The chorus of mea culpas from the political intelligentsia, pundits and reporters who never saw the Trump phenomenon coming is a striking measure of their lack of acquaintance with the science and practices of branding. Every day we buy stuff based on how we have been successfully persuaded of a brand’s distinct qualities, but we have never bought a president this way before.
Make no mistake, brands can be dangerous things that bamboozle millions of people.
The essence of branding is to associate a distinct set of values with a product. It’s not necessary for those values to actually be inherent in the product, people just have to be persuaded that they are.
For example, in the 1990s the oil giant BP realized that along with the rest of the industry its reputation was suffering because environmentalists had targeted them as being, at best, indifferent to the plight of the planet and, at worst, active polluters of it.
Consequently the company rebranded itself, using a new green logo of a blossoming flower and pledging itself to the idea of sustainable energy sources and new levels of safety and cleaner emissions at its plants. Hard-hatted BP managers appeared in TV commercials preaching that their operations from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf of Mexico were subjected to rigorous new environmental controls.
Then came Deepwater Horizon and the mother of all oil spills in the Gulf. In one stroke the company lost half its market value. This was followed by revelations about lax standards at its refinery in Texas, where an explosion killed 15 workers and injured more than 170 others, partly as a result of financial cutbacks made simultaneously with the launch of the “greening” initiative. The makeover was exposed as a cynical sham.
A recent case is just as egregious and will be even more costly to the company involved. Volkswagen admitted that it manipulated the emissions test results of 11 million diesel-powered vehicles, including 500,000 in the U.S. Just two weeks ago the chairman of VW’s supervisory board, Hans Deter Potsch, was confirmed to be under investigation for his role in the cheating and the subsequent cover-up. The scandal is costing VW at least $16.5 billion to settle lawsuits in the U.S. alone.
This exposed another sham of branding. Under the slogan of “Das Auto” VW sold its cars to Americans as exemplary works of “German engineering.” In fact, unable to meet U.S. emissions standards, the company gave up trying to engineer a solution and deliberately cheated on a scale never before seen in the auto industry.
Now with the ascension of Trump we have serious cause to weigh what branding can do when it is fully embraced in a political campaign. Why were the values being sold as part of the Trump brand so persuasive? For the consequences will be far more profound and far-reaching on the country than even the largest oil spill or polluting fleet of cars.
First, it’s highly unusual for a brand to be built around one person. For sure, a brand is sometimes hitched to an emollient invention like Ronald McDonald to make fast food for kids seem like a worthy social mission, or it can express the values of a singular ego and genius as it did with Steve Jobs and Apple. But for a brand to be so dependent on one dominant personality and for that brand to make a crossover from commerce to a presidential election is unique—and probably uniquely American as well.
Consistency is always essential for a brand, a never-varying core message. From his beginning in the Manhattan real estate business Trump had one consistent characteristic: Trump would always be Trump. He would never apologize for being what he was, for what he said, for what he did and the way he did it.
He found that this played very well with the local New York media. He was good copy. In some ways he was prototypically a New Yorker. Although he didn’t drink he often sounded like the kind of boorish contrarian you would encounter in a Manhattan bar after the theaters had emptied. But he didn’t look like that person—he was too slickly groomed and aware that women were tempted to love him almost as much as he loved himself.
These might not seem like wise components for a personal brand contemplating a run at the presidency and winning the national acclaim required to succeed. After all, the Republican base as well as large parts of the Republican leadership were instinctively averse to “New York values”—indeed, it was Ted Cruz who sneeringly used this epithet against Trump in the primaries only to discover that it was like throwing a Molotov cocktail at a battleship.
What manifested the brand more than the Babylonian Manhattan edifice from which Trump launched his campaign? Trump Tower was impossible to beat as the quintessence of his taste. Other Manhattan skyscrapers branded with the names of their corporate patrons had led the modern movement in urban architecture, the Seagram Building and the Lever Building, both on Park Avenue. But who bought whisky or soap powder because they liked these towers?
Once the Trump campaign got under way Trump Tower became a wonder for out-of-towners to gawk at, and as they did they reasoned that a man who put that much gold into a building must have the Midas touch and might be what they wanted in the White House: a no-nonsense vulgarian—vulgarian in the original sense of the term, as the free expression of common discourse and taste.
Trump the developer and builder of self-glorifying edifices whether residential towers, casinos or hotels provided an important metaphorical underpinning of brand Trump. Before he built, he deployed the wrecking ball. That was what the country needed—someone to take a wrecking ball to Washington and rebuild the country in the shape of a vaguely-suggested glorious past. This spoke to another intuitively clever underpinning of the brand, its slogan.
And this where the contrast between brand Trump and brand Clinton became lethally clear. “Make America Great Again” observed one of the most indispensable laws of branding. It was an unambiguous product offer with a powerful and simple emotional connection. It didn’t matter that in reality the “Again” implied a current decline that to many people didn’t exist. To the market it was aimed at it did exist.
“Stronger Together” wasn’t an offer, it was a platitude, passive and nebulous. And it went with a logo that was graphically clumsy, the Hillary “H” intersected uncertainly by an arrow, leading nobody really knew where.
Crucially, the Trump brand’s rollout from a regional base to a national market began years earlier with The Apprentice. For the first time this gave Trump name recognition among millions of people who had been completely unaware of a noisy Manhattan real estate mogul called The Donald. Through the TV show the brand became aspirational. Here was a one-man arbiter of success—or failure. Of course, at this point the brand’s real purpose was basically merchandising, to sell anything from books to a university that extended the appeal of Trump’s unique portal into the American Dream.
Given that national base and the way that reality television enabled him to frame his message, not even Trump himself could have imagined how television would propel his political campaign to a whole new level of brand recognition.
Something extraordinary happened. The cable networks opened up to Trump on his own terms—as someone who was an absolute amateur in politics but also a masterful entertainer. In fact, they enjoyed him too much. He was good for ratings, so they fed him the oxygen he craved. They were funding the dissemination of his message. No other brand in history has had such a free ride—exposure worth billions of dollars that gave him more or less universal name recognition.
And he knew how to exploit the platform for maximum effect: by violating all the rules of political discourse. Strong brands have an inimitable proprietary voice, and this one was characterized by a stream of abuse and personal insults delivered nightly. Trump connected to his audiences through a demotic that came naturally to him, and despite its strangled syntax sounded natural to them. Not even the vilest language could undermine the message. For a few days it seemed that the Access Hollywood tapes, with Trump’s lewd and predatory behavior toward women there for all to see, might be terminal. They were not. Trump was as always Trump, and that was his prime asset.
By the time the networks realized that the clown had become a formidable political player it was too late to retract the gift. The Clinton campaign was spending millions every week on television according to a 20th century playbook and getting little in return for it, certainly never establishing the idea of an alternative brand.
What was most galling of all for the Clinton campaign was that the Trump brand had carried out a devastating feat of reverse-branding. They had defined their competition with a clarity that the competition had never been able to do for itself. In this proposition the competition was the liberal metropolitan elite in cahoots with the “dishonest” mainstream media.
The way this works is perverse but very effective. When your market accepts that the competition is what you say it is then this conviction serves to reinforce brand loyalty and loathing of “the other.” The apotheosis of this principle in action was Trump’s preposterous appeal to black voters—“What have you got to lose? These people have never done anything for you.” (At least, it seemed preposterous. But some black voters apparently bought into it.)
His rapidly expanding base seemed impervious to the contradiction being proposed—that a billionaire who had never got his hands dirty in his whole life (indeed, he was a germaphobe always wary about dirt and whom he touched) was the guy who understood their pain and would give them back their jobs—and their dignity.
“Post-truth” has just been voted the word of the year, and it’s obvious who made it so. It’s a term that George Orwell would have understood and parsed. In 1946 he wrote an essay, Politics and the English Language, that remains today chastening to anyone using that language. He called the political language of his day a “catalogue of swindles and perversions.”
Nothing has changed—except that the language is now expressed in brutally uncouth form and without apology. And the contempt for truth is far more naked. We shouldn’t have been surprised that the Trump brand treated truth as a needless constraint. A lot of commercial branding has never been too fussy about the truth.
For example, just a year ago Wells Fargo was selling itself as a champion of cultural diversity and banking probity under the slogan “Why I Work.” Right now the bank’s new slogan is “We’re making changes to make things right.” That, of course, follows a scandal in which the bank’s staff created at least 2 million false accounts.
The Trump brand is about to face the moment of truth that must come eventually to every brand: Can it deliver?
The fiasco of the Trump transition team is not a good sign. Trump enjoyed a few days of triumph during which he behaved as though the White House would become the final and richly deserved brand extension. Once he was seated in the Oval Office the brand’s values would logically inform the decisions he faced. Perhaps he’s beginning to understand the yawning mismatch between his promises and what can realistically be delivered. Consequently, if this turns out to be a classic case of bait and switch, there would be an ugly outbreak of buyer’s remorse.
At the same time, he can’t go soft if the brand is to remain credible because consistency is vital to a brand’s success. Trump has to remain Trump.
We can only hope that brand Trump’s encounters with reality don’t end as they did for BP in its masquerade as a safe pair of hands for the future of the planet—with a terrifying explosion and damage to the ecosystem that could last for hundreds of years.