Donald Trump is now giving free branding advice to Boeing on how to deal with the challenge of its crashing 737 MAX planes. It’s not bad advice, but it does make you wonder if having the president act like a marketer is a good idea.
Here’s Trump’s tweet:
This is a dumb thing to tweet for a number of reasons. First off, 346 people have died in these two plane crashes, and this tweet comes off as completely insensitive to that loss of innocent life. Also, why is the President of the United States spending his time tweeting random branding advice to a private company (and one involved in a federal safety investigation)? If Boeing is trying to rebrand the plane as it fixes it, this tweet actually makes it harder to execute that strategy, since it inserts presidential politics into a private company’s safety and rollout plan.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s put all of that aside for a moment. Imagine that you are an executive for Boeing right now. What should you do?
First, figure out what actually went wrong in those crashes.
Second, fix it quickly.
Third, test the fixes thoroughly.
Fourth, roll out the fixes.
But after that, you need to consider the fate of the 737 MAX. And the idea of making changes to the plane and rebranding it is advice worth considering.
Imagine for a moment that this advice came from another marketing expert — say, Seth Godin or Donny Deutsch. (They might have better ideas than this, but bear with me.) And imagine that, instead of being delivered in a tweet, it was delivered in a conference room to Boeing executives, out of public view.
Would it be be bad advice? Not really.
Should presidents be marketers?
Of course they should.
Ronald Reagan was an incredible marketer. The modern Republican Party and its ideals would not have existed without him. Its image was his, at least until Trump got ahold of it.
Bill Clinton marketed his way out from under affairs. Barack Obama sold universal health care to the Congress and the public, and was smart enough not to shy away when people called it Obamacare. George W. Bush sold us on “The War on Terror.”
Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush were poor marketers and as a result, far less effective presidents. Al Gore and Mitt Romney were ineffective marketers when they ran for president, and lost. (Gore got way better after he lost.)
Presidents have to identify powerful ideas, package them up, and sell them to the public and the Congress. Even if they had lots of help from advisors and allies to identify and sell their ideas, they had to have a marketer’s instinct. This is not a weakness, it is a strength.
But it is not enough.
Selling bad ideas is a terrible quality in a president (or anyone else)
The leader of an organization has to do more than market. They have to identify what’s good for the organization and what it can do. Selling is a part of that calculation, but it’s not the most important part.
Presidential leadership consists not just of packaging ideas, but more fundamentally, of identifying ideas that will help the country move forward. This takes long-term thinking. It’s about more than tossed off tweets on the news of the day.
Ideas built on lies do not pass this test. Ideas built on dividing the country don’t, either.
It’s not just presidents. I was fascinated to learn that Democrats were able to convince most people that they didn’t get a tax cut in 2018 even though most people did. (Read this and marvel.) There were plenty of angles from which to criticize the Trump tax cut — it gave too much to the rich, blew a hole in the budget, favored corporations, didn’t pay for itself, and could lead to inflation. But it did cut taxes — and Democrats convinced plenty of people that it didn’t.
I want a couple of things from my leaders.
I want them worried more about what’s true and what’s helpful than what will sell. Marketers can help sell what they decide on, but shouldn’t set the agenda.
And I don’t want to see their marketing discussions, tweeted or otherwise. Do that in a conference room. I’m more interested in the sausage than the way you made it.
Every marketer has to decide how far they’ll go to sell what appears to be a bad idea. If you’re a leader, you get to decide which ideas are good or bad. Having good marketing instincts is great, but it shouldn’t get in they way of doing what’s right.