Donald Trump’s candidacy seems to be top-of-mind for everyone these days. His provocative style and proclamations have definitely hit a sweet spot with many Republican voters, while the rest of the world remains bewildered at his high poll ratings. To understand his success, and his future, it is helpful to view Trump from a branding perspective.
To develop a strong brand, one has to begin with the marketplace and the potential audience or customer, to identify any particular problems, needs, frustrations or essentially new opportunities. Obviously all the Republican candidates are obsessed with attracting the extreme right voters, and no one has been as effective as Donald Trump. His main followers tend to be predominantly white, lower-middle class, less educated, older, evangelical, from the South and Middle America, and very contemptuous of “big government”. Most important, they see things more in “black or white” terms and simply want action. For these enraged voters, Trump is the ideal answer and his simplistic messages resonate with them – he is passionate, highly emotional, and offers sweeping solutions with very little substance.
The Trump brand really has two different audiences: the Republican right wing conservatives and less familiar, all the customers who are attracted to Trump’s luxury products and services around the world – e.g. hotels, golf courses, home furnishings, accessories and other high-end lifestyle items. These latter consumers are very different; they are more upscale, worldly, sophisticated and indulgent, usually with a passion for an ostentatious lifestyle. To them, the brand “Trump” is synonymous with luxury, high class, American success and self-rewarding ambition.
It is extremely difficult for a brand to be successful when trying to appeal to two very different audiences, especially when their perception is based primarily on image and emotion. The risk increases when Trump’s political brand identity is stretched in a way that actually offends the values of one of his two target segments.
Trump’s pledge to “make America great again” represents an inspiring brand promise to this conservative segment of the voting population, and importantly hits a very strong emotional nerve with them. But the Trump brand is facing two critical challenges that are common for any new brand proposition:
1. Brand Credibility – have some of his promises gone too far and are just not realistic, and/or maybe they offend too many potential voters outside his circle of faithful followers (e.g. building a wall along the Mexican border, and now banning the entry of all Muslims)? PolitiFact, a political fact-checking website, reported that 76% of the statements made by Trump were mostly false or worse, the second highest of all candidates (Ben Carson was highest at 84%).
2. Delivering on Brand Promise – a healthy aspect in today’s marketing is the ability to gather data online to verify the accuracy and likelihood of a promise being delivered as stated, especially among Millennials. Trump’s incendiary claims and absence of detail to substantiate them may not be so critical to his conservative advocates, but in time other potential voters will become too impatient waiting for specific plans to explain his promises, especially among Millennials, our multi-culture population and in other countries.
The rise of Donald Trump as a brand has also been an interesting case study for personal branding. This involves an examination of an opportunity from two perspectives. First a person must take stock of his/her own personal goals, what they are good at, how others perceive their strengths/limitations, and whether others share the same image of that person. Then he/she ideally conducts a rigid assessment of the possible external opportunities that would fit and enable this person to achieve his/her personal goals. For Trump, the ultimate goal of the US Presidency can only be achieved by first appealing to and resonating with the extreme right in the primaries, and creating a brand image that will stand out versus other political candidates. While this branding strategy to “fit” with this conservative audience has been successful so far, it has also alienated more moderate voters in both parties who will be critical for ultimately winning the election.
The key to successful branding is to develop a trustful relationship with your customer. The other Trump brand image, the one used in marketing products all over the world, has already experienced noteworthy economic damage, costing Trump tens of millions of dollars. For example, retailers in the Middle East (e.g. upscale stores in Dubai) are removing all products with the Trump name from their shelves. Other customers and clients no longer feel comfortable with any association with Trump and are abandoning him completely – e.g. the PGA canceling its Grand Slam golf tournament in LA after his anti-immigration announcements, and NBC dropping him as host of “The Celebrity Apprentice” show and canceling their joint venture for broadcasting the Miss USA pageant.