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.

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