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Sell the Problem: How This Messaging and Sales Strategy Worked for Trump

For the better part of a year, we, like many of our colleagues, thought Donald J. Trump had a poor game plan to win the presidency. The optics seemed to suggest he could not overcome what appeared to be all of his opponents’ better orchestrated political organizations and more effective ground games. (And no, we’re not inviting political discourse here; we’re offering a friendly discussion on messaging.)

Sure, hindsight is 20/20. But as part of that hindsight, it dawned on us here at The Starr Conspiracy that Trump’s team, perhaps without even meaning to, had lifted a page right out of a highly effective message strategy playbook. It is, in fact, a strategy that we often recommend for our clients who want to connect at a gut level with their most likely prospects.

Trump used a model of selling that says put the customer first, focus on the customer’s pain and challenges, and put your product or solutions last.  

In the middle of a recent client presentation, a member of our team spontaneously referred to the winning 2016 presidential campaign as an example of a successfully executed communication strategy that at the very outset and for most of the conversation, connected with people at an emotional and empathetic level, at the level of the buyer’s perceived pain.

This strategy says you then pile on the proof of the pain and make the conversation even more emotional (remember, people buy from people). Then you show how bad even the best current options are. Next, you describe what a balm for that pain would look like, what it would feel like. By now, the audience is saying, “Of course that would be a great solution. That makes perfect sense. Who can give us that?” Boom. Like that.

We felt gobsmacked when we verbalized the connection between this sales model and the Trump campaign, and did so in front of a client most of us had met just that day. But everyone in the room got it. The analogy made perfect sense.

Speaking more academically, here is the six-step strategy for this selling model, which has proved to stir people to action (we in marketing usually think of this as “activating buyers”):

  1. Start with an opening that builds empathy by recognizing the audience’s pain or challenge.
  2. Reframe unrecognized problems, needs, or assumptions.
  3. Create rational drowning, or an intensification of the audience’s pain.
  4. Humanize the problem using psychological features.
  5. Show the audience a better way.
  6. Reveal the solution.

We’ve seen the power of this model in connecting brands with prospects around attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs. In short, its message is simply this: Sell the problem. The popular Challenger Sale series of books advocates this strategy in what the authors call “commercial teaching.”


What does this sales model look like applied to the message of Trump, the candidate? It looks something like this:

  1. The system is rigged against you and me.
  2. You’re being held down by the status quo.
  3. Your jobs are gone, the Chinese own us, illegal immigrants are ruining our country.
  4. We’re losing, bigly; it’s bad, really bad.
  5. We need change. Hillary is crooked and part of the system; we’re going to make America great again.
  6. I’m the only one who can solve this problem, vote for me.

There you go. President-elect Trump sold the problem. He sold problems much, much more and in much greater detail than he sold solutions. And he did it over and over again, on nearly every campaign issue. It was how Trump took control of the conversation. And it resonated with enough people’s attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs to catapult him to the presidency of the United States.

Trump took an effective sales tactic and turned the political pundits’ predictions upside down. Sell the problem. Simple. Effective. Sure, we’d strongly advise our clients to provide a much more clearly defined solution than any candidate seemed to offer during the 2016 presidential campaign. But still, selling the problem worked for the winner.