Long before there was a presidency, long before there was even a campaign, there was the brand. Stamped on buildings and golf courses and steaks and ties, the Trump name was bigger in many ways than the Trump reality. Alex Abad-Santos specially for the Vox.
Donald Trump positioned himself as a boss and kingmaker on The Apprentice and sold his lifestyle to consumers as something for the very rich and famous. Now that he is the former president, the question becomes what is next for Trump — and what is next for the Trump brand.
There are impeachment proceedings in Washington and lawsuits in New York on his docket. There’s Mar-a-Lago, but no PGA championship. Other businesses are backing away from the brand. He’ll have to deal firsthand with how his four years as a polarizing president and political figure affected the life, image, and business he had before he took office.
Can he return to his existence as an entertainer, status symbol, and real estate icon? Or have his actions as president, and the scrutiny that came with the title, made that all but impossible?
I asked five branding experts what they think of the Trump brand now, how the presidency changed it, and what its future — if one still exists — will look like.
These responses have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Marcus Collins, lecturer at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business
I think we can probably all ubiquitously say that before the presidency, the name Trump stood in for wealth. It stood in for business, and for being business savvy. There’s this old interview that Tupac gave in like 1996, and he’s like, you know, “we need to take money from the wealthy, from the Trumps of the world.”
Trump used that identifier, that brand, and all the thoughts and feelings that come to mind as a means of credence when he ran for office. He said, “I’m a great businessman, I’m so successful. We need to do better business when it comes to how we run our government.” And people who would talk about Trump in those early days would say, “Oh, Trump, he’s a businessman. He’s successful, he’ll run the country like a business.”
The challenge there is, first of all, when you pull back the curtains, we see that everything is propped up using scotch tape, right? It wasn’t so true. But that aside, [when he came into office] the thoughts and feelings that were associated with him, what the Trump name stood for, began to shift. And it was no longer about being a successful businessman. In fact, we don’t hear that rhetoric very much at all.
In the last two years of his presidency, his brand has stood for other things: the divisiveness, the misogyny, the xenophobia, and the racism — all of these things that he’s demonstrated in his time in office. Over time, those thoughts and feelings start to associate with the Trump brand.
And some people don’t want any part of that. Luxury and elite brands want to signal themselves in a certain way. They don’t want any tarnish on their reputation.
Trump is an opportunist. He will probably operationalize [his base] into a media outlet and he will become the face for that contingent. He will be what InfoWars tries to be, what the NRA tries to be, and all these radical fringe ideologies. He has a congregation for him to preach his gospel, and that’s what the brand will be.
Deborah MacInnis, professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business
It’s important to point out that there are actually two Trump brands that we’re talking about. One is the Trump product brand, which is providing global luxury experiences like hotels and golf courses and residences. Then there’s Trump as a political brand.
The two brands are interesting because they don’t necessarily mesh well in the sense that they’re not really targeting the same people. They have very different kinds of messages. If there’s anything that might tie them together, it’s this notion of Trump related to power and status and getting what’s best. You know, that’s what he was trying to cultivate from the political brand.
Whether you believe that or not is a completely different story.
Based on some research that I’m doing with some colleagues of mine, we found that there are really three strong drivers of brand strength: trust, brand love (to what extent people feel gratified by the brand), and the third one is respect.
I think respect is really relevant. And we find that it’s actually a very strong predictor of brand strength. Respect is really about whether people hold the brand in high regard.
I think that he had some strength coming in [to office]. But he had not been used to that level of scrutiny or that level of accountability. And I think what we’ve seen is that strength eroding over time. That’s not very surprising in the sense that he knew nothing about the job before he came in.
But also from the standpoint of loss of trust, he has not protected people from harm. I think the past year has been, in particular, impactful in terms of the lessening of trust, when you look at the virus and how he has responded. Then when you think about the Capitol riot, it was clearly putting many, many lives in danger and people died.
I think of all this — the loss of trust and love and respect — is what we in marketing call a negative spillover effect. What we mean by that is that the tarnishing of the Trump political brand spills over and affects the Trump product brand.
Trump still has fervent Trump supporters. They absolutely trust, love, and respect him. We have this term in psychology, called motivated reasoning, where people, because they’ve had such a strong attachment to him before, are not motivated to update their view of him. Instead, they’re looking for more and more evidence that he speaks the truth.
But I don’t know if he can recover from this. By virtue of his own actions, Trump the political brand has kind of sunk Trump the product brand. My prediction is that he will try to reinvent himself. So rather than being Trump the product brand or Trump the political brand, he’s going to try to reinvent himself as Trump as some other brand.
My feeling is that the reinvented Trump brand will probably be something that even if he’s impeached, I think he’s going to try to leverage somehow his current base so that it stays relevant to them, and that he continues to get the ego gratification that he wants. He thrives on that.
Tom Meyvis, professor of marketing and consumer behavior at NYU’s Stern School of Business
Morality is something very powerful.
There’s a difference between failing in terms of performance and a moral defect, a moral transgression or a moral failure. If your brand’s endorser or spokesperson gets into a morally problematic situation, you really have to cut all ties because that will reflect back on you.
Usually when people have an extreme attitude toward you, after a while it becomes weaker. With presidents, when they leave office, people tend to be more forgiving over time. The problem is, I don’t think that’s going to happen with Trump. He can’t stay away, he can’t stay out of the focus of attention. He’s gonna keep inserting himself into the discussion and trying to get attention, and you’re not going to get this effect where attitudes become weaker. The people who hate Trump now are going to hate Trump a year from now as well. I’m not saying that he’s not going to make any money. He can, selling to his base — but it will have to be something else and not just hotels and golf courses.
I’m reminded of Tiffany’s. Tiffany’s jewelry store is supposed to be high-end luxury and sells very expensive jewelry to very rich people. For a while, they had these, they still have it, the oval tag bracelets. It became very popular with teenage girls. And for Tiffany’s, that was a problem. So they actually raised the price of the bracelet by 60 percent at some point to dissuade these teenage girls from buying these bracelets. Even though they made a lot of money on these, it was bad for their brand.
The critical thing to understand is that his customers are not the exact same people as his political base. It’s not the same demographics. There’s going to be some overlap, but not that much.
Your brand is not just you, it’s also your customers.
Raji Srinivasan, marketing professor and associate dean of diversity and inclusion at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas
Donald Trump the swashbuckling, competent, self-made entrepreneur (again, not entirely true) was positioned as an all-American Horatio Alger story that anyone can make it if only they tried hard. He built this image further with his TV celebrity show where he fired people, which added to his aura of a highly successful businessperson.
President Trump was well aware of the Trump brand and attempted to use his presidency to build his brand. Unfortunately, the US presidency is a very demanding job that requires strong leadership and management skills, which he did not have. Overall, many things during his four years affected his brand negatively, but especially the perceived lack of interest in governance and very incompetent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Trump brand, in my view, is not going away. Yes, being banned from mainstream social media platforms is going to make it challenging for him to reach his followers. Given the fact that many companies and institutions are shunning President Trump and the Trump brand, the brand may have to find alternative ways to grow.
He may do this by drilling down on his large following and directly building a political brand franchise, as it is clear that the current Trump brand appeals to these followers. One way to do this would be to have some of his family members join politics and use their political runs as perpetual fundraising mechanisms. However, that may narrow his appeal to mainstream consumers, which is where the Trump brand has reigned in the past, across many businesses like hotels, golf courses, and real estate, which are high-margin, high-profile businesses.
Matthew Quint, director at the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School
Overall, from reporting of what happened over four years, there were some ups and downs, but it’s not like the real estate properties or the golf courses and hotels generally suffered. At large, they generally were still profitable brands, from reporting that I’d seen on that. So it wasn’t a financial hit. And he was lauded by many of the Republican citizens in our country for a long stretch of time during his presidency.
On the other hand, obviously, his brand suffered intensely in the eyes of Democrats and in the eyes of independents. Internationally, he began to suffer as well. While the Trump organization does have some international interests, it’s more focused in the US.
He’s been vilified by liberals and he had many critical press stories about his actions, and so from another perspective, yeah, his brand suffered. All the properties and stuff associated with him became part of what some people call “cancel culture,” which I would call “consumer choice.”
Had the events at the Capitol not occurred, had that been a peaceful protest, we’d be having very different conversations about the Trump brand.
The expectation, prior to the violence that took place in the Capitol, was that the Trump brand would remain a strong brand, most likely transitioning into more of the media side of the entertainment world moving forward.
Still, there are many people who will find a way in their minds to separate Trump and what they view as a successful presidency, and a successful vision for the future of America, from the people who took actions on January 6 that were horrible and terrible. There are many people who will separate those two things.
And so I don’t see his brand disappearing entirely by any stretch of the imagination. It might not be as strong. I think a big part of the future is: Will the radical right choose to continue to latch itself into the Trump brand and use the Trump brand? How will the Trump organization react to that if that occurs?
And one of the big things is happening literally as we speak. If he is officially labeled a seditionist, then all the normal channels of brand-building are no longer open to him. He will be banned and AWS will not host his platform. Twitter will ban him and any brand that tries to associate with Trump.
There’s so much happening literally at this moment. So it’s a little hard to know exactly where that will go. How will he move forward if he’s branded as a seditionist by our government?