The Trump Stump
Like it or not, we’re all brands. There is perhaps no other field where personal brand is more visible and important than the political arena. Which brings us to the 2016 presidential race and the branding of the hairpiece known as the Donald, as in Trump.
The race for the presidential nomination is usually an entertaining study in marketing personality, policy and, of course, political acumen, and the upcoming election is proving to be one of the most entertaining I can remember, thanks to Trump’s megalomania.
The branding of pantsuit populist Hillary Clinton is downright boring compared to the Trumpster, unless, of course, Bill gets into some shenanigans. And Trump’s fellow Republican Jeb Bush is about as exciting as, well, a shrub.
Trump is proving to be a fascinating case. Regardless of how bizarre one’s personal brand becomes, there’s usually a receptive audience to be found, and in Trump’s case it’s confounding Republicans and the general public.
What began as more of a carnival sideshow has evolved into a force for Republican presidential hopefuls to contend with, as Trump has shocked party faithful and pollsters by leading the pack of Republican candidates, at least through mid-summer. How somebody can insult large segments of the voting population and continue to attract support is a real head-scratcher.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the Donald insulted millions of people of Mexican descent when he referred to Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists. That promptly drew the ire of the target group; but big-name brands like Macy’s also said they would no longer carry products with the Trump moniker. He also lost the NBC/Univision broadcast of his Miss Universe pageant. (It was subsequently picked up by cable channel Reelz, owned by the Twin Cities Hubbard family. The broadcast drew less than a million viewers, down from 5.6 million in 2014, according to Nielsen data.)
True to his brand, Trump was defiant.
He didn’t stop there. In July he said that Arizona Sen. John McCain was not a war hero—even though McCain spent more than five years as a POW during the Vietnamese war, was tortured and refused an early release until fellow POWs held longer were let go. Trump went on to stuff more of his foot into his mouth by saying he preferred veterans who hadn’t been captured by the enemy. (During the Vietnam War, Trump got multiple student deferments while attending an Ivy League school, then a medical deferment for a bone spur in his foot.)
Although he didn’t insult large groups of the population, wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura may provide some insight into the Trump phenomena.
When Ventura ran for Minnesota governor in 1998, he marketed himself under the banner of “Don’t vote for politics as usual,” which appealed to voters who had tired of career politicians like opponents Norm Coleman and Hubert “Skip” Humphrey III.
It could be that Trump supporters are tired of career politicians Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, and Trump offers an alternative, albeit a strange one, reminiscent of H. Ross Perot in the 1992 election. Perot at one point led both Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in the polls.
Like Perot, Trump is kind of an anti-brand, appealing to people sick of the packaged sound bites on the Sunday-morning talk shows. Unlike the candidates with cadres of speechwriters and handlers, Trump is an open sewer spewing whatever goes through his ego-gone-wild mind, without benefit of a treatment plant to process and clean the trash. That makes him the most genuine of all the candidates, and that’s resonating with a lot of people.
While no one really thinks Trump has a chance of winning the Republican nomination, much less becoming president, he offers an example of perhaps the most polarizing brand I can think of, which in some cases is not a bad thing.
In the 1980s, hotelier Leona Helmsley was often vilified as the “Queen of Mean” for how she treated employees of the hotel chain that she and her husband owned. But by positioning her as a strict standards enforcer and customer advocate, occupancy rose from 25 percent to 87 percent in just four months, and Advertising Age said the campaign succeeded in “opening a new chapter in U.S. hotel advertising.”
Helmsley also made negative headlines for tax evasion and came to be one of the poster children for the “greed is good” mentality of the era. After an 18-month stint in prison, rather than backing away from her polarizing reputation, the new tagline for Helmsley hotels became “Say what you will, she runs a helluva hotel.” To this day, the Helmsley hotels are a success story.
So being a polarizing brand isn’t a bad thing when you can galvanize support among your base. In some instances, as it appears with Trump, the more polarizing you become, the more you separate yourself from the pack. Trump has become the Republican maverick grabbing sound bites and headlines that would have normally gone to candidates like Ted Cruz—who refuses to criticize Trump, in hopes that he’ll be able to pick up Trump supporters once the Donald finally implodes.
Yet aside from single-issue voters who support closing the Mexican border, I think that the Trump brand is more of a vote against the status quo than it is a vote for somebody people think would make a great president.
While it worked for Jesse back in 1998, I give American voters more credit. Of course that raises the question about what happened to the Minnesota voter brand 17 years ago. TCB
Glenn Karwoski (firstname.lastname@example.org) is founder and managing director of Karwoski & Courage marketing communications agency. He also teaches at the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas and in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.