How Donald Trump Can Help Your Marketing

Lucky for us, The Donald is currently visiting our shores to extol his wisdom and big up fellow floppy-haired politician Boris Johnson.

During his visit to Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, gained lots of new fans as she gave a wry wink behind Mr Trump’s back, showing she might just be thinking the same as the rest of us.

Lots of us aren’t fans of his but many millions are, and one reason for that is his perceived authenticity.

Trump’s supporters think of him as a real person who has more in common with them than the political elite. Despite being incredibly privileged and born into an extremely rich family (and, you might argue, the member of an economic elite) lots of people relate to Donald Trump.

In a world of over-polished speakers, slick PR, people who show no vulnerabilities, politicians who claim never to have got drunk as students and present themselves without faults, Donald Trump seems all too human.

You and I might think Trump is a complete berk and the mistakes he makes make him incredibly stupid, but to many people, they only add to his appeal.

How Donald Trump can help your marketing

Revealing your faults actually makes people – and brands – more attractive, it’s called the Pratfall Effect.

Think of it this way – when you go on a first date, would you trust the person who says they’ve never put a foot wrong in a relationship? Or the one who holds their hands up and says they have? Owning mistakes and being honest about them is super-powerful.

Studies have shown that people who admit to (non-horrendous) mistakes at work do better in job interviews. And no one likes the boss who never admits to having a weakness or the friend who can’t ever be wrong. Vulnerability makes people more appealing.

It’s the same with brands. Rather than putting people off, owning up to a weakness or mistake draws consumers to a brand. Claim to be perfect or only put out 5-star reviews and people will assume you’re hiding something.

Interestingly, and one thing people don’t always mention, is that the positive effect of the Pratfall Effect only works if you believe someone is capable and likeable beforehand. If you don’t like them or think they’re not very smart (hi, Donald), those same errors will have a negative effect. Which explains why Trump’s mistakes are appealing to some but make many of us shake our heads in horror.

It’s the same for brands. If your brand is rubbish and you point out yet another weakness, it won’t help your reputation, but if consumers feel positive towards you, it will. You can read more about that in the original study by Elliott Aronson.

The Pratfall Effect

I first heard about the Pratfall Effect from Richard Shotton (an expert in applying behavioural economics to marketing and one of the main speakers at the ProCopywriters’ Copywriting Conference in October) and he also mentioned some classic examples of it being used successfully by several brands, including Guinness, VW and Stella Artois.

According to The Guinness Academy, it takes 199.5 seconds to pour a perfect pint of Guinness. It takes about 10 seconds to pour a pint of beer or lager (and I’m sure some people could down it too before the Guinness is even ready to drink!) so that’s a pretty huge difference.

But rather than ignore how long it takes to get your hands on a perfectly poured pint or apologise for it, Guinness has made a virtue out of it. Every TV advert they make is close to 1 minute 32.5 seconds long – the same length of time as it takes Guinness to settle. Their tagline embraces the slow process too, telling us ‘Good things come to those who wait’.

Guinness and the pratfall effect

No one I’ve ever seen has complained their drink took too long to serve as they wait at the bar enviously eyeing their lager-drinking friends. And I don’t think anyone has ever questioned the tagline either. Guinness drinkers stand and wait and appreciate it all the more for the waiting.

Stella Artois has done the same with their pricing. I very rarely drink lager, I know nothing about the brewing process and whether Stella is actually better than other lagers but their marketing leaves you with no doubt that you’re paying more because it’s a higher quality product.

Is it? Objectively? Is Stella better than every cheaper lager?

Who knows, but it doesn’t matter. The company draws attention to the point of difference and turns it into a virtue. Yes, you’ll pay more for a Stella than a Budweiser or a Carlsberg or a Carling, but that’s because it’s better (we’re told and we believe it).

Carlsberg is another interesting example. Here are some of their latest adverts:

Carlsberg's new advertising campaign


Carlsberg harnesses the pratfall effect


At first, this campaign didn’t work for me. What it says is: We’ve been lying to you for a very long time but now we want you to believe us.

If I’d drunk Carlsberg for years I’d be pretty annoyed. Why would I trust them now if they’d lied to me for years?

But then I thought about why they’re doing it.

They want to attract a different set of drinkers to the brand, people who wouldn’t normally drink Carlsberg because they assumed it was poor quality (whatever the tagline said) and stuck with their Stella or Peroni. The new campaign may annoy some regular customers – although they’re now being promised a better-tasting pint – but it’s intended to bring people back to the brand or entice new consumers to try it.

As well as owning up to things in advertising, people want brands to own their errors online. If you see all 5-star reviews for a hotel or a book or any company you’re about to do business with, it looks fishy.

No one pleases everyone all the time and if you say you do, we don’t believe you. Ever heard the saying ‘too good to be true’?!

Yesterday, I listened to a webinar with Richard Shotton who explained why the Pratfall Effect is so effective.

It’s all about trust.

You tell me no one has ever said a critical word about your work, I assume you’re bullshitting. You’re open and upfront about the downsides of your products or service or where you might have got it wrong and I believe you.

Richard talked about two other reasons it works. One, it controls your customers’ focus. They think they know all about your faults because you’ve owned up so it takes away any feelings of doubt or insecurity they may have.

And the last reason it’s a smart thing to do is that you can use the flaw to accentuate a positive, or what Richard calls a mirror strength. The example he gave was of VW who may admit their cars are ugly but say looks don’t matter, they only care about the engineering – which appeals to people who think that’s more important than design.

Unusual marketing for a book

Another example I’ve seen (thanks again, Richard) is from the launch of Iain Banks’s debut novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984. In it, Banks included several negative reviews the novel had received, including one from a critic at the Sunday Express who said it was ‘the literary equivalent of a video nasty’, and another from the Irish Times, who called it ‘a work of unparalleled depravity’.

Banks claimed that the reviewers didn’t get the humour in the book but readers would. Whether he was right or not, it was an unusual way of promoting a novel but it worked. It got huge amounts of publicity and became a bestseller.

Whether it was the rarity of including negative reviews, the publicity it created, the violence the reviews mentioned, or that readers wanted to make their own conclusions, it had the desired effect.

Being honest about second-hand cars

A few years ago I was trying to sell my rather sexy Audi TT. Ever one for research, I read how best to go about it and all the advice said to be honest about at least one flaw in the advert online. No one expects a second-hand car to be in perfect condition so by mentioning a scratch on a wing or a few marks on the driver’s door it tells potential buyers you’re honest. And they assume you wouldn’t lie about bigger issues if you’re open about little ones.

The car didn’t sell and I had it for several more years (!) but the point is people don’t want unrealistic and unbelievable perfection, they want reassuringly honest imperfection. And several brands have mastered this technique very well.


P.S. If you’d like to learn more about applying this sort of theory to your own work I’m running a behavioural economics workshop in London in February –  you can sort out your ticket here – or get in touch with me as I do tailormade sessions too.

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