This is not an article about politics. Well, it might be just a little. It’s an exploration about how a luxury personal brand became a political brand and the question remains if they are able to survive separately now that they are merged. Has it been a success? Some would say, “yes, smashing” while others who used to ‘aspire or admire’ the solid gold billionaire are less than impressed.
What did Donald Trump have that the other Republican candidates didn’t have? From a branding standpoint he created an illusion of success with his billions and a luxury lifestyle that included the model wife. He was also willing to be a beacon of light for the darker side of politics. Other Republicans had political pedigree but they weren’t very appealing to a public that was tired of feeling that their voices were not being heard. Washington was a ‘swamp’ where the typical everyday politicians lived and his ‘outsider’ or ‘businessman’ brand appeal seemed like a novel idea. He made sure they all felt like they were part of a greater vision to “Make America Great Again’. This is heady stuff for someone who has never thought he could even be close to a guy like Donald.
The politics of Donald Trump had nothing in common with what was considered a Republican or Conservative agenda. He confounded the pundits who declared that anyone running on his platform could not become a President. “He simply does not have the brand of a president” they all declared. He proved them wrong. We are focused here on the aspects or a personal luxury brand; how a billionaire told a brand story, passed out red caps with a slogan that placed himself in the center of the discussion about what was wrong with America. The working classes (mostly men) all lined up to listen to his pitch. It has been said that this brand of politics based on a “Populist” philosophy was part of a movement that is now sweeping the world. From a brand standpoint, it was nothing short of a successful pitch that closed many sales. The politics of “the other” as a brand story, resonated with many people.
The Selling of a President
The Trump Brand is one of luxury and perfectly expressed by the 14k gold chairs he and his family sit on in this magazine photo. Like ‘faux’ American Royalty, the Trumps are a total re-write of Donal’d’s previous family and children. An entire “brand revision” if you will. The transposition of a personal luxury brand into a political brand is fraught with difficulties. As we reflect on how a personal luxury brand became a President we need to understand the story that was created. Like all old school corporate brands, his story is not about ‘authenticity, transparency or empowering the common man or woman’ (especially not women).
What did Mr. Trump’s story promise?
Trump’s story is really about the ‘forgotten’ white male. Statistics show that the highest growth in our economy which began in the 1970s, occurred because women joined the workforce in large numbers. It changed the GNP of America, forever. Mr. Trump knew that certain sectors of the country were not being served (how he knew is another story) but this awareness put his audience into clear focus. A story crafted carefully for the right audience becomes a powerful tool for connection and puts the seller into the shoes of the buyer. He promised that using his business expertise, he would fix stuff that the regular guy didn’t really understand. This is a heady promise to his audience who have felt displaced in a rapidly changing world of technology and innovation. This working class audience, many whom were high school (some college) educated but displaced dreamed of the golden opportunities that awaited them. And Donald would be the guy to deliver it.
Signs of Stress in the Facade of a Personal Brand
The unraveling of the brand and its promise began his first official day in office when his communications director (remember those mythical crowds?) began the year with a lie. With the murmurs of conflicts of interest and secret Russian connections in the background his brand story changed in subtle ways that were very damaging to his main story; it would be hard to sway his devoted audiences who were not necessarily looking at these nuances. But when you begin to layer it on for a long period of time, the crack in the facade becomes pronounced. A brand can only stand that for so long.
What Branding Strategy does a President Need to Succeed?
Our nation is not a nation of personalities but of laws. But if we look at the idea of the Presidency (itself a national brand) so much depends upon the man (or woman) to execute a successful brand strategy. This was a hallmark of the Kennedy, Reagan, Roosevelt, George Washington or Lincoln presidencies. Each had a sense that their role was to both to communicate and to ennoble the best aspects of ourselves so that we might succeed as a country. This was largely due to the success of their personal brand, in modern terms and certainly, President Lincoln knew how to write a speech. He was a great communicator. So is Mr. Trump. He has an instant communications stream and tells his followers on Twitter just what he is thinking. This has many consequences in the overall communications strategy of a brand. Some good, some not so good.
The Undoing of a Personal Brand
The force of a brand or a personality does not make a democracy nor does it guarantee anything except the hope that a certain personality and dedication can succeed given the challenges that are the inherent in the office of the presidency.
If there are flaws in the personality there is trouble in paradise for a personal brand. This is because a personal brand must be based on some aspects of a personality, that “seem” to authentically possess a ‘set of values’ (they can be ‘good or evil’). Without this consistency a brand simply cannot operate with sustained success. I repeat: Without a consistency of purpose and a set of values, a successful brand cannot succeed. Mr. Trump had a well established personal brand but it is now showing signs of trouble.
“The Stormy Factor”
And then along came ‘Stormy’ and the story of this affair and subsequent cover-up may be the undoing of the brand of Donald Trump as we know it. What does a story like this do to a brand? For Mr. Trump, maybe not that much. I would not comment here on the legal or illegal aspects of the story, rather the fact that as a character flaw it could be problematic. The people in his audience truly like his wife, Melania (who has a very high approval rating) and would see this type of behavior as unacceptable. This can do damage to his overall brand and could be seen to show his lack of respect for her, and the marriage. As the voters have already shown in the recent elections, there may be as new storm, coming. I hope he has packed his umbrella, because I think it’s gonna rain, big.
Editor’s Note: A test of how the office of the presidency remains forever in our collective memories as something greater than the man or woman who occupies it will stand as the future of the Presidency as having its own personal brand, its own standing separate from that of the person who occupies it. We sincerely hope so.