Trump Is a Branding Genius: True or False?

What marketing principles predict for the Trump brand

LOVE HIM OR HATE HIM, the refrain goes, Donald Trump is a marketing genius. He spins straw into gold. He has the media on a string. Tall buildings shout his name. The Trump brand, according to some observers, is among the strongest in the world.

Is it?

As a brand consultant, I try to be objective. I’m allergic to hyperbole. I have my own theories, but I try not to scoff at success when it doesn’t fit my understanding. What makes any theory valuable is its ability to predict future outcomes. When an outcome contradicts a given theory, the sensible response is to correct the theory — not deny the outcome.

I’m ready to put my theories the test. If they’re correct, I should be able to predict the future of the Trump brand by the end of this article. If they turn out to be incorrect (say, in a year’s time), I’m ready to tear up my theories and start over.

Please follow along as I assess the Trump brand across ten accepted principles of brand marketing. Using my experience, I’ll judge each one true or false.

1. The Trump brand is driven by purpose. In branding, purpose is the reason for doing what you do beyond making money. It’s why your employees go to work in the morning. It’s your contribution to the world, your investment in the future. Henry Ford wanted to make automobiles so cheap that everyone could afford one. Steve Jobs wanted to make powerful tools to advance people’s minds. Walt Disney wanted to entertain children and bring families together.

And Trump? He wants to make America great again. So far so good. But what does he mean by great? Who says we’re not great now? When did this earlier greatness exist?

Some people say he’s referring to a time when America made impressive investments in infrastructure. Yet Trump’s promise of rebuilding the country’s infrastructure has taken a back seat to health care, immigration, and positive tax reform.

Others suspect, darkly, that the slogan is code for “make American white again,” a dog whistle to closet racists and white supremacists.

Still others think Trump is recalling a time when men had exclusive control over the domains of government, business, religion, family life, and procreation. This interpretation triggered a massive women’s march on day two of Trump’s presidency, and the backlash continues today against workplace inequality, sexual predation, and attacks on the right of women to control their bodies.

The fact is, there’s no consensus on what “Make America great again” means. Without a clear understanding of its intent, this slogan adds little value to the brand — and may be harming it.

The answer here is false. The Trump brand is not driven by purpose.

2. The Trump brand has an inclusive vision. Vision is closely related to purpose. It’s the ability of the leader to paint a picture of shared success, so that everyone can locate a meaningful role in it. One of the benefits of a clear vision is the motivation that comes from feeling “we’re all in this together.”

Bill Gates of Microsoft, for example, imagined a future with a computer on every desktop and in every home. Employees could “see” the company’s goal; customers understood the part they could play.

In the public sphere, President Kennedy envisioned a future in which the United States had won the space race. He promised, “A man on the moon by the end of the decade.” Awe-inspired citizens could look up and visualize a space-suited man plunging an American flag into moon dust. They could imagine a future of technological dominance in which anyone could become an astronaut, or at least a high-school science teacher.

What’s Trump’s vision? He hasn’t really said. Three quarters of the country’s citizens seem to think we’ll be worse off, and many have already created their own bleak visions of the future — roving bands of Nazi sympathizers, a world torn by nuclear war, family members dying for lack of health insurance, rising seas and destructive weather wreaking havoc on our habitat, and a retreating role for America in international affairs.

His supporters, however, envision a decrease in unwelcome immigrants, an increase in blue-collar jobs, a return to traditional Christian values, and a more authoritarian government. There are two problems with this vision: a) it’s a vision of the past, not the future, and b) it’s not inclusive. It locks out minorities, progressives, women, atheists, and members of other religions, to name a few.

Although we can probably agree the Trump brand implies a vision, it’s a vision that sets people against each other instead of bringing them together. “A house divided against itself,” Lincoln reminded us, “cannot stand.”

The answer is false. The Trump brand does not have an inclusive vision.

3. The Trump brand offers a compelling difference. Differentiation is the sine qua non of branding, a pre-requisite for success. If your brand doesn’t offer anything different, there’s no reason to choose it. But it also has to be compelling. It’s not enough to say “our smartphone is the only smartphone with purple tufted ears” if no one values purple tufted ears. But you have to be able to say your smartphone is the only something, or you’re dead in the water.

This is where Trump is off the charts. He’s different. Maybe even “unpresidented,” as he said on Twitter. Unlike previous leaders, he’s coarse, combative, contrary, and politically uninformed. He spouts nonsense and takes both sides of his own arguments. He’s outrageous, even when he doesn’t have to be.

Different? Yes. But compelling?

The best way to predict the success of a brand’s differentiator is to express it as an onlyness statement, then weigh it on the compelling scale.

For example, JetBlue is the only airline that offers business-class comfort for the price of coach. Pretty compelling, at least for business travelers.

M&Ms are the only chocolate candies that don’t melt in your hands. Also compelling (with peanuts!).

Bhutan is the only country that governs according to Gross National Happiness Index. Personally, I’m ready to pack my bags.

Donald Trump has yet to describe his onlyness in a succinct way. But here are four true statements we could consider:

Trump is the only American president unhampered by political experience.

Trump is the only president who overturns the norms of leadership.

Trump is the only president who promises to disrupt the government.

Trump is the only American president who governs by tweet.

Each of these is true. Each represents a possible onlyness. But are any compelling? That depends. Enough people were energized by these differentiators to elect him president. But a greater number are horrified by them.

Therefore, we can say that the Trump brand offers several compelling differences. We also have to say that these differences are compelling only to a minority of citizens. The majority sees them as repelling differences.

Statement number three, then, is half true at best.

4. The Trump brand is authentic. If there’s one thing that Trump supporters appreciate, it’s that he says what he means and means what he says. He doesn’t pull punches. He tells it like it is. That’s good, because authenticity is one of the most powerful attributes a brand can own.

Does he really tell it like it is? Or is it simply a case of confirmation bias, that pesky human flaw that leads us to see what we already believe? If we believe Trump is on our side, are we more likely to overlook any behaviors that don’t align with that belief? Of course.

Yet the facts tell a different story. Trump has been caught, on video and online, telling it like it isn’t more than any other American political figure in recorded history. Most people would call this lying — not merely shading the truth, bending the facts, or adding spin the way many politicians do — outright lying.

According to a recent tally, he’s made 1,628 false or misleading claims in 298 days. That’s an average of 5.5 untruths per day. During the previous month, the average has increased to 9 per day.

Trump’s authenticity is demonstrably inauthentic. So, in accordance with brand theory and common sense, we have to mark this statement false.

5. The Trump brand is built on a strong tribe. You’ll be hearing the word tribe a lot more in the coming years. A tribe, in today’s parlance, is a digitally connected group that forms around ideas, products, movements, and so on. Tribes are critical to success, because today’s brands are built mostly by customers, participants, and followers — not companies, organizations, and leaders. Brand builders know that the stronger tribe usually wins.

Does the Trump brand have the stronger tribe? It’s fairly strong in numbers, a point that Trump makes in every speech, often at the expense of the truth. Yet numbers can be persuasive, and in the 2016 election the Electoral College numbers put him over the top.

The problem is that the numerical size of a tribe isn’t the best measure of its strength. The true measure is its influence. We need to ask questions like these:

How broadly does the tribe use social media?

How many of its members are thought leaders?

Are they being rewarded with real empowerment?

Is the membership of the tribe likely to grow?

Does the tribe represent the future?

By all accounts, the Trump brand measures poorly on these factors. His supporters exist in a social media bubble. Their average education level is below the median. Many are consuming a diet of junk news. Their numbers have been shrinking.

To make matters worse, Trump’s Congress is raising taxes on the middle classes over the long term. They’re disempowering their tribe by taking away support for job training, healthcare, and education. They’re cutting tax benefits for students already saddled with debt.

Does the Trump tribe represent the future? It’s hard to see how, given this lack of commitment at the top. The answer, therefore, is false. The Trump brand is built on a weak and steadily shrinking tribe.

6. The Trump brand empowers its employees. Strong brands have supportive leaders. When a leader can clearly express the organization’s purpose, vision, and goals, employees can act with greater autonomy. The employees, as far as presidency is concerned, are White House aides and Cabinet secretaries. How are they faring with the Trump brand?

Not so well, it seems.

When Secretary John F. Kelly tried to save Trump’s travel ban by telling journalists it wasn’t actually a ban but a “temporary pause,” Trump went to his Twitter account and contradicted him: “I am calling it what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!” The travel ban was then shot down by several judges who cited his tweet.

When he and his aides agreed the official reason for firing FBI head James Comey would be his mishandling of Hillary Clinton’s emails, he appeared on television and said the reason for the firing was Comey’s investigation into Russian collusion. Senator Lindsay Graham joked that there was no way he could have colluded with the Russians — he can’t even collude with his own staff.

When Secretary Rex Tillerson announced a potential diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea, Trump said that Tillerson was “wasting his time.” Trump then referred to North Korea’s leader as “Rocket Man” and threatened nuclear war.

In the face of statements undercutting the credibility of his staff, many have clammed up. Some have stopped speaking on his behalf, and most have lost confidence in their ability to succeed under his withering attacks. Trump defends himself by saying he likes to be unpredictable. Alas, unpredictability is not a leadership skill.

Therefore, the statement above is false.

7. The Trump brand wins through innovation. In a time of accelerating change, innovation is not just a nice-to-have but a must-have. By continually pushing forward, the United States can keep its leadership position and possibly strengthen it.

As examples of innovation, FDR instituted the New Deal. Truman improved on FDR’s New Deal by expanding Social Security. Eisenhower build the national highway system, desegregated schools, and established NASA. Kennedy piggybacked on Eisenhower’s success by sending a man to the moon ahead of the Soviets. Reagan established Glasnost and got the economy moving again. Clinton left his second term with a budget surplus. Obama brought the economy back after two disastrous wars and a recession, and made impressive gains for the environment.

So far, we haven’t seen much innovation from Trump. He promised Americans they’d be “tired of winning.” Instead he’s spent most of his effort undoing the wins of his predecessor: a hard-fought nuclear agreement with Iran, a wealth-creating trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, a popular national healthcare program, legal protection for immigrant children, and a powerful seat at the climate table.

While reversing a predecessor’s achievements have been popular with his base, it can’t be labeled innovation, and won’t lead to long-term success. The answer is false.

8. The Trump brand fosters broad-based prosperity. Great brands create widespread wealth. Whole ecosystems have grown up around brands like Microsoft, John Deere, Amazon, and EBay. Their products and services allow customers to acquire job skills, expand farm operations, publish their own books, and start small businesses. Everyone wins.

When you ask many Trump supporters why they voted for him, they’ll say it’s because he’s a businessman, not a politician. The implication is that a business president will be good for business, and, by extension, good for the country.

But what kind of business person is he? We know that many of his colleagues in real estate are skeptical of his achievements. Few of his business successes have come from innovation. Much of their profitability has come from bullying, skirting tax laws, and stiffing contractors. At last count, 3,500 suits have been filed against him. Moreover, there’s growing evidence that some of his income has come from money laundering.

Do Trump’s businesses create widespread wealth? Unfortunately, no. Over the years he’s had to lay off hundreds of employees who worked on failed business schemes such as Trump-labeled vodka, water, steaks, casinos, and vitamin supplements. He took over a thriving airline, Eastern Air Shuttle, applied a Trump logo, and crashed it. His educational business, Trump University, soaked gullible students for thousands before paying $25 million to settle fraud claims.

What about Trump the president? Not much joy there, either. He promised to save jobs in dying industries. He aims to take low-level service jobs from illegal immigrants and give them to legal Americans. He’s at war with globalization, and now appears to be handing the reins of global business leadership to China.

Broad-based prosperity under the Trump brand? Not likely, if history is any guide. False.

9. The Trump brand has momentum. Great brands exhibit the characteristics of movements. They accelerate. They grow. They sweep people up in a cause. All it would take to reverse the trend of shrinking supporters is a string of modest successes. A reasonable improvement to healthcare. Some progress on infrastructure. A tax cut for the middle classes. New jobs in future-forward industries.

This shouldn’t be a stretch for the man who published The Art of the Deal. A 2016 article in Forbes said: “If there is one thing Trump knows, it’s business, and it’s how to get deals done.” Trump himself summed up the presidency as a series of deals.

Yet he failed to persuade Mexico’s president to share the cost of border security. He was unable to get a ban on travel from Muslim countries. He was rebuffed by Comey in trying to end the investigation into Russian collusion. He failed to frighten North Korea’s leader into backing down from nuclear threats. He couldn’t cajole a Republican congress into repealing Obamacare. He hasn’t renegotiated or even withdrawn from NAFTA as he had promised.

Where are the deals? The only ones we’ve seen are a handful of short-term commitments from corporate leaders to keep jobs in the U.S., and a highly unpopular tax cut. Meanwhile, a large number of his corporate advisers have already jumped ship, and his Strategic and Policy Forum decided to disband itself. Even Peter Thiel, one of his earliest and strongest corporate supporters, has expressed his doubts.

Without visible successes, there can be no momentum. Therefore, the response to this statement is false.

10: The Trump brand is sustainable. Real brands are here for the long term. They’re not mushrooms, appearing in the morning and shriveling by the end of the day. They’re long-lived oaks, with strong branches and deep roots. The founder of the brand is the acorn from which the oak grows. He or she must have the DNA of a committed, persistent, and focused leader.

These qualities came through strongly in Trump’s opus, The Art of the Deal. Except that he didn’t write it. It was ghost-written by Tony Schwartz, who became so frustrated with Trump’s lack of focus that he made up most of the book himself. The nominal author couldn’t be bothered to provide any notes or sit still for interviews. “He has no attention span,” lamented Schwartz. Trump’s lack of focus left Schwartz with two options: quit the assignment or create the book out of whole cloth. He needed the money, so he chose the latter.

Schwartz’s experience isn’t unique. It has been echoed by most people who know him, including his staff and cabinet members. This begs the question: If a leader isn’t capable of sustained focus, will the brand be sustainable? Unequivocally, the history of brand leadership says no. The answer is false.

What does this predict for the Trump brand? Theories can be wrong, as I said, but the nine-and-a-half false statements above don’t bode well for Donald J. Trump — the person, the president, or the businessman. It predicts the brand will go down hard.

I can see a thought bubble forming over your head: If the Trump brand is that bad, why hasn’t it crashed already?

The key to this puzzle can be found in the single half-true statement. Differentiation is such a powerful attribute that it can cover a lot of sins — as long people continue to see it as compelling. If Trump can sustain the illusion of caring for his voters, they’ll stick around to support him.

Consider how long the tobacco industry was able to lie about the deadly effects of smoking. Millions of smokers wanted to believe (confirmation bias) that there was no connection between cigarettes and cancer. To stop believing this lie would force them to acknowledge two uncomfortable truths: they’d been taken for suckers, and they were likely to die from carcinogens.

But as the tobacco industry found, confirmation bias is not infinitely flexible. It stretches and stretches until it breaks. One of the problems with lying — among many — is that each new lie has to be big enough to cover the previous lie. It’s a Ponzi scheme of inauthenticity. At some point, the tower collapses, and even the most loyal believers feel betrayed.

Close your eyes. Picture the Trump brand as a house of cards. The cards are the lies needed to make the brand seem compelling. At the bottom of the tower, the base is narrow. Each new floor has to be slightly bigger to cover the previous floor’s lies. As the tower grows, it creates an illusion of strength. But it’s still weak at the base. All it takes is the slightest shock to bring the whole structure down.

What kind of shock? You name it. A minor nuclear confrontation. A drop in the stock market. Proof of conspiracy. A terrorist attack. Credible evidence of a sex crime. The inability to enact legislation. Enacting unpopular legislation. Or simply the drip, drip, drip of revelations that show Trump’s lies are actually lies — the equivalent of removing cards from the tower.

Love him or hate him, Trump the brand has only one way to go. It’s only a question of when he’ll go down, and who and what he’ll take with him. If I’m wrong, I’ll rethink my theories. In the meantime, I plan to stand well clear of the collapsing house of cards. The best result I can imagine is that the failure of the Trump brand will serve as a cautionary tale for future brand builders.

Marty Neumeier is Director of Transformation at Liquid Agency, and author of seven books on branding.

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