For more than four decades, I advised many of my clients on managing their public images, a form of “branding” – as it is referred to today. It was one of the basic services of my business – especially for political and other personalities who had public notoriety.
For many years, Donald Trump has been in the branding business – some even say a master of promotion. No one can deny that he turned his name into a brand that reflected success, wealth and sophistication, of sorts. In many ways, Trump made a career of being the Hugh Hefner of real estate – big, bold, flashy and an obvious subtext of Bacchanalian sexuality. Like Hefner, Trump, himself, became an integral part of the lifestyle brand.
Much of the image carried over in his one-time ownership of the Miss America Contest. Trump built on the contest’s multi-talent approach – with sexuality dominating the marketing strategy. Oh sure, there were those exhibitions of poetry, baton twirling and tap dancing, but it was the diminishing-fabric swimsuit contest that got all the promotional funding and the ratings.
Trump entered the everything-thing-that-glitters-is-gold casino business. Again, the image was big money being thrown around by folks in Armani suits and Halston gowns being captured by the paparazzi as they arrived in chauffeur-driven Bentleys or self-driven Maseratis. It was pure Trumpian – a perfect fit.
Trump even turned the cold – and occasionally cruel – business world into a television hit with his “The Apprentice” program on NBC. In those days, the “peacock network” was far from critical of The Donald. It was in full partnership. He created entertainment by firing people with little regret or compassion – including the celebrities who made the show more than an office meeting.
Imagine that. Big rich, famous and powerful people being humiliatedly discharged in front of millions of viewers. The show placed Trump in the seat of power as the ultimate authority – something that may have bearing on his presidential style.
Of course, not everyone likes the Trump brands. For some, the Trump brands were too brash, too vulgar and too tacky. They were viewed as a low-class effort to be high-class. They did not appeal to the Brahmin establishment who knew that Martha’s Vineyard was not wine country and had actually been inside those mansions in the Hamptons. But then, you cannot please everyone.
If Trump’s strength is being a master of branding, his weakness may be that he is a one-trick pony – a branding savant, of sorts. His brand has placed him as a ringmaster in a uniquely American Circus Maximus in which the lives of the rich and famous – or wannabe rich and famous — were played out for glamourized public entertainment.
Trump did well with his business, the Miss America Contest, casinos and “The Apprentice” because they were already a perfect fit for the Trump brand. The presidency, however, had a long-established and quite different brand. There is an aura of seriousness and solemnity about it. Many past occupants of the White House referred to the presidency as a humbling experience – but not Trump.
The need to tweak his brand was obvious from the day he came down the escalator after announcing his candidacy. Throughout the campaign, during the post-election transition period and well into his days in the White House, among the most frequently used words was “pivot.” Would Trump adjust his brand to fit more comfortably into that big leather chair in the Oval Office? Many thought he would – and even he hinted at it, from time to time. Others hoped he would – and yet others doubted it.
When he didn’t pivot – alter his public image (brand) – critics accused him of violating the traditions and norms of the presidency – euphemisms for the presidential brand. Trump has been mistaken in believing that he could fully impose his brand – his style – on the presidency.
The lack of proper image or brand management is the reason that the Trump personality has become his Achilles Heel. Take away the personality issues that the Democrats us as a smokescreen and look at the policies, issues, programs, proposals and appointments and Trump looks like a pretty good President for most of America – excluding the hardcore left-wing Democrats who are currently sliding down the slippery slope of socialism.
Noting Trump’s failure at brand management is, in no way suggesting that he should not be taking on the entrenched establishment, pushing back against the deep state and draining the swamp. Toughness is not the Trump brand’s weakness. We like strong presidents – and the need to disrupt the long-failed elitist Washington establishment was a more than a worthy goal. Arguably, he would have been – and still could be — more effective and more popular with a bit more compliance to the presidential brand in terms of style.
Many believe – this writer included – that had Trump tweaked his brand to fit the presidency – pivot, if you will – he would have won the popular vote, passed 50 percent in popularity, held on to the House in 2018 and would be coasting to a victory in 2020. If Trump fails to get re-elected, it will be because he has been incompetent in managing his brand in terms of the presidency.
So, there ‘tis.