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The election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency poses a dilemma for Trump, the brand. For decades, the businessman has put his literally gold-plated name on hotels, highrises and golf resorts to evoke a sense of luxury. Trump has even emblazoned his name on products as diverse as silk ties and bottled water. But in the bruising campaign of the past 18 months, a divisive, blunt and controversial Trump has emerged — which appealed to the masses. How will Trump rebuild his brand and what direction will it take?
To discuss the issue, Wharton professors Americus Reed and Samir Nurmohamed joined the Knowledge@Wharton show, part of the Wharton Business Radio network on SiriusXM channel 111, to project how Trump’s brand could evolve in coming years. Here are five key points from their conversation. (You can listen to the full podcast at the top of this page.)
Going Against the Grain
Trump’s victory defied widespread predictions that he would suffer a crushing loss from his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Now, his shocking electoral college win could change the future of political campaigning and polling. Moreover, his brand will cast its shadow on the GOP and the U.S.
“I think that there will be a redefinition of the political landscape and the approach to campaigns, and how those campaigns are tracked and monitored,” Reed said. “I think the branding issue is going to be a very critical issue in terms of not only the Trump brand but the brand of the Republican Party, the brand of this country.”
Nurmohamed says that from a marketing angle, Trump’s win is indicative of the changing global view of democracy. “It’s absolutely a shock in many ways,” he said. “I think it reflects the trend going on around the world. It’s not just in the United States but the brand of democracy and what that means, and how people who aren’t in that system will view it, too.”
“He’s very much branded himself as a populist, but his brand hasn’t really been about that ever in his life.” –Samir Nurmohamed
The professors pointed out a paradox in the Trump brand. On the one hand, it reflects all things posh, exclusive and elitist. But then Trumpian politics has come to reflect populism and the white working class. “It’s not clear to me that the demographic he spoke to is necessarily the same customer that stays at these very ornate and luxurious [Trump hotels and buys his upscale] products and services,” Reed said.
Nurmohamed agreed. “He has very much branded himself as a populist, but his brand hasn’t really been about that ever in his life — it’s about creating luxury. To think that he’s now going to potentially bring all of that [working class] base into his brand, that remains to be seen. He still has a lot to do in terms of rebuilding his network with many of the people who are visiting his hotels, that were living in his apartments, that very much wanted to be associated with wealth. Until he actually brings through outcomes that can benefit those individuals, it’s going to take some time.”
Trump’s fiery rhetoric against illegal immigrants and Islamic terrorists in his campaign might have made supporters view him as aligning with the average Joe who is angry about the state of things — and want change. But then that view also depends “on what your prototype is of an average guy,” Nurmohamed contended. “If your prototype is someone who speaks out and speaks his mind and isn’t necessarily politically correct and doesn’t have a filter, that’s a lot of his appeal to many people. For others, he doesn’t necessarily represent their common prototype.”
Nurmohamed said the body of research on leadership shows that people choose leaders based on self-interest. If that leader can deliver on promises that benefit them, such as lower taxes, more jobs and higher wages, then followers are more likely to overlook or forgive that leader’s shortcomings. “If you’re able to deliver on those outcomes, you’re willing to tolerate a fudge factor. But notice, it’s very contingent on the performance. If he doesn’t deliver on those promises, his brand is going to be affected, too.”
The Master Marketer
While people might have starkly opposing opinions about Trump, one thing is undeniable: He is a master marketer. “One of the critical hallmarks of branding is consistency,” Reed said. “Throughout this entire 18 months [of campaigning], he has stayed himself and stayed true to this brand. That’s huge.”
But that consistency also creates a problem. “You’ve got this base that wants more of this [populist] act to continue,” Reed said. And “you’ve got this other group who’s extremely upset and despaired, and wants to see a modification of the brand. So the question is, who does he try to placate here?”
He said Trump’s brand will fail if he tries to speak to everyone or serve two different audiences. He noted Trump’s victory speech in which the president-elect was uncharacteristically polite toward Clinton. “It was a very different tone. It was very, very interesting in terms of the first little inkling I could see that was a serious inconsistency with his brand,” Reed said.
“One of the critical hallmarks of branding is consistency. … He has stayed himself and stayed true to this brand.” –Americus Reed
Nurmohamed also thinks trying to please a fragmented constituency would be disastrous for Trump’s political brand. “I think the key thing looking forward is what does he want his platform to look like? If he’s going to try to balance multiple stakeholders, that’s going to be really difficult because they are audiences that we’ve seen can’t be bridged in many ways.”
Reed said the evolution of Trump’s brand will be fascinating to watch. Will he be able to marry the two extreme images of businessman and change agent in a way that will benefit his overall umbrella brand? “What are some of the things that he’s going to bring to this presidential approach that’s going to borrow from his business principles that he has so well honed?” Reed said.
He pointed to Trump’s uncanny ability to make a blue-collar guy feel an affinity to a billionaire. “It’s marketing at its finest. There’s a big emotional piece, too, because what marketers are typically excellent at is to tap into that kind of emotional appeal. We saw this very clearly, where the other side would try to come up with facts and truths and all of this, and the Trump brand would go back to this emotional [message of], ‘I can connect with you. We’re outsiders. We have to bring down this elite.'”
A Singular Politician
In some ways, Trump could be considered a singular politician. Although he won on the Republican ticket, he isolated so many in his party that he’s not necessarily beholden to the GOP. He will be less encumbered to shape his cabinet and nominate the next Supreme Court justice. He’s also coming into his administration with a Republican-controlled House and Senate.
“He gave meaning to a lot of people who felt like they didn’t have a voice.” –Samir Nurmohamed
“He has the potential to have a huge influence in each of those chambers. It’s going to be really hard to see how the structures are going to push back and … constrain him,” Nurmohamed said. “The other part that’s really interesting to think about is the role of presidential office. As leaders climb the hierarchy, there’s more and more distance [between] them and the people in many ways. What we see is it leads to reduced perspective-taking, it can lead you to have more abstract language, and it can also lead to you having an illusion of control over events.”
A Branding Legacy
The professors said Trump’s success will have both political parties and career politicians rethinking and reinventing their own brands based on what they’ve learned in this election cycle. Trump’s ability to speak to segments of the population that his opponent could not reach means the Democratic Party needs to re-evaluate the qualities and charisma of its next nominee. And the fact that Trump prevailed in a crowded field of Republican candidates with far greater political qualifications shows that career politicians need to examine their messaging.
“What does a great marketer do? A great marketer is able to tap into needs and wants, so we saw this very clearly in this notion of giving a voice to this large group of consumers who feel they have no voice,” Reed said. “I think you’re going to see an alignment now, this redefinition of what it means to be part of the Republican Party brand. You’re going to see that shift a little bit, with Donald Trump as the anchor point.”
Added Nurmohamed, “He empowered a huge segment of his brand. He gave meaning to a lot of people who felt like they didn’t have a voice. He made it seem like they have a huge impact on what gets done in this country, and that’s going to have a huge role to play going forward. I think the key for him, too, is just not leaving this group of people on the sidelines as he goes into office and really figuring out how he can potentially mobilize them further.”