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Donald Trump’s candidacy seems to be top-of-mind for everyone these days.  His outrageous proclamations have definitely hit a sweet spot with many Republican voters, while the rest of the world remains bewildered at his high poll ratings. To understand his success, and his future, it is helpful to view Trump from a branding perspective.

To develop a strong a brand, one has to begin with the marketplace and the potential audience or customer, to identify any particular problems, needs, frustrations or essentially new opportunities.  Obviously all the Republican candidates are obsessed with attracting the extreme right voters, and no one has been as effective Donald Trump.  His main followers tend to be predominantly white, lower-middle class, less educated, evangelical, from the South and Middle America, and very contemptuous of “big government”.  Most important, they see things more in “black or white” terms and simply want action.  For these engaged voters, Trump is the ideal answer and his simplistic messages resonate with them – he is passionate, highly emotional, and offers sweeping solutions with very little substance.

The Trump brand really has two different audiences. The Republican right wing conservatives are one, but less familiar are all the customers who are attracted to Trump luxury products and services around the world – e.g. hotels, golf courses, home furnishings, accessories, and other high end lifestyle items. These latter consumers are very different; they are more upscale, worldly, sophisticated and indulgent, with a passion for an ostentatious lifestyle.  To them, the brand “Trump” is synonymous with luxury, high class, American success, and self-rewarding ambition.  

It is extremely difficult for a brand to be successful with a strong appeal to two very different audiences, especially when the relationship is based primarily on image and emotion.  The risk increases when the lifestyle brand identity is stretched in a way that actually offends the values of one of his two target segments. 

Trump’s pledge to “make America great again” represents an inspiring brand promise to this conservative segment of the voting population, and, importantly, hits a very strong emotional nerve with them.  But the Trump brand is facing two critical challenges that are typical for any new brand proposition:

  1. Brand Credibility – have some of his promises gone too far and are just not realistic, and/or maybe they offend too many potential voters outside his circle of faithful followers (e.g. building a wall along the Mexican border, and now banning the entry of all Muslims).
  2. Delivering on Brand Promise – a healthy aspect in today’s marketing is the ability to gather data online to verify the accuracy and likelihood of a promise being delivered as stated, especially among Millennials. Trump’s incendiary claims and absence of detail to substantiate them may not be so critical to his conservative advocates, but in time other potential voters will become too impatient waiting for specific plans to justify his promises, especially among our multicultural population and in other countries.  Already, retailers in the Middle East (e.g. upscale stores in Dubai) are removing all products with the Trump name from their shelves.

The rise of Donald Trump as a brand has also been a good case study for personal branding. This involves an examination of any opportunity from two perspectives. First, a person must take stock of his/her own personal goals, what they are good at, how others perceive their strengths/limitations, and whether others have the same image.  Then he/she ideally conducts a rigid assessment of the possible external opportunities that would fit and enable this person to achieve his/her personal goals. For Trump, the ultimate goal of the US Presidency can only be achieved by first appealing to and resonating with the extreme right in the primaries, and creating a brand image that will stand out versus other political candidates. While this branding strategy to “fit” with this extreme right audience has been successful so far, it has also alienated more moderate voters in both parties who will be critical for ultimately winning the election.  

The key to successful branding is to develop a trusting relationship with your customer. The other Trump brand image, the one used in marketing all over the world, has already experienced noteworthy economic damage, costing Trump tens of millions of dollars. Clients and customers no longer feel comfortable with any association with Trump and are abandoning him completely – e.g. the PGA canceling its Grand Slam golf tournament in LA after his anti-immigration announcements, and NBC dropping him as host of “The Celebrity Apprentice” show and canceling their joint venture for broadcasting the Miss USA pageant.

Over time, Americans can forgive or forget.  But Trump’s actions undermine the basic tenets for successful branding which will seriously jeopardize his chances for the ultimate prize of President.


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Jay Gronlund

About Jay Gronlund

Jay Gronlund is President, founder of The Pathfinder Group, a business development firm specializing in emotional branding, ideation facilitation and international expansion. His background has focused mainly on marketing and new product development with executive positions at reputable companies in the US and abroad – Richardson Vicks/P&G, Church & Dwight, Seagram and Newsweek. Jay has also been teaching a branding course at NYU since 1999 and recently wrote a book on the “Basics of Branding”, published by Business Expert Press. Jay has a BA from Colby College and MBA from Tuck at Dartmouth.

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