United States: Trump's Branding Problem

Last Updated: September 27 2017
Article by Ronald R. Urbach

Donald Trump came to the White House with the lowest approval rating ever for an incoming president. From a branding perspective, things have not been getting better. On the 144th day of his presidency, Trump hit a 60% disapproval rating, giving him the dubious distinction of being the fastest to ever reach that mark (beating George H.W. Bush, who took 1,290 days to get there).

The result may be surprising to those who remember Trump as a master at cultivating his brand in business and entertainment, and perhaps expected that to translate to politics. There are just two problems with that reading of history.

First, while Trump demonstrated a certain genius for creating his brand as a businessman, it isn't clear that it was a desirable one. The Trump business is seen as "aggressive, selfish, and ambitious," according to the Reputation Institute, which recently gave the Trump brand a "poor" rating of 39.1 out of 100.

Second, it's dangerous to believe that a brand established in one context (business) will translate to another (politics). While companies like Starbucks have thoughtfully and carefully expanded into new territories (in Starbucks's case, tea and carbonated beverages), it's often a perilous thing for brands to do. Remember Coors Rocky Mountain Spring Water? Not many do.

How I See It

  • Many executives have tried to carry their reputations as skilled businesspeople into politics, including Ross Perot, Jon Corzine, and even, in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Carly Fiorina. But Trump is a singular case. In retrospect, it should not be surprising that his personal brand, built on bombast, has made an awkward fit in the nation's capital.
  • That awkward fit has diminished not only Trump's personal brand, but the brand of the office he occupies: the presidency of the United States.
  • Recently, news broke that Trump Hotels are moving beyond the luxury market and creating a budget chain called "American Idea." This is a high risk idea from a branding standpoint. It may have been the reason he got elected, but once in office, Trump's personal brand has been a detriment to his political standing. There's every reason to believe that his political brand will be equally harmful to a business wrapped up in it.

How the Industry Sees It

I sat down with Steve Simpson, Chief Creative Officer at Ogilvy & Mather North America, to talk about the Trump Administration through the lens of the advertising industry.

What branding lessons can companies take from the experience of the Trump administration, if any?

The lessons run the other way: Trump went to school on the marketers. Whatever you think of him—and no one is neutral—Trump is a master brand builder and power user of the marketing toolkit: shrewd analytics, evocative sloganeering, and a genius for earned media and social media.

Let's remember that Trump was a brand before he was a candidate. So even as marketers must claim Trump as one of their own, they follow his example at their peril. Trump was educated in particularly gaudy precincts of marketing: real estate, boxing, and reality TV promotion. Here no exaggeration is too great, no claim too outlandish, because nobody believes any of it anyway: it's all part of the show. Indeed one of the great concerns about Trump as president—his casual relationship to truth—can be explained by his marketing schooling; more specifically, by the legal notion of "puffery."

A U.S. District Court defined puffery as "an exaggeration or overstatement expressed in broad, vague, and commendatory language...The puffing rule amounts to a seller's privilege to lie his head off, so long as he says nothing specific." And the U.S. Federal Trade Commission decided puffery was too obviously harmless to bother with: "The Commission generally will not pursue cases involving obviously exaggerated or puffing representations, i.e., those that the ordinary consumers do not take seriously." e.g., "The Finest Fried Chicken in the World."

"The Finest Fried Chicken in the World" is father to "I have the best words" and "I think probably seldom has any president and administration done more or had more success so early on ..."

Puffery is Trump's natural language. His "ordinary consumers"—voters, brand loyalists—don't have a reasonable expectation of truth, and perhaps do not care. Trump has taken one of the dodgiest practices of the marketing profession and applied it to public discourse, to the peril of both.

It's my fault. It's your fault. But mainly it's Ron's fault.

Is there a politician in recent history with a strong "brand" that comes to mind?

Oh, let me think back ... to Obama, and the last campaign that smashed all precedents. "Shrewd analytics, evocative sloganeering, and a genius for earned media and social media ..." The description of Trump's marketing in my previous response can be applied word for word to Obama's efforts, in 2008 especially. And the loyalists of the Obama brand were no less susceptible to the emotional sell and to glitteringly general slogans.

Both Trump and Obama brilliantly positioned themselves as "challenger brands," realizing that they need not only good friends but good enemies. Both were adept at de-positioning competitors and both puffed up the active ingredients of their brands to "Make America Great Again" and to inaugurate a new era of "Hope" and "Change."

Are you seeing many creative pitches that comment directly or indirectly on the Trump presidency, or has that been a topic that brands just won't touch?

Remember when Michael Jordan, world champion marketer, said of his refusal to take political stands: "Republicans buy shoes too"?

Brands are understandably loath to write off one half of the population, but today they may find neutrality harder to maintain (even Jordan has). They risk becoming, in our newly polarized environment, "blue brands" or "red brands."

Even if brands take care with what they say, there is the worry about where they say it. Readers of this blog know only too well how opaque programmatic processes are placing brands' messages near content they find objectionable–once they discover the fact. To stay or to leave is a political act; either choice invites attacks and even boycotts.

Moreover, Trump administration proposals have and will not only offend many companies' customers and employees, but violate their policies of diversity and inclusion. Like it or not (they do not), brands will no longer be free to declare rhetorically-satisfying principles of diversity and inclusion without cost; they will need to fight for them.

Marketing helped get us here; can it help us get out? My own view is that marketing is one of the least credible ways to address such big issues. But, knowing my profession, I doubt that will stop us. Some brands will engage out of conviction–but they sure won't mind the chance to preen for their loyalists.

How fragile are brands? Once a brand identity is established, how resilient is it in weathering a few storms?

I'll answer this by sticking with the Trump Brand. In his nearly 9 months in office, Trump has weathered—and indeed created—several upper category storms. Many of these controversies are so consequential that it can seem frivolous to refer to them as "brand challenges." But if we can accept this very narrow way of examining the matter, we can see just how durable the strength of the Trump brand remains among his ardent loyalists. Indeed, for all of his apparent volatility, Trump has been a model of brand consistency. He is doing for the most part what he said would do; he is delivering consistently on his brand promise. The problem—keeping strictly to narrow branding points—is that this very consistency limits his ability to expand the reach of his brand beyond a minority of the public, his famous "base."

What's the most interesting object in your office?

Somewhere, lodged between two manila folders, is a slim stray copy of The Elements of Style, whose authors command us to "omit needless words." It's obvious that I haven't seen that book in a while.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.