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Can Trump Manage America’s Brand?

Thought Leadership

I recently asked a salesman at Nordstrom’s if dropping the Ivanka Trump brand had impacted business. “Nope,” he smiled. “A guy just came in and dropped $700 on shirts he’d planned to buy somewhere else.” Nordstrom’s stock price is up since the President went on a tweet warpath over their decision.

On the Trump-positive end of the spectrum, Ivanka’s perfume sales increased on Amazon, and after a group organized a boycott of Trump wine, retailers sold out. But politically-motivated purchases are an unsustainable long-term brand strategy.

One of the biggest controversies we face is an issue of branding. Is the President illegally or unethically using his office to promote the Trump brand? And will Donald Trump be a good steward of America’s brand? I defer to legal experts on the first, but after a long career in advertising I’m compelled to tackle the second.

The President is essentially America’s Chief Marketing Officer. Good guidance of our brand fosters growth and stability. The first few weeks of the Trump administration have been rocky. But to judge how the American brand might do in the in the long-term, it’s instructive to look at the history of Trump’s personal brand stewardship.

The President has been a master at branding himself. Against all odds he promoted himself into the biggest job in the world. However, the history of his other endeavors have been mixed. Here is a list of failed Trump products:

  1. Trump Steaks
  2. GoTrump, his defunct travel site.
  3. Trump Vodka
  4. Trump — The Game
  5. Trump Magazine. Trump tried to take a page from Oprah, usually putting himself or his family on the cover.
  6. Trump University
  7. Trump Ice
  8. Trump Airlines
  9. Trump Mortgage
  10. The New Jersey Generals
  11. Tour de Trump
  12. The Trump Network, a vitamin pyramid scheme.

Trump has many successful ventures. His growing real estate holdings (branded or owned), include fourteen hotels, thirty commercial properties, and four golf resorts.However, there has been trouble in his real estate empire, including six bankruptcies, all in the hotel and casino industry.

He continues to sell merchandise, including clothing, eyewear, fashion accessories, furniture, and a cologne billed as, “capturing the spirit of the driven man.”

Trump’s attempt to reach every demographic is notable. While most brands serve a core demo, and utilize extensions to expand to new buyers (think Toyota and Lexus), Trump has attempted to be all things to all people. Trump University, The Trump Network, and Trump Mortgage were all aimed at a lower-income demo. Donald Trump suits are sold at Walmart (the President reportedly favors Brioni for himself).

This contrasts to his companies that target a very upscale demographic, including his properties, and the magazine, steak, vodka, water, and bicycling initiatives.

Many of Trump’s endeavors have been more opportunistic than rooted in brand strategy. Endeavors like Trump University, and The Trump Network seems particularly ill-advised.

Consumers trust brands rooted in expertise. I believe Donald Trump has a passion for golf, so I accept he’d run a good course. Though I don’t share his aesthetics, but I believe he understands real estate. He doesn’t drink, so I don’t trust him to sell me vodka. I see no reason to turn to him for vitamins, high-speed internet, meat, or anything fashion-related, and I don’t want to smell like a “driven man.”

Of his failed brands, there’s a fairly even split between those targeting upper and lower incomes. But his successful ventures almost all serve an upscale demographic, with the exception of his biggest triumph, “Trump as President,” which primarily has a white, working-class constituency.

From a financial perspective he’s facing a revolt from his high-end demo that his working-class buyer might not fill, especially given his inability to market to them in the past. Traffic to his luxury hotels is reportedly down significantly, and according to Telegraph Travel, his newest hotel in Washington DC lost over a million dollars in its first two months of operation. His new hotel chain, aimed at a less affluent demo, will be branded Scion instead of Trump (an interesting choice, given Toyota abandoned Scion as their youthful stand-alone brand). A friend who has a condo in one of his New York properties reports there is a strong tenant movement to have his name removed from the building.

As Americans we need to be concerned with the brand stewardship he is doing on our behalf, as damage could be fast and serious. One major concern is the impact of his immigration policies on tourism, which experts call “the Trump slump.” According to the U.S. Travel Association, tourism generates $2.1 trillion in economic output, and supports 15.1 million jobs in this country. Search engine traffic on websites for travel to the US is down significantly, and Travel Weekly anticipates a 7% total decrease in foreign travel.

A successful brand strategy requires consistency of message. I reviewed several surveys of foreigners’ perspective of America pre-Trump, and the most common positive perceptions included:

  • America is stable.
  • America stands for freedom.
  • America is a land of inventors, and manufactures high-quality products.
  • Americans are friendly and polite.
  • Americans are generous to the rest of the world.

There is also a consistent theme of “the American dream.” The world perceives us as a place of opportunity for immigrants. Obviously, Trump’s agenda, and our current national turmoil, could tremendously alter these brand perceptions, with far reaching implications. Brands, like countries, can be fragile.

It’s interesting to note that in some ways this is a battle between a very old and a relatively new brand. The New York Times, to which Trump likes to add the word “failing,” was founded in 1851, and is America’s tenth oldest brand still in operation. Over the next few years it will be interesting to see how all three brands: Trump, The New York Times, and The United States of America, weather our current storm.

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