Donald Trump. Master showman. Savvy brand builder. Reality TV star. Forty-fifth president of the United States. Wait! You did hear that right. This is not a television show. After an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2000, Donald Trump began a years-long project to reinvent his personal brand. A journey to complete the most significant transaction of his life, the 2016 election. Last night he updated the country in his second state of the union address.
As two marketing professors, we always look for teachable moments. We decided to sit down and analyze the Trump brand, from a marketing and branding point of view. Our conclusion? He excels in some areas, but his branding has not kept pace with advances in marketing on how to create lasting brands.
Years ago, branding scholars often focused on the moment of purchase. Imagine a consumer standing in a supermarket aisle trying to decide between two brands of yogurt. In this scenario, each time a consumer goes to the supermarket, they choose by recalling key traits of each brand and then evaluate how well those traits match with what is important to them.
From this point of view, the job of a manager is to make sure that the most important traits pop into mind as soon as the consumer sees the brand. Traditional marketers do this by rote repetition. Drum-in a concept enough times and often it will stick. At that point, any mention of the brand will call the concept to mind (try to think of Clorox without thinking of “sterile,” or Activia yogurt without thinking of probiotics).
This time-tested approach is one of the President’s go-to techniques. A common critique of the President is that he does not stay on message. That may be true for some policy announcements, but when it comes to the language, he uses he has been remarkably consistent. From his catchphrase on the Apprentice (“you’re fired!) to his interviews, rallies, and tweets, he invariably describes himself as “strong,”“speaks his mind” and “a winner,” while labeling his rivals as “weak,” “politicians” and “losers.”
This latter point is reminiscent of the classic “Hi, I am an Apple (Hi, I am a PC)” ads, where Apple depicted itself as hip, cool, creative, media intensive, sleek and fun—while simultaneously branding Microsoft as stodgy, out of date, uncool, boring, and hard to use. Trump has branded his rivals in the same way (lying Ted, low-energy Jeb, failing New York Times, rat Michael Cohen, publicity seeking Lindsey Graham, and of course, the infamous crooked Hillary).
Layer on top of this simplistic branding approach the fact that many of the arguments made by Trump to persuade voters are based primarily on emotions. Emotional branding can be powerful because decisions that are based on emotions feel more like they come from an authentic sense of who you are. Once convinced, based on emotions, many people will resist changing their minds, even when presented with those stubborn things that we call, well, facts.
Therefore, top-notch emotional and simplistic branding of both himself and rivals led to a victory at the moment of choice—in the ballot box. Enough of the target market chose Trump over Hillary Clinton and became what we might call in marketing, “brand evangelists for 45”—those who might literally be willing to overlook a shooting on 5th avenue.
One might say that in terms of success in creating a legion of loyal customers, this approach gets an A. So where is the problem?
The President is trying to run the government like a master brand promoter creating reality television. There is no sense of customer history, context, using past customer data to inform future decision making across all aspects of presidential protocol. It is all moment by moment brand building to win the next news cycle’s sound bite.
Moreover, most brands eventually want a “larger target market.” For example, sportswear brand Under Armor started out niche, with “We Must Protect this House” aimed directly at hardcore athletes. In fact, they were the first company to get men to put on spandex and not feel silly. But at some point, they wanted to grow their base and reach more of a mass market. Candidate Trump converted many voters at the time of the election, but President Trump has been unable or unwilling to rethink his approach to speak to the larger market. Perhaps the larger market he needs to win again in 2020.
There is a second key challenge. His leadership style is drawing him into a classic marketing trap. Brands today realize that a strategy that was successful in attracting customers can be disastrous when it comes to retaining them.
Consider the classic way to attract customers’ discounts. Brands that rely on deep discounts quickly discover that the customers that are most attracted to great deals are precisely the ones who are fickle enough to defect when a competitor provides a discount of their own.
To overcome this challenge, the best marketers today retain customers by doing at least two things. First, they deliver on promises with each interaction. Exciting claims may help win a customer, but consistent actions keep a customer. The brand must be a reliable partner over time. And second, the brand should appeal not only to self-interest but also to the customer’s values and ideals. Patagonia does this by reminding customers that the brand’s raison d’être is as much about protecting the environment as it is about providing quality outdoor apparel. Nike was once a brand solely of performance (“Just Do It”) but now alludes to traits such as courage in addressing social ills (e.g., its campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick).
Donald Trump has always been effective at appealing to a small target market’s short-term interests, but he persistently struggles at maintaining longer-term relationships. For example, after bad experiences in the 1980s and 1990s, many American banks no longer extended him credit (background here and here). He cycled through contractors, some of whom complained about not being paid. He was able to brand his way out of some of these challenges.
His reversal on a prior agreement with Senate Republicans is in part what led to this year’s government shutdown. Some commentators have noted that Senate Republicans are merely waiting for the right moment to shift their allegiance. And ominously, the Mueller probe finds it all too easy to flip former confidants for whom it no longer serves their interest to be loyal to the President.
The breakdown is even more apparent among people less beholden to self-interest. In his resignation letter, Former Defense Secretary James Mattis said his role had been to serve “in defense of our citizens and our ideals,” not the President himself. Likewise, the late Senator John McCain could not bring himself to partner with the President, because “The world expects us to be concerned with the condition of humanity…[but] I’m not sure the president understands that.”
The world’s most successful brands today create long-term relationships that appeal to a combination of self-interest and values, and they do so with a chess-type eye towards long term market building and growing of the customer base. You need many customers on your train to successfully sustain your business model. President Trump’s brand builds on emotional persuasion rather than long-term value. And even though he tried to message to the country in last night’s state of the union address, with each passing day, the challenges we cite become more apparent. In our view, this portion of his branding report card gets an F.