All hail the branded Chief. They said he couldn’t – but how did a xenophobic, narcissistic, misogyni
Back in the 20th Century, brands focused on features. Advertising underscored technicalities of ‘what’s’ and ‘where’s’. Now branding is more attuned to ‘who’, exploring the why and how that ‘who’ understands ‘you’.
Who people truly are deep down, presents brands with their greatest challenge. Invariably, what people say, click on, or even publically shout about – may not actually reflect what they really feel or reluctantly accept as part of modern life.
How political brands understand what YOU is in 2017, requires some context…
Trump entered the Oval office at a crossroads in social generational differences. Millennials had matured into a group inspired by social sharing, yet they remained confused about their sense of self, purpose and future. By the start of the second decade of the 21st century, brands had begun to learn how to exploit the generation’s longing to capture and live in the present. The personas demanded more and more, moment by moment stimulation and distraction. Emotive image–led social campaigns and pithy hashtags fed upon and amplified limited attention spans. Hindsight based on facts, was replaced by sensationalised post-truth. Sound bites became tweets. Faces became pages, and posts became clickbait headlines.
Meanwhile baby boomers were reaching their mid-50s. They grew up in a world where enterprise or loyalty was rewarded with home ownership, cars... career choice … In the years leading up to Trump’s election, that world imploded. As with millennials, feeling increasingly commoditised, baby boomers questioned “who am I”? In both instances, rather than careers, the majority, including those sold with the promise that educational debt for studies would lead somewhere, had to be satisfied with commuting in a sardine can each morning to a dead-end job.
Millennials born during the epoch of USA’s New Democrats and UK’s New Labour, initially believed that neither 9/11 nor even the initial global financial collapse could destabilise confidence. Then - for the first time in half a century - the world wasn’t split along accustomed capitalist/communist divides of the Cold War. From the distance of internet-enabled screens, despite the pixelated views, all appeared whole. Yet increasingly, up close society was fracturing.
Yes WE can
Pre-Trump era US presidential campaigns were typically run along tried and trusted formulae, promoting party political promises, rather than solely depending on the character of the man (or woman) running for office. In the USA, generally, the electorate thought in terms of Democrat or Republican, led by ‘trust-worthy’ presidential candidates; the voices of the respective party offering messages of hope for a better future.
Beyond politics, in business, marketing strategically crafted values over actual substance is well established. For example, back at the start of the 21st century, it was PR de rigueur for conglomerates to paint quaint pictures of caring organisations with genuine concern for issues such as environments, employees, and so on – irrespective of deeper motives. With the heat rising on related issues such as global warming – for the most part, people bought the corporate responsibility flimflam, overlooking the possibility of big businesses having in fact just one concern; making profit.
BP for example, changed its logo to a budding flower – with its PR machine gushing messages about the company’s sustainable safe energy and clear as a Swiss mountain dawn emissions.
Deepwater Horizon, put a cap on that. In terms of PR, the incident could not have come at worst moment. The rise of global digital sharing meant that everything – including their ‘fake news’ Photoshopped PR pictures were globally scrutinized.
I spent much of the first two decades of the 21st century working with media on brand reputation disaster stories involving everything from cars with dodgy brakes, to discredited retailers, imitation food producers and more... The endless roll-call of double-standards in corporate America, Europe and elsewhere, along with stories of disgraced religious, celebrity, political and social leaders understandably left the globally connected public deeply sceptical.
Hush little baby,
don't you cry
Even with Obama managing to prevent America from falling off the financial abyss, the last global economic crisis left millions who had previously trusted brands, out of pocket and even out of homes. Futures looked bleak. It all reinforced the growing sense of cynicism towards branded promises.
Naked distrust of commercial, political, sporting, cultural and social shams gave a voice to more fervent cries for individualism. Creating a wasted no man’s land, fundamentalism in one form or other, delivering a single minded consistent rather than contradictory message offered to bridge the credibility gap. Brexit was inevitable. Mother Britannia promised to gently soothe anxieties; waving away boogie monsters like immigration, unemployment, pollution, and expensive shrinking living space into the ether.
"We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American"
Enter Donald J. Trump. With an approval rating of just under 40% (ABC News) was the most unpopular of at least seven former presidents stepping into the Oval Office. To put that into context, following his incompetent emergency response to Hurricane Katrina which in its wake left 1,245 people dead and caused an estimated $108 billion (2005 USD) worth of property damage, G.W Bush had an approval rating of 43%.
Yet for Trump voters, here was a man they understood. He spoke the language of the guy in the locker room, bar, work, diner, club and sports stands. He understood how to work the system (‘the swamp’) and treated it with the contempt felt by many regular folks.
Through necessity his demographic had learnt to grin and bear how life had become. They watched 24/7 news feeds telling of school shootings, factory closures, rise in teenage suicides, war veterans without little hope, and even terror attacks. Despite keeping their heads down, the world was becoming an increasingly dangerous place, and unlike manufactured brand figure heads, this guy at least seemed real.
To them, Trump was a Davy Crocket/Steve Jobs/Elon Musk/John Wayne/ populist figurehead rolled into one. Sure, he had been ‘burnt’ time after time. Sure, he got his hands dirty. Sure, he was a loudmouth, but, that all reflected the ‘dog-eat-dog' world. Like his demographic Trump had won and lost opportunities … They grew up watching his highs and lows, but like Rocky, he kept standing right back up again. For a country divided into dreamers and cheaters or realists and chancers, this contender could genuinely create Made In America jobs.
“We will get the job done”
Standing up to the establishment, Trump understood how branding asserts a simple message – that speaks just as loudly on behalf of what isn't said, but felt, rather than what is politically expedient to reveal.
The more Trump’s opponents highlighted his often crude but at least consistently colourful brand tone of voice against the grey of conventionality, the stronger his marque became.
Global brands like Heinz or Coca-Cola pride themselves in nurturing a distinguishable voice. Trump’s populist voice was certainly idiosyncratic. Yet even when many warned that he went too far… to the point of imperilling his own candidacy, Trump’s ethnocentric supporters simply interpreted his recalcitrant behaviour as underscoring an unswervingly authentic brand.
Never in the entire history of marketing, has a brand enjoyed such universal name recognition worth billions – comparatively for nothing.
During the presidential campaign, the WWE-esque hoopla wasn’t just confined to Clinton vs Trump, but Trump vs his own party and the world. The advertising-starved media lapped it up. Coverage of everything Trump did, tweeted, or said went viral and then global.
For CNN, Sky, CBS, Fox, MSNBC…ABC… the Washington Post…New York Times... The Guardian…. Times …BuzzFeed…Trump was nothing less than ‘ratings nectar’. The more disgruntled the Left, or irked the Right, the greater the media coverage and so sponsorship dollars. It was impossible for rivals to raise advertising budgets that could come even close to matching such exposure.
Their fixation to discredit him (with or without alleged overseas government interference), helped clarify Trump’s USP (Unique selling proposition). Without them, particularly Hillary Clinton, Trump may not have even pulled it off.
Inadvertently, the oppositions' campaign (Democrats and Republicans) provided wind to the wings of their opponent – one man: Trump.
Once any political brand reaches a tipping point, you can recruit even more people to a cause. For Trump that included certain disenfranchised black voters. “You may as well vote for me. After all, what have you got to lose? These others guys never actually achieved anything for you”.
The entire propaganda reversal sucked in so many media – led rather than open eyed people, that the weekend Trump entered office (winning more female white votes than even Clinton to get there in the first place) 'Women against Trump' protests were held in cities including Washington and London.
Credibility gap for voters:
Madonna- who once branded herself as a 'sex object',
leads women' protest against misogynist in the Oval office
Now Trump was not just the President of the previously silenced, but thanks to the outspoken Left, a misunderstood underdog for his electorate - especially in the American Midwest states which others overlooked. The perfect political leader for a divisive, conflicted society.
“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten
Taking a ‘wrecking ball’ to corporate America Trump took care of his own. Unlike the high rise corporate mausoleums in places like Wall Street, Trump’s kitschy hotels, casinos and residential buildings, frequently clad in gaudy gold, suggested to his electorate that here stood the American dream; the man with the Midas touch. Perhaps a little could ‘rub off”?
“The time for empty talk is over, now arrives the moment of action”
Reflecting a branded vision deeply embedded into the American consciousness, his edifices suggested that anyone CAN make it there and keep on making it anywhere.
Trump’s USP was direct. “Make America Great Again.” That word “again” crowned its unambiguous meaning. It addressed a common human constant: irrespective of circumstances, people tend to feel they are missing out on something – they deserve better. It is a basic marketing insight that goes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – with a consumer never being able to finally assail the pinnacle of complete satisfaction.
Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger together” on the other hand may as well as had been for a kitchen towel product. Trump reflected a brand cause, Clinton echoed an empty marketing vessel. His electorate heard a campaign focussed on jobs, the economy, threats to American identity. Clintons appeared to be about the rights of some guy in a dress to go to the toilet.
A vital agent that ignites action is a shared belief. People reason and feel. By tapping into emotions, Trump turned his campaign into a cause. His rhetoric hammered rivets into a bridge that connected his ambitions with the aspirations of his electorate.
No Donald Duck Command in chief
Beyond politics Trump’s brand heritage will always be associated with money and power. In many ways, Trump reflects a well-established international perception of ‘brand Americana’; perhaps best exemplified by Walt Disney. Like Trump, Disney had a very clear brand vision. Like Trump, Disney’s brand was stamped on everything connected to the vision. Like Trump, Disney worked the prevailing system. As with Trump, Disney exploited the new media of his time – television - broadcasting weekly updates on his greatest all-American branded vision – Disneyland. Trump Tweeted.
Today’s Disneyland(s) are Trump casinos, hotels … both within America and beyond. Going against conformity, he resisted a complete divestiture from his company (but conceded not sell White House merchandise at his hotels and agreed that any visiting dignitaries’ hotel fees for staying in his DC hotel would be donated to the White House. (Move over Hilton and Marriot this is hospitality PR on a global head of State level).
In the days leading up to his inauguration the press reported that people around the world were queuing up to experience the new Trump-Effect. For example, even though only part-constructed, the Trump-branded Uruguay condominium experienced a 20% surge in business. The Trump-branded hotel in Washington D.C. raised the prices of its least expensive cocktail from the bar ($24). Trump’s presidential inauguration ceremony even passed by the hotel. (More free worldwide brand coverage).
Trump associated properties have seen a huge surge in popularity (up 35%) from foreign clients including Russian oligarchs.
A Mid-December 2016 survey by American research firm, Brand Keys discovered that merely having a president-elect’s name attached to a piece of real estate or golf club added 45% value to a property. (To put that into context, the average A-list celebrity name typically adds, at best, 12% to 15% value). And that was before Donald had even sworn on Lincoln’s bible.
Whilst the likes of Jobs, Disney, Gates, Kroc, Winfrey, Boeing, Hearst, Carnegie or even Rockefeller never made president, Trump did.
We’ve all met Trump (in one guise or another) – especially those who have encountered difficult bosses or clients. Often we don't particularly like them – but like it or not we need them.
Providing his voters see that Trump delivers: especially in creating US jobs and building the economy… and providing his finger is kept on the pulse of the people rather than hands on female parts, or thumbs twitching over nuclear buttons, Trump’s brand equity could set to rise even higher.
Get it right and who knows, in four years, time his marketing team may consider adding one more word to their Chief’s political slogan: “Make America Strong YET again”. If not America could end up putting him second.
(Which oddly enough in marketing terms, also its advantages).