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How Trump the candidate is hurting Trump the brand

You might have heard this one, but: What’s the difference between the Samsung Note 7 and Donald Trump?

Answer: “One spontaneously overheats, bursts into flames, and disappoints fans. The other one is a cell phone.”

This is not a political column. I have voted for both parties throughout the years and will continue to do so. Who you vote for is your own business—but choose wisely. This post is about how Donald Trump’s polarizing candidacy is affecting the Trump brand.

We’ve heard all sorts of intrigue about how successful Donald Trump’s businesses really are, but there is no denying that Trump is a brand, and that a great deal (most?) of his income derives from licensing his name on all manner of products. The question I have is, “At what point does being a controversial public figure erode your brand equity?”

This Washington Post story says that it is now. Citing a Bloomberg poll, it says that 61% of Americans have a less favorable opinion of Trump’s business acumen than before. That’s a dramatic finding, and has to put a damper on any future licensing of the Trump name.

But I have seen evidence close to home. I live in Jersey City, just over the Hudson from New York City. There is a massive amount of building going on here; it is hard to walk a couple of blocks in my neighborhood without seeing a new building going up. Amidst all of this is the newly-opened Trump Bay Street Building, competing with many other new buildings in this area. I’ve noticed posters for this new building are always defaced with awful epithets about Trump the man, not Trump the building. In this very liberal part of the world, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are many people who just won’t live in a building with Trump’s name on it. That might have been true in the past, but it is probably even more true now. That has to lower the rent that the owners of the building can charge, exactly the opposite of the effect they expected from licensing the Trump name.

I have to admit, that as a so-called expert in digital marketing, I am flummoxed as to what these licensees can do. They acquired these licenses without ever dreaming that the Trump name would become such a lightning rod. They would love to go back an undo that decision, but now the act of taking Trump’s name off the buildings, golf courses, etc. would create a firestorm among his rabid supporters, which are still a very numerous part of the population.

This is just the latest example of how old-style marketing, where you rent a celebrity’s name to trade on their image or credibility or attention, is such a slippery slope. At least the companies that were paying Tiger Woods as a spokesperson could just fire him from their commercials. Enron Field was quietly renamed as quickly as possible. But Livestrong faced an existential risk to its charitable work when Lance Armstrong’s reputation blew up. Trump licensees are now in that very dangerous place where there is no easy way out.

Is this just a crisis that must be managed? Can these licensees merely weather the next few weeks until the election? Are they in the crazy circumstance of hoping that Trump will lose the election and withdraw from the political scene so that people will start to forget? Typically, you’d think you would want your candidate to win the presidency to add to the luster of that name that you rented, but Trump’s combative style seems designed to continually make more enemies as he goes alongit just keeps the controversy going for four more years.

There are many licensees, so not all of them will do the same thing. But it is an interesting personality test to see what happens here. Never before have I seen a brand so mired in controversy with no clean way out. Will a few licensees apologize for licensing the name and take it off the sign? Do their license agreements even allow that option? For many, these are make-or-break decisions that I do not envy.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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