Both Democrats and Republicans could be pardoned for feeling shell-shocked at the Trump upset win of the US presidential race.  Few of the pundits saw it coming; indeed, as recently as a few weeks ago, just about everyone here in the US was predicting a big Clinton victory.

But with the benefit of perfect storytelling hindsight, the Trump win is not so surprising.  Indeed, it’s inevitable, if you apply a couple of the ideas that I’m always insisting my clients think about when they’re creating their speeches, messages, branding, marketing campaigns and even books.

Start with the idea that, after eight years of one party in the White House, the presumption is that the other party has the edge – unless everyone is so happy that the entire country is thinking laissez les bon temps rouler! 

I don’t think so.  Bring on the change.  That’s the starting point.

Now, to that mindset, apply Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  You remember Maslow?  He’s the psychologist that opined that we all take care of a predictable set of needs in a predictable order.  We start with physiological needs – food and shelter – and work our way up the list to safety, then love, then esteem, and finally self-actualization.

Maslow’s huge insight was that if we’re worried about a need lower on the list, it completely overshadows the needs higher up.  So, if we’re hungry, we’re not worried about perfecting our French accent in French class (self-actualization, or perhaps esteem).

If the people are worried about jobs, economic security, and that sort of thing, that’s safety, and they’re not going to be able to think seriously about anything higher up on the list, like love, esteem, or self-actualization.

What does that mean for Trump and Clinton?  “Make America Great Again,” reminds us of our economic insecurity, and perhaps our political insecurity, and so those safety issues override love or esteem.

On the other hand, “Stronger Together” comes in at the level of love or esteem.  That’s getting pretty high on Maslow’s Hierarchy, and Trump’s safety message will completely override Stronger Together.

One point for Trump.

Now, I’ve blogged before about the power of storytelling and revenge stories in particular.  A revenge story tells us about a hero whose job it is to restore a prior state of justice, fair play, prosperity, or order.  Seen in this light, “Make America Great Again,” is about the pithiest expression of a revenge story I’ve seen.

It’s brilliant.  It tells us that America was once great, that it’s something we’ve lost, and that we can bring it back.  “Great” implies both power and economic success, so we’ve got a revenge story aimed at the safety level.  That’s so powerful that Clinton’s love story, positioned at the love level, can’t possibly compete.

Two points for Trump, and game.

If you want to create a powerful marketing message, then pitch it at the safety level in Maslow’s terms, and give us a revenge story.  We jump at the idea of a former ordered, glorious era that our hero might restore.  Therein lies a tale, and in this case, a tale of victory for Mr. Trump.

Of course, politics and campaigns are not just about Maslow and stories, but don’t underestimate their power either.  If you do so, you’ll find yourself trying to explain a loss everything thought you would win.


  1. Nick, I read your post the day you published. And although I am loathe to respond negatively on someone’s blog, I’ve discovered your blog bothered me so much only a response will settle my thinking.

    Firstly, it is important to note that Hillery Clinton achieved 1million more votes than Donald Trump. In business we don’t have an electoral college, so by business standards we would say Hillery won. It was the weird way we proportion electoral college votes that gave Donald Trump a win, not his story. In the end, her love story was more popular than his revenge story.

    Second, it is extremely risky to develop a marketing plan based on a revenge story. Yes, your initial foray may help you “win the battle,” but the aftermath of your story could leave you “losing the war.” Mr. Trump’s revenge story served to terrify some people into voting for him, but also terrified people who didn’t vote for him. The result was extensive protesting after the election, a tripling of calls to crisis centers in states like Illinois, and an assault on the Canadian immigration web site by Americans seeking to possibly leave that brought down the site. As marketers, and speakers, do we want a message that elicits this kind of response?

    Trump’s revenge story has left a majority people skeptical as to their future. It is a rare business situation where we would want to leave our audience with that feeling after telling our story. We may scare some of them into taking a singular act, but the after-effects are most likely far more negative than the singular “win.”

    The worst part of revenge story telling is that while it can cause some people to take your position, a goodly percentage of the audience will become very, very negative about you. I used to give a presentation that pointed out how the audience consistently made a bad decision, then I would tell them how to do it correctly. I would show them the problem, and show them the hero leader that could fix it. 80% of people found it powerful, and liked it. And about 50% would become fairly passionate supporters. But there were 20% that were so turned off by the negativity they couldn’t get to the good stuff – and they would be vociferous critics. And you don’t get asked to make a return appearance if your speaker scores show 80% loved you, but 20% hated you.

    I removed the negative part. I removed the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) from the talk. I moved straight into a story about an alternative way of thinking and then demonstrated the benefits. I discovered the audience negatives largely went away. The low scores disappeared. Maybe people simply didn’t rank, but having some audience members not respond is much better than creating ill will. By avoiding the negative my scores went up, and return engagements went up.

    Lastly, as story tellers it is critical we know our audience. By all accounts, Mr. Trump’s revenge story was most appealing to a group of angry and uneducated people (and, sorry, but he did not win the popular vote even with these followers). Rarely is that the audience for our message (as readers of your blog.) As storytellers we are talking to people who mostly operate not at the level of fearing for home and safety, but rather higher in the need hierarchy. There the appeal to improvement, growth and other matters related to success is a key message. Folks who are in management roles rarely respond well to revenge stories that threaten their views of the world. They want stories about how their life, and leadership, can be better.

    Great lines come from speeches that give people hope, not fill them with fear:
    “All we have to fear is fear itself.”
    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
    “We resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
    “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
    “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
    “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

    Thank your for providing the opportunity to reply.

    1. Thanks, Adam, for your comments. My point was simply, how did Trump win? And I provided a storytelling answer. Of course, Trump’s revenge story appealed to a particular (angry, feeling left out) segment of the audience. And yes, that message didn’t appeal to lots of other people. But it did appeal to enough of the electorate to produce a win. So, of course you have to know your audience, and Trump proved he did.

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