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How Would You Beat Trumpism?

american political debate

In each of our "How Would You Beat?" articles, we pick a company and talk about how you could use jobs-to-be-done innovation methods to beat that company's product. We discuss innovation theory and explain the methods you can use to put the theory into practice at your company. In this article, we're going to focus on something a little different than we normally do: we're going to talk about Trumpism. 

The events of January 6th -- when a band of Trump supporters rioted and attacked the US Capitol -- showed that Trumpism can be violent and seditious. They don't want to play by the rules of democracy. We want to see if jobs-to-be-done innovation theory can help us understand what Trumpism is, what we can do about it, and specifically, what companies can do about it.

What Is Trumpism?

The way we always start our explorations into how you would beat a product or a company is to figure out what the jobs are that the customers are hiring the product to do. Customers are trying to get goals done in their lives. When they struggle to achieve those goals, they go looking to hire a product to help them get it done better. Simply put, customers aren't buying products, they're hiring products to get a job done. So, to start, we need to set up our framework:

  1. Is Trumpism a product? If so, who was its customer?
  2. What job are people hiring it to get done?

We would argue yes, Trumpism is a product.  It is a solution to something people are buying into. They have something they're trying to achieve. The basics of it, of course, are political; they wanted Trump to win, so part of it is the job of winning an election. However, it goes much deeper than that. Why do people believe false ideas? It should be noted that this goes back to before Trump, as well. Many people have noted that Trump is not the cause, he's a symptom. But he is different. Some Republicans left the party because of Trump and there now seems to be a political civil war within the party.

If we think of the job as "win an election", the customers might be citizens who just like to be on the victorious side of an election. But there are also other politicians who want to win their elections and stay in power. That's another job, and some of them are using Trumpism to do that. There are plenty of other jobs that people are trying to use Trumpism to get done as well.

The Job of the Government

Politics and government really are just solutions to many jobs that impact people's lives. Now, there are lots of debates about how effective they are and what the role of government is in our lives but, clearly, what government is trying to do is find solutions to these jobs.

The government has been described as "an insurance company with an army." If you look at the federal budget, what it's trying to do is protect people from financial disaster. Before FDR and Social Security, half of people in the United States died in poverty because the Great Depression created a financial collapse. The solution was to create an insurance company --Social Security -- and contribute to it throughout your life so you're not going to be destitute when you're old. Then there's the military protecting our country and our government. Are these jobs that people were looking to hire Trump, or Trumpism, to do? Did he get that job done? How was his messaging set up to tell us that?

With what is happening in the world today, how can jobs-to-be-done innovation theory help us? Trump is clearly different. The rate at which he lied and spread false memes was unprecedented. But to understand exactly how different he was, we first need to talk about memes.

Meme Theory

Getting into meme theory a little bit, a meme is just a replicator that spreads through human brains. Richard Dawkins, back in the 1970s, coined the phrase "meme" to contrast it with a biological replicator, which we all know is a gene. We're actually seeing evolution in real time right now, because the coronavirus is spreading and mutating. There's even a new UK strain that's more asymptomatic and more contagious.

That same thing is happening with memes. The idea of "stop the steal" and "the election was stolen" are memes that spread very, very fast. That's a real problem. Companies have a responsibility to help stop the spread of false memes. And yet, what we've seen is that false memes are also very, very profitable.

Trumpism is reflective of people's belief that the government is failing them. We have a problem in this country where 47% of the population doesn't have $400 to their name. People are also lonely, which is ironic considering we're connected on a global network to almost every human on the planet. Humans evolved to be in large social groups and we're not meant to be lonely. Trump, and politics in general, has created these memes that people are more receptive to now because of this loneliness. But it wasn't only people who were economically anxious that showed up on January 6th. In the insurrection, there was a CEO, there was an Olympic gold medalist, there were people who were professionals and there were government officials. It's far more complicated than just Trump, but it is a result of companies now spreading false memes very rapidly.

To clarify, it's not every company; it's social media companies. Look at Facebook for example. Facebook, like a lot of companies, thought their mission was to get people to use Facebook as much as possible. We get the dopamine spike from comments and likes that makes you want more and more. They created algorithms -- part of their product -- that determines what people see in their feeds. The algorithms revealed that when you show people really divisive content, they tend to stay on Facebook longer. That divisive content includes false memes, such as the election being stolen (and many other things prior to January 6). Facebook decided, "Hey, that works, let's keep doing it." This is a problem of incorrect innovation theory.

The Role of Companies in Combating False Memes

We have a segment of society who is struggling with some fundamental jobs that you would normally expect government to do, but current solutions aren't getting those jobs done. They start looking for new solutions and this ultimately leads to Trump putting out messages that happen to work well as memes. But what's the difference between a successful message, like Nike's "just do it", and a meme? In a way, they're the same thing. They're human concepts that spread in human minds.

Companies have a responsibility to focus their innovation on jobs-to-be-done -- goals that someone needs to achieve independent of any product or service. There are tons of examples of jobs-to-be-done. No one wants records, or CDs, or iPods, or even Spotify.  They want to create a mood with music. No one wants navigation apps or GPS devices or maps. They want to get to a destination on time. With Nike's "Just Do It" campaign, the job they're trying to help people get done is "exercise." This is part of a bigger human job: "optimize my health." The difference between a message like Nike's and these political memes is, memes don't have to be true in order to replicate successfully.

Facebook and Nike have very different business models. Nike wants you to buy shoes and run a lot (to buy more shoes) and hopefully get healthier in the process. Facebook wants you to stay on Facebook so they can sell you more advertising and keep collecting your data. They're what's known as a two-sided market. The paradoxical problem is, in any case, in almost every market, the goal for a company should be to help the customer get their job done that makes their life better so they don't have to use the company's product anymore.

When companies lose their way, when they focus on their product at the expense of the customer's job, it allows these false memes to spread and that's a tremendous risk for companies. It's that risk that really sets apart Trumpism from Nike. The reason it's in Nike’s best interest to put out memes or messaging that are true, and that they live up to, is because you're going to make a decision about purchasing Nike much more frequently than you are purchasing Trump. If Nike doesn't live up to their promise, they're going to go out of business. Trumpism, on the other hand, just needs to make you make a decision once every 4 years. The time horizon is very long and it's hard to see if he's actually getting that job done. He doesn't have to live up to the memes he's putting out right away and he can provide scapegoats that make people feel more comfortable if they don't look too hard at what's really going on.

The Problem with Facebook

Going back to Facebook, if you look back at when they were founded, their original mission was to help connect people. You could argue that they were very successful at that, but when they started bringing advertisers onto the platform and making money from that, they refocused on helping advertisers acquire new customers and grow sales. Along the way, they discovered that being a meme acceleration engine, whether those memes are true or false, was an effective way to keep people's attention, generate a ton of advertising inventory, and also collect data about people so they could target the advertisers' message. That's not working so well anymore because people are realizing they're not being connected socially. They stop using the platform, advertisers get less inventory and eventually Facebook goes out of business. Facebook is vulnerable to spreading false memes in a way that Trump wasn't for the past 4 years after he got elected.

In other words, the idea here is that it's risky for companies to spread false memes because they're so focused on having their customers use their product more. History gives us really good examples of how this risk plays out. One of the best, most recent examples is Yahoo versus Google. Yahoo ended up being bought for about $4.5 billion by Verizon. Remember what Yahoo was doing at the beginning of its existence. Yahoo was the darling of venture. It was a hugely successful company and search engine. They wanted people to use their product so they had human-curated search results with classifications and categorizations (think sports pages, medical pages, vacation pages, etc.). But then, a competitor named Google came along and helped people find information faster and more accurately.

This is the key to jobs-to-be-done innovation theory. In every case, customers want to get the job done faster and more accurately, so they can get back to their lives. They didn't want to spend time on Yahoo because that's not a job. That wasn't the customer's goal and the risk for Yahoo was real. Google took over search and became a much more successful company, but now, with YouTube using essentially the same algorithms as Facebook, they're contributing to the same problem that leads to Trumpism. Companies can help stop the spread of false memes by focusing on a job that's important to customers.

There are, of course, the creative jobs that people want to complete: spend time reading a good book, being immersed in a TV show or movie, listening to music. But in all the other functional categories of jobs, such as consumer, business or medical jobs, people just want to get their job done and get back to their lives. Humans are social creatures and we want to live meaningful lives. Spending time with your product is not the goal of your customers.

addicted to technology

In the product, community and technology communities at large, if you're going to help advertisers grow sales, you need to find consumers who want to buy stuff who have that particular job. If we look at Facebook that way, why do they assume that people who are hanging out with their friends want to buy a product at that exact time? How is that helping them get their job done? Compare that to Google which people use to find information. Oftentimes, that information is used to help them achieve a goal. Just on that basic analysis, you have to think that Google will continue to win and Facebook will eventually lose.

Although Facebook has gotten very good at targeted advertising, they have been very successful on the other side of the market too: they keep consumers engaged, even though they're creating division and hatred. Google was extremely successful because, if you're an advertiser, you knew, down to the dollar, what it cost you to acquire a customer. Advertising is not inherently bad. If you're looking for a solution to some health problem, or there's a vacation you want to research, or some new skill you want to learn, advertising is really good. You're in the market. You're looking to get a job done. You're trying to figure out what solutions are out there. The problem comes when there is a false meme spreader system that keeps people on your site and gives you their data.

The hope is that companies really have a big role in stopping this. The minimum they should do is stop supporting politicians who spread false memes like "Trump won the election", and stop donating to insurrectionists. Beyond that, what they really need to focus on is helping people make their lives better through helping them get their jobs done...but not by using their products

Helping Customers Get Their Jobs Done Better

We talked about how one of the reasons Trump was able to be successful is because he was able to spread false memes very quickly that interested him. Not to go too deep into Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine and the work of Richard Dawkins and how they define memes, but essentially a meme could be a phrase, a picture, a video or anything that contains an idea and is inimitable. In order to replicate, memes need a distribution engine and they need receptive hosts. They need hosts that find these ideas and phrases attractive, and then they need a distribution mechanism to spread them around. In the old days, you could use word of mouth to spread a meme (and this continues to happen today), but Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the mainstream media are now the primary distribution engines for pushing these memes through society.

One way that companies can help stop the spread of false memes is to redesign their engine so false memes don't help make them successful. Another way is to change the conditions of the host. If people are able to get their basic, fundamental jobs done better -- financial security, economic and social stability -- and if companies can help get those jobs done more successfully, then there won't be that segment of the population struggling so much they're willing to look at these false memes to get the job done. You change the environment that makes these untruths attractive.

We need to focus on humans and how we're intersecting with these technologies because we're totally unprepared for the acceleration of these false meme spreading systems and their hosts. The problem is that, in evolution, that kind of high-speed change and growth never ends well. In fact, that's exactly what the coronavirus is and it's an evolutionary unstable strategy. The coronavirus is highly contagious and lethal and we fought back immediately, developing a vaccine within one year. We just don't have any equivalent to that in this false meme spreading. Hopefully what jobs theory and jobs-to-be-done can do is help companies figure out that path to a vaccine for false memes. 

Building human connections is an entire job domain that is incredibly complex. If Facebook were to say, "We'd like to help make human connections," and they wanted to do that successfully, they would study all the jobs in that domain. We know from jobs theory that even a simple job like getting to a destination on time has 15 different steps and over 100 different needs and variables in the job. Jobs are complex, but that's one of the values of theory: it helps you break down that complexity.

While we're wildly unprepared for all of the changes that are about to happen, the good thing is that human jobs are really stable. They don't change over time. They have inherent stability that gives us the ability to figure out how we need to innovate against those jobs. That is our path to success. It's the path for companies to really help people's lives and potentially stop Trumpism.

What You Can Do

If you're a leader at a company, focus your employee incentives around getting the customers' job done better. If leaders, especially product leaders, set their metrics for their teams around the job they're targeting and defining the jobs as meaningful human jobs, that can change people's lives. Employees will be more successful and the business will be more sustainable over the long run.

This doesn't necessarily mean killing advertising. Identify your customers' problems and figure out a way to connect them with your products and services that will help them solve those problems and make them happier. Advertisers would like that a lot more than paying for impressions that don't lead to sales. This would increase the efficiency of advertising, increase the satisfaction of consumers who are trying to find things to get jobs done in their lives, and be better for everybody. Jobs-to-be-done innovation theory can make meaningful contributions to help stop the spread of Trumpism and other false memes. 

Hopefully you found this content insightful. To learn more about Jobs Theory, reach out get our free How To Guides and try our jobs-to-be-done software for free.

Posted by Jay Haynes

View all posts by Jay Haynes