Trump’s weekend implosion and how “Us v Them” brand management helps explain it.

“…[W]e learn most about a thing when we view it under a microscope, as it were, or in its most exaggerated form.” — William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture 2.

The October 7 leak of Donald Trump tapes of lewdly-worded braggadocio about using his power to sexually assault women led to a weekend meltdown from Republican party leaders withdrawing endorsements and some calling for his resignation.

Given his long track record of salacious and insulting language — whether toward women in business, women who have abortions, media, immigrants, non-White people, Muslims, or LGBT persons — some have been questioning how it is possible that this latest reveal led to the (ongoing and escalating) scale of defection and implosion. “Why now, after all he’s said? Is “Grab [women] by the p****” really the worst of it?” some have asked.

My hypothesis to explain this comes from brand management and how it is tield to the human behavior of how we associate ourselves into “tribes”. This may not fully explain all facets given that sexual scandals ignite passion in US politics. And I can’t fully rule out the possibility that this was just the final straw. Yet given the crisis responses happening even with the bad timing, here is my view: This issue is not exactly about the specific content of this latest news, as repulsive and immoral as it is.

It’s about either maintaining or violating in word and action the implicit code of Us v. Them.

This is called Oppositional Brand Loyalty. Be it our preference for cola or politics, we humans tend to define our group-self identities by what symbolically and literally signals that we are safely “In” with what we join or what we consume — and also by what strongly affirms what is “Out”.

In branding this is characterized by two overarching principles. The first is Narrative: the worldview story that defines a brand within its “tribe”; second is what are the Stakeholder reputation priorities of those who are its community. Stakeholder and corporate reputation planning/management happens by subgroups (profile types of customers, publics, constituents, markets, etc., as well as specifically identifiable persons and groups among them) in the overall “brand tribe”. In other words there are multiple brand stakeholders and multiple reputations. This is one of the key paradigm changes in the current (though not always widespread) practice of corporate brand communications and portfolio project management because it is more closely tied to business and behavioral outcomes than the tactics that have tended to define PR of past decades.

One builds and sustains a “brand community” when personality, aspirations and behavior fit the Narrative and resonate with the reputation priorities of its stakeholders. One can’t only “push” a message—no matter how funny or charismatic. The resonance must be strategically sustainable so that stakeholders pull together in co-creating the brand meanings by their shared communications and identity about what is affirmed and what is opposed. Again, what can work for brand-sustaining opposition might not be illegal Mexican immigrants but merely that “In-N-Out ought not to cater to those vegetarian types”.

When Trump berates Muslims and Blacks, advocates religious profiling or Stop And Frisk, this fits very clearly in affirming to stakeholder groups within the party brand community the Narrative of who is the Us vs. who are the dangerous Them — even if some inside and many outside of the brand community find it offensive. A more chancy critique is, for example, veterans affected by PTSD as this potentially alienates the historically pro-military factions within the Republican community. However here the critique is tolerated because the affected populace is smaller; and the appearance of strength overshadows the dissonance caused because it supports the essential strategic Brand Narrative of Us vs. the weak Them.

“Morality refers to the (implicit and explicit) norms people use to guide their behavior in a given context. People act according to moral norms without careful thought because such action is widely accepted, uncontroversial, and clearly expected…” Whereas, “Ethics refers to the conscious and reflective activity of making good decisions and justifying our actions…”
— A Note on Ethical Decision-Making, Andrew Wicks, U Virginia Darden School of Business, 2008, 2014.

This weekend’s outrage and backlash against Donald Trump, notwithstanding the inconvenient timing, becomes more logical when viewed through the lens that political morality isn’t primarily an objective ethic but a shared consensus within a Narrative.

The victims in this latest scandal are (and could be) any woman, married or otherwise, so long as she is deemed attractive enough to “deserve” forcible sexual assault and lewdness. This includes the Us of many of Trump’s stakeholders. The firewall of perceived security and propriety dividing the Us from the Them — as it defines the brand of Trump within the current Republican party and platform — has now become too greatly breached for many if this were not publicly challenged.

Whether such a public crisis affects ultimate voting outcomes, however, is not necessarily related. But it is vital to managing enduring insider brand reputations.