HOW HAS THE US ELECTION AFFECTED THE TRUMP BRAND?

One of the best pieces of advice I was given as a CEO was to beware of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The Law of Unintended Consequences states that, no matter how well thought through a plan, unforeseen events will always happen, with implications that could come back and bite you in the proverbial. So when Donald Trump launched his candidacy for president of the United States, I wondered what impact the election process would have on the Trump brand. How Has The US Election Affected The Trump Brand?

This question has clearly been preying on the mind of Shark Tank investor and tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban. Immediately after the publication of the ‘Trump Tapes,’ Cuban tweeted "Every single @realdonaldtrump hotel and golf course is toast. Done. Over. Bernie Madoff now has a better brand."

Cuban’s comments got me wondering whether the Trump brand really can survive the US election? Not least because over the past few days a steady stream of women has stepped forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault, abuse or inappropriate behaviour. Trump’s staggering response has been marked by an absence of contrition or empathy, and a continuation of the type of sexism I thought we’d left behind in the 1980’s. And has alienated women in droves. In normal circumstances, what brand could survive this negative onslaught?

On a personal level, I’ve always found it baffling that there’s a group of people who can’t seem to get enough of Trump. The Trump brand does nothing for me - I view it as classless and brash. It’s the antithesis of values we prize highly in the UK. Here luxury and high end mean graceful, elegant, restrained and timeless. Think Downton Abbey rather than Dynasty.

But from a business perspective, Trump deserves credit for hatching a genuine business innovation: branded high-end real estate. No one has previously created a luxury brand that can be put on an office building, hotel, apartment block or golf course that communicates success. Trump has done so, and the brand has become synonymous with his name. His business strategy over the past 40 years has been to keep himself in the public eye because every mention of his name in the media built brand capital. In fact, the financial documents he released for his presidential candidacy set the value of his ‘deals, brands and brand development’ at $3 billion. Which made his name the most significant item in his business portfolio.

At least that’s how it worked until now.

To determine whether Trump’s brand will be negatively impacted by his candidacy, it’s important to understand what defines his personal brand. Let’s start by answering the question: what is Trump’s target customer base?

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The Trump Target Customer

The Trump brand targets the luxury and aspirational market, and is aimed at people earning over $100,000. Before his candidacy, researchers at Young & Rubicam (who have used surveys and market research to study Trump consumer brands for a number of years) found that the Trump brand consistently scored high on luxury, prestige and glamour. It was appealing to people who could afford to stay at his high-end hotels, and be members of his expensive golf courses. The brand was also attractive to people aspiring to use Trump branded high-end services.

Since the start of the ‘birther movement’ in 2010, the glamour score for the Trump brand has dropped by 17.1% and by 51% among swing voters (both scores measured in January 2016). Those with incomes over $150,000 per annum judge him harshest. 50% less people view the brand as ‘upper class,’ while 39% consider the brand less prestigious. The income level below ($100,000 to $150,000) weren’t a lot kinder in their assessment of the brand.

There is growing evidence that Trump’s target customers are taking their business elsewhere. A recent article in the New York Times reported how a group of retired doctors cancelled their annual trip to a Florida resort owned by Trump. This act of quiet rebellion was to express their disgust with his remarks about women, immigrants and minorities. “For me,” Mr. Gold said, “it’s an ethical statement.”

An ‘Outlaw’ Brand

Branding experts often categorise brands, including politicians, based on one of 12 Jungian archetypes - Sage, Innocent, Explorer, Ruler, Creator, Caregiver, Magician, Hero, Outlaw, Lover, Jester and Regular Guy/Girl. Most politicians are typically either Rulers (Vladimir Putin) or Caregivers (George H W Bush).

According to Edward Boches, Professor of Advertising at Boston University, Trump is best categorised as an Outlaw. That’s because he doesn’t operate according to the traditional rules of politics and is openly hostile to his adversaries. This trait is apparent in the freewheeling character he plays on his reality TV show, The Apprentice. “A lot of people wish they could be that egotistical and get away with it,” says Boches. This trait is evident in the way he has hit out at his detractors on the campaign trail, whether this is the media, Democrats or Republicans like Paul Ryan.

Whilst building on the archetype of the Outlaw makes for good reality TV and is a canny strategy for launching a TV venture aimed at the alt-right, it’s hard to see how Trump’s behaviour on the campaign trail is aligned with the values of the luxury. high-end of the market he has built his current brand around. An Outlaw brand is attractive to customers who feel disenfranchised from society, and are therefore more likely to buy products on the lower end of the price spectrum. It’s not so attractive to more traditional buyers in the £150,000+ income bracket who use Trump branded high-end services.

A “Creator” Brand

Trump’s entrepreneurial drive also makes him a ‘Creator,’ and has helped to create the perception in some voters’ eyes that he’s more successful than lifetime politicians. The ability to build things out of nothing, on your own terms, is a key attribute of Creators and an inherently American value. And explains in part why people have gravitated towards him.

Trump has placed great stock on his wealth and business success as proof of his credentials to run for the presidency. Before the election Trump’s name and face were a shorthand for wealth and success. He’s created a sense, whether this is real or not, that there’s no area he can’t conquer, including the political arena. “As a brand, the fact that he has success at such a high level, people probably think that that can translate into any endeavor that he takes on,” said Tor Myhren, worldwide chief creative officer of the ad agency Grey. “That’s very attractive to people.”

However as details of his tax affairs and multiple business bankruptcies have been scrutinised by the press, it’s become apparent that his business success is not all it’s been trumped up to be. Despite Trump’s claims that successful businesses file for bankruptcy all the time. no major U.S. company has filed for Chapter 11 more than Trump's casino empire in the last 30 years. And then there's Trump University.  Like the Wizard of Oz, it seems that Trump is not quite the Creator that he has made himself out to be.

[callout]CLICK HERE to start planning your 2017 budget and map out your financial plan for the year ahead.[/callout]

Candour

One of Trump’s trademarks is he says exactly what he thinks, whether his remarks are politically correct or not, no matter how offensive they are. When confronted, he doesn’t apologise, nor does he back down from any of his statements. This makes him appealing to a certain section of voters who abhor the idea of political correctness and see Trump as a spokesperson and advocate for their values.

Trump has called Mexican immigrants rapists, mocked prisoners of war and a disabled reporter and made disparaging remarks towards women throughout his campaign. The ‘Trump Tapes’ where he talks privately in degrading terms about how he hits on women, and has a casual approach to sexual assault only serve to reinforce the view that he says exactly whatever is on his mind.

Conversely, it's this very trait that is turning target customers off his condos, hotels and golf courses because they don’t appreciate this kind of ‘trash talk.’ There’s clear evidence emerging that brand devaluation is happening. Bloomberg cites research showing that among consumers earning over $150,000 a year, the Trump brand’s value had plummeted by the end of 2015. Other research has found that the market share of Trump casinos, hotels, and golf courses dropped by 14% from July 2015 to July 2016.

Authenticity

Because Trump shoots from the hip and says exactly what he thinks, this feels authentic to a group of the electorate. In an age of ongoing Washington gridlock and high partisanship, there’s a view that all high-level politicians have compromised their ideals at some point or another. (Compromise is essential to the political process if a broad consensus is to be reached).

As Trump has no political track record, opponents in the primaries weren’t able to say he’d flip-flopped on decisions, and sold out the electorate. But as the campaign has gone on (and on) the more it's become apparent that Trump has flip-flopped on policy positions – from Iraq and Libya to a woman’s right to choose to the minimum wage to nuclear weapons.

One of the continual observations about Trump on the campaign trail is that he’s erratic and unpredictable. From a business brand perspective, this trait is troubling because all successful brands are highly consistent.

In Conclusion

It’s difficult to disentangle Trump’s candidacy and his brand as they are ubiquitous. When assessing the likely impact on his brand – and therefore the bottom line – it’s important to bear in mind that Trump’s supporters in this election are not his customers. In fact, he’s losing heavily among college-educated voters, a group that includes the majority of his individual customers. While corporate customers are finding it increasingly difficult to associate themselves with Trump-branded real estate because of his astonishing ability to offend women, Latinos, Muslims, the disabled, and other groups. No mainstream corporation wants to offend these groups by occupying space that bears Trump’s name in shiny gold capital letters on the front.

In any other business, this brand devaluation would be viewed as a crisis. Such a decline in goodwill towards a brand would normally impact sales adversely, make it more difficult to recruit the brightest and the best – especially women – and critically for the way the Trump empire is financed, affect borrowing. This explains what prompted Mark Cuban to tweet:

If @realDonaldTrump loses this election, I’m betting he personally goes bankrupt w/in 7 yrs. That’s how toxic his brand now is.”

It would be a mistake to think that Trump hasn’t thought this through. After all, he’s been a skilled brand steward for decades. In my view he has a plan for repositioning his brand, by splitting it in two. Continuing his high-end business interests in condos, hotels and golf courses under the brand stewardship of Ivanka Trump who, with her Women Who Work* brand, most closely aligns with the luxury market. And setting up a media business where he has a ready-made mass market of followers from the campaign trail for Trump TV. From a brand perspective, this is a highly risky strategy. What's for certain is that Trump isn't going away any time soon.

N.B. A boycott of the Ivanka Trump Collection has been organised by Shannon Coulter.

[callout]CLICK HERE to start planning your 2017 budget and map out your financial plan for the year ahead.[/callout]

Join The Conversation

Question: Has the Trump brand become toxic as Mark Cuban has claimed or do you think it can survive the election? I love reading your views so please leave your feedback in the comments box below. Please note that this article is NOT a discussion about the candidates in this election; it is intended to be a serious discussion on brand. I will not tolerate any trolling and will therefore be moderating all comments very carefully. 

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I’m Denyse Whillier, a London based business coach and consultant. I guide entrepreneurs from across the globe to achieve profitable, scaleable growth and create businesses that are Built To Succeed™. Built To Succeed™ is my proven success system, developed during my 8 years in the trenches as a CEO, 25 years’ experience at senior leadership and managerial level and training at Cranfield School of Management, the UK's leading business school. It's this background that sets me apart and helps my clients to get BIG results.

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