President Snowflake, or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Bomb the Brand
“It is really significant that there is the first fully commercialized superbrand as a U.S. president.” — Naomi Klein
Donald Trump is president of another country. For many Americans, this may be how it feels. For myself, who grew up in England and has been a Canadian citizen for over 25 years, this is literally true. And it means that I don’t have a personal stake in his political acts. But for anyone who does, I’d like to share some insights that might be useful.
My professional life involves working with commercial brands — businesses, products, and services that strive for consumer connection and market share by presenting themselves in a positive light. Although individuals with political ambition have been using advertising to sway voters for centuries and dictators often nurture a cult of personality, the leader of the world’s most powerful country is, for the first time, a man with his own commercial brand.
The Trump brand originally bootstrapped itself into public consciousness through low-cost visibility tactics such as licensing the name to buildings Trump didn’t build, books Trump didn’t write but is credited as the author, guest appearances on television and in movies, and, most effectively, the hit TV show The Apprentice. Years of self-promotion had a snowball effect that eventually allowed Trump to trademark his name, joining the ranks of celebrities such as Madonna and Cher.
As soon as Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican ticket, his access to free publicity went into overdrive. By the Memorial Day weekend following his ascension to the presidency, Donald’s son Eric was boasting, “I think our brand is the hottest it has ever been.” This statement is a clear illustration of how the Trumps themselves differentiate between the Trump brand and the orange man with solid hair.
Political observers and journalists seem baffled by President Trump’s hot-headed inconsistency. But that’s because they interpret his words and deeds according to the time-worn playbook of party politics. Trump is, in fact, totally consistent, and he has been ever since The Apprentice catapulted him onto a truly national stage. He is consistent to his brand.
Of course politics is about power, and this is one area where there is a genuine affinity between the Trump brand and the presidency. When Trump used his Apprentice catchphrase “You’re fired!” on the head of the FBI, this should have been crystal clear to everyone. And yet still there is astonishment and teeth-gnashing.
Folks, you just don’t get it. Everything he does, he does for his brand. The politics is incidental.
The Apprentice honed the Trump brand and even handed it a new weapon. Reality TV is fueled by contrived drama. The chaotic introduction of unexpected rule changes keeps viewers hooked. Thus was born what has become one of the Trump brand’s defining attributes: Capriciousness. You simply never know what the man himself is going to do next.
I’m convinced that for president Trump and his cohorts, this chaotic unpredictability is not a bug but a feature of his brand. Some have even suggested that the ultimate goal of the Bannon and Miller types in his administration is to create chaos in wider society for darker purposes. Therefore to attack the Trump brand on the grounds of being capricious might potentially play into the hands of these skilled public manipulators who are pulling the strings behind the scenes.
It’s clear that a bunch of people don’t like Trump or the bullying nationalism his presidency seems to be standing for. I’m not saying that attacking the Trump brand will make his power crumble, but when regular political ammunition bounces off him like bullets off Godzilla, it might be worth exploring non-traditional avenues.
My job as a branding expert is to boost a brand’s value, so let’s flip that equation on its head. What if someone with more skin in the game than me wished to destroy the Trump brand?
To achieve this, the first step would be to define the brand, so here are the Trump brand attributes as I see them, along with short clarifications.
Power (“You’re fired!”)
Wealth (A self-made billionaire)
Victory (Winning, even though an outsider)
Brashness (“I could shoot someone and my numbers would still go up!”)
Opulence (Everything is shiny and gold)
Wiliness (The art of the deal)
Capriciousness (Flip-flopping on a multitude of subjects)
Patriarchy (An authoritarian father figure who also treats women as sexual objects)
Simplicity (Tweets and one-two-syllable words whenever possible)
Aggression (“Lock her up!”)
Patriotism (Make America great again)
Strength (Probably the healthiest president ever!)
Some of these attributes overlap in the conceptual landscape, but they paint a pretty clear picture of what the Trump brand stands for. These are the values that Trump supporters responded to positively when they voted for him.
Step two would be to create strategies and tools to damage brand Trump. If its success has been achieved through association with the brand attributes outlined above, the brand ought to be corroded by tarring it with their opposites, as well as a few negative attributes I’ve added to the list:
Weakness (Being in Putin’s pocket the entire time)
Failure (Multiple business bankruptcies)
Poor quality (The worst restaurant in America)
Gaudiness (Design that’s uncool and un-American)
Untrustworthiness (Broken promises to suppliers)
Cowardice (Deferments from military service)
Unpatriotism (Bypassing American firms for Chinese suppliers)
Indecisiveness (Flip-flopping on major promises)
Sensitivity (Taking offense too easily)
Mendacity (Lying about… well, a bunch of stuff)
So which of the counter-attributes listed above could be most effectively leveraged against the Trump brand? We know that any attempt to define Trump’s personal net worth as considerably lower than his own estimate is met with outrage. Perhaps the reason he has fought the release of his tax returns isn’t because he doesn’t pay as much tax as the average hardworking American, but instead is because the returns will prove that he isn’t as wealthy as he claims? This would be highly damaging to his brand.
Proving that he has business interests in Russia, although he has denied it, would only be used by Trump as an example of business acumen, whereas proving that he has been and is being blackmailed by the FSB (successor of the KGB) to put Russia’s goals ahead of the US would damage his brand, not because it’s treasonous, but because it would demonstrate that he is weak and unpatriotic.
What kind of tools could be used?
Trump and his advisors are extremely adept at turning attacks into weapons. Often this is by smearing the attacker with a bigger, totally baseless brush that is impossible to deny. Trump’s consistent use of derogatory hashtags before, during, and after the election was not used against him by opponents. Even I have trouble not thinking of Hillary Clinton as #crookedhillary, because a lie repeated often enough ends up acquiring a patina of truth. Anyone who wants to damage brand Trump needs to accepts that the gloves must come off. Fight fire with fire. Hit where it hurts. And other monosyllabic clichés.
Efforts have been made to use anti-Trump hashtags, but they use “protest” terminology that is effective at rallying like-minded support but useless at sowing doubt in Trump supporters’ minds or chipping at the foundations of his brand.
Standing in solidarity is great, but slaying the beast is better. So… what hashtags might work? One feature of the so-called alt-right movement is the blanket accusation that minorities are too easily offended. The label applied to such individuals or groups is “snowflakes”. An effective counter-attribute might be to consistently apply this term to Trump whenever he whines, moans or is offended by suggestions that he is not the biggest and best. I suggest using the hashtag #snowflaketrump or #presidentsnowflake to replace the name Trump and the term President Snowflake to replace President Trump.
Former world chess champion and Putin critic Garry Kasparov has suggested that the best way to attack Trump is to make him look like a loser, so why not simply go with #losertrump? Since Trump exists in a world where repeating an insult ultimately makes it true, why not turn the tables? Trump seems, unsurprisingly for a man who managed to bankrupt a casino, to be messing up the presidency at every turn, so let’s also try #failedpotus.
The purpose of this article isn’t to present a bulletproof brand attack strategy, but rather to provide a roadmap for others to develop tactics that will corrode the Trump brand. My fellow marketing professionals need to step up to the plate and come up with a few Big Ideas. The average person has no means to influence social media by themselves, but celebrities or political opponents might want to focus on the Trump brand rather than the slippery man himself. Bruce Springsteen recently took a swipe by releasing an anti-Trump song with Joe Grushecky. We’ve all seen Alec Baldwin’s ruthless impersonation of Trump in SNL skits. There are so many others outside of late-night TV who could do so much more to relentlessly attack the Trump brand. And besides, satire may not be a blunt enough instrument for the job at hand.
So what is a blunt instrument? A sledgehammer. Maybe the Trump brand can literally be demolished by focusing on the one area it seems unassailable: real estate. Or at least, the naming of real estate projects. Could we dub the Trump Tower and all its variants the Trash Tower? Or could a rival real estate tycoon with big enough balls temporarily rename a neighboring building the Traitor Tower? Trump thinks big, so instead of creating stunts for marketing beer brands, the best and brightest of the advertising industry should be applying their talents toward developing some big anti-Trump brand solutions.
One thing is for sure — protests such as removing all the art in a museum made by immigrants to show the contribution they make to culture is simply preaching to the choir. Another thing that’s for sure is that poking a bear can lead to nasty consequences. But at this point, the consequences of inaction may be far nastier. Better to attack the brand now and destroy Trump supporters’ faith in it than wait until a stubby, capricious finger hits the nuclear button.
Make no mistake, brands have power. And when an itchy Twitter finger is also a trigger finger, the world’s first presidential brand might yet prove to be fatal.
John Dutton is an author and creative director at Montreal advertising agency Camden.