voters. According to their demographics they were mainly white men with mostly basic education (The Washington Post, 2016; Peters, Thee-Brenan, Sussman, 2016) seeking for facts and clear statements. And so he did just that. Trump used a language everyone could understand: no special political language, no technical terms. And from the very beginning a clear message filled with strong and promising words “Make America great again”. Wait, what was Hillary Clinton’s slogan again?

To know your target group also applies to self-marketing in everyday life. We should and do adapt to the people, companies and industries we are engaging with and the platforms we are active on. When applying for a job interview in a bank you would never wear your Nikes and the last party pictures will hopefully never find their way to Linkedin.


3. Have a good sense of correct timing and place

The best self-marketing cannot be successful without taking place in the right spot and at the right time. Trump felt that it was time for a new era. Americans were sick of current politics and ready for a change. With Clinton as a president America would have stood still in their eyes, no major changes. But too many people felt forgotten and not considered adequately in recent politics. As a result, they put a lot of hope and trust in Trump. He was the “vessel for their anger” (Miller, 2016, p.36). He understood perfectly to address their fears and dissatisfaction. And in the end his self-marketing persuaded them to be the one solving their problems and leading the country into a brighter future.

Sure, coincidence and luck also play an important role in this manner. Trump did not only win because he had the better intuition of people’s needs but also because of Clinton, an opponent perceived extremely ambivalent in American society (Miller, 2016, p.42). In another time and place, the election might have come to another end.

In everyday life the impression you make is also dependent on the right time and place. When looking at the business world, a professional message sent in the middle of the night is perceived differently than during normal working hours. And other job applicants will influence the way you are perceived amongst them. Still, gaining useful information about your future industry and company (look at point 2: Know your target group !) will increase your chances to make the right impression.

4. Believe in yourself

Trump wrote various bestsellers in the category of self-help books, mostly dealing with successful business making. Thereby, each of his books show his unshakable confidence in himself and his goals. He even named a book after his principle “Never give up” in which he incites people to think big and to not be afraid of winning (Trump & Mc Iver, 2008).

Mc Adams (2016) recently analyzed the mind of Donald Trump and characterized him as extremely narcissistic. A feature that has been confirmed by various psychologists (Gardner, Michaelis, Simon cited in Alford, 2011) and can be proven through repeated acts of self-referencing at the most inappropriately occasions like his father’s funeral (Blair, 2000).

Narcissism surely goes too far and cannot be considered as a desirable feature of personality. Still, to have a strong belief in oneself and his strengths will help to persuade others and create attention. If not even you believe in yourself no one else will.

5. Be authentic


Most of us do it automatically. Acting how our parents, friends and surroundings have taught us. We behave according to our habitus.

Habitus is ingrained with the mother’s milk and can be defined as the way a specific group or society expects us to act. It is our embodied disposition and structures the way we think, judge and behave (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1990).

The astonishing thing about Trump is that he did not behave at all like one would expect a future president to behave. Using swearwords, lying, being contradictory and insulting people was a daily occurrence. Still, this man won the election.

Although he may not have behaved like a politician he behaved like he was. And he was unique, a vital feature in successful self-marketing strategy. To put it in Trump’s words, he did not give a shit about what people thought of him, or at least this was what he made them believe. Trump was Trump with all his mistakes. And this was what made him so authentic.

Besides Trump, Clinton’s self-marketing appeared weak. Although, she always had the better arguments and has gained a lot of political experience before, this woman could not achieve her final goal of presidency. Next to him she looked almost inconspicuous and anemic, too cold, too calm. In the eyes of Trump’s 61.2 million voters (The New York Times, 2016), Clinton seemed to put up a facade, a woman not to trust.

A brand called YOU

But self-branding is not only vital for prospective presidents. Each of us has 5,54 social media profiles on average (Globalwebindex, 2016) and 84% of employers use Social Media for recruiting (SHRM, 2016). Although, the usage of the profiles range from private to business reasons all those platforms have one commonality: The need for appealing self-presentation.

In the social media life you encounter people that have never seen or met you before on a daily basis. They have no idea who you are and what type of person you are. Therefore, they will judge your skills, your appearance and in the end the total YOU according to the profile and information they get to see. Above, you have found some advices that will help you with successful self-marketing.

However, all people read the same guidebooks, chasing each other with blogging, tweeting, posting and endless lists about what makes them so unique. Self-marketing might be easier than ever, but it’s getting harder and harder to stand out (Fridman, 2015).

An additional challenge in self-marketing is that life is not always on-brand. And this is exactly where theory and reality become contradictory. You have to be consistent and authentic, but life will come up with situations and events which are not on-brand at all. Not telling them would make your profile appear consistent but it does not count as being honest and authentic.

As a result, many social media users withhold or modify personal information, resulting in a more desired than truthful self (Kelly and Mc Killop, 1996). But when one is not allowed to present one’s real self, it is not surprising that one day all profiles will look the same.

And as great, authentic and consistent your personal brand profile might sound: There will be a day where you have to proof that the brand you built up online is actually the real you. Whether it is a job interview, a Tinder Date or actually becoming president. At one point the curtain will fall. Will you then still be able to hide all the not-on-brand parts of your life? If yes, I promise: It will be exhausting.

But why hide? Did we all not learn that to err is human? And is not the unpredictable occurrences in life what makes a personal brand truly unique? Experts would probably answer: It depends.

I will say: You decide. But regardless which way you will choose, don’t forget: The brand is YOU.



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