When Barack Obama won the 2008 Presidential election, pundits were all abuzz about the power of his brand. Branding is just as critical in 2016, but the landscape couldn’t be more different.
With a generous assist from his sunrise logo and Shepard Fairey’s iconic portraiture, Obama’s name became synonymous with concepts like “hope” and “change” during the run-up to his victory. As with Reagan’s “Morning in America” in 1984, the promise of a better life was one recession-battered voters couldn’t resist.
We’re not in a recession today, but branding is playing just as powerful a role in the political scrum leading up to the November elections. Except the most dominant brand right now isn’t about “hope”… it’s about winning.
The primaries are always a bit of a wild time, but the current fracas will go down in history as one of the most contentious seasons ever. Anti-establishment and establishment politicians from both sides of the aisle are facing off in increasingly schoolyard-style debates, and slinging mud in the press. Conversations about international policy and domestic economic growth are being shelved in favor of one-liners about the size of a candidate’s “hands”, or whether or not a particular candidate is a “loser” or “choke artist”.
There are multiple factors at play, from the rise of anti-political / anti-government sentiment to the nation’s powder keg struggle with entrenched racism. People are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore… even if they can’t define what “it” is. And Donald Trump is the perfect candidate to capitalize on the chaos.
It’s hard to say whether the chicken or the egg came first: did Trump change the tenor of the election, or did he just find the ideal spot to set down his ubiquitous red hat?
Whatever the case may be, it’s working. The brassy, boldface name emblazoned on hotels and golf courses has become a political juggernaut, galvanizing a cross-section of the voting public who want a take-no-prisoners, not-here-to-make-friends, confidence-oozing leader to “Make America Great Again”.
Trump’s brand equity is undeniable, and he knows it: he estimates its worth at $3 billion in his financial statements. He’s willing to leverage that brand for anything and everything he can sell, from online real estate courses to ribeye steaks. As a result, Trump is an internationally known icon, poised to outshine whatever competition the Democrats — or his own party — can throw at him.
For all his fame, one of the most interesting aspects of Trump’s brand is the lack of substance behind it. He’s not as rich as he says he is, and his entrepreneurial acumen has been flatlined by bankruptcy more than once. His credibility as a “family man” belies a romantic timeline rife with cheating, blondes, and Page Six name-calling. Ultimately, his hair is the most Googled thing about him, and the tangerine hue of his skin.
But it doesn’t matter how . Because he doesn’t care.
His chief comeback is to label his critics as “losers”, because losing is the worst thing you can do in Trump’s world. He’ll lie without even a hint of a poker tell to defend something indefensible, or to deny something he undeniably said. For Trump, the podium is a place he belongs as long as he wants to stand there. Whatever anyone else might think of his fitness for the role of President, he’s not there to curry favor… and his fans love it.
“He tells it like it is!”
“He’s not a politician… he’s a leader!”
“He’s willing to say the things no one else will say.”
Yes, that’s true. An utter lack of edit function is essential to the Trump brand. But unlike a salty-tongued lush wobbling off a seat in a dive bar, he’s not easily disregarded… which brings us to his impact on how we’re being perceived as a nation overseas.
If you ask many people outside of the U.S. what the “American brand” is, you’ll hear about everything from the glossy appeal of the American Dream to Cold War-style finger-on-the-button dominance. America is brash, fierce, culturally forceful, and we don’t and won’t go away.
In other words… we’re The Donald, or at least The Donald as The Donald describes The Donald. Just as he is flashy, unapologetic, and blusteringly profane, so can we be when viewed through a distant lens. And that’s exactly why his brand is bad news for a country in need of more friends than foes.
Brands are ever-evolving entities; even as we endeavor to shape them, they’re more a product of what’s said about us than what we say about ourselves. At Sametz Blackstone, we call our approach “mosaic branding”: we work with our clients to craft brands that make the most of the communications they can control—with the goal of influencing, and providing context for, the ones they can’t.
By creating and arranging a mosaic of ideas (both organization-driven and crowdsourced) each tile can be positioned to form a brand mural people can understand and believe in—and, most importantly, engage with.
Donald Trump would tell you his ethos is less mosaic than monolith, but he’s nailing brand management on every level. He doesn’t care what anyone says or thinks about him, and all the naysaying in the world doesn’t seem make a dent in his resolve. The mosaic he’s created is overwhelming every tile his opponents attempt to place.
The scariest part? Trump’s vision of the presidency is just like his brand: a sort of Queens-inflected manifest destiny, with a side of reality TV. But whereas Trump can get away with his toxic combination of bravado and petulance as a one-man media circus, whoever sits at the desk in the Oval Office needs to care deeply about what those he serves want and think and need. Can he become that president? It’s hard to say — but we’d be ill advised to take his word for it.
The Presidency should be the most mosaic brand of all, and a true reflection of the nation behind it. That’s why we the People need to take our own tiles seriously — and do some very serious thinking about who should fill the role of Tile Placer in Chief.