Is Donald Trump’s presidential run just a giant PR push for his brand? And if so, is it backfiring?
It doesn’t take a political pundit – or public relations expert – to suspect that Trump’s true goal in running for our nation’s highest office is to build up his name in order to license more products and properties. After all, that’s what he does best, and in media appearances the candidate has relentlessly promoted his resorts, the Trump Tower headquarters, and a random assortment of licensed products. In its filing documents, the campaign values the brand and its associated “deals and brand developments” at $3 billion. While this may be an exaggeration, it’s no secret that for decades the Trump organization’s business has been based more on licensing and leasing deals rather than outright ownership of real estate properties. The brand is truly central to its business now and for the future.
So, if the campaign is a giant brand promotion, is it working? Or has the largely negative media cycle of late started to hurt brand Trump?
There has surely been business fallout. As controversy escalated, Macy’s and Univision retreated from brand partnerships. Worse, a promising deal with a Spanish-born celebrity chef dissolved into litigation after Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant remarks. Last month a travel planning site reported that year-over-year bookings at Trump hotels and resorts were down sharply. (The report was denied by Trump Hotels, which claims its occupancy rates are strong.)
What may be more relevant to the long-term health of the brand is a Forbes survey of 500 high-income individuals. It showed that 45 percent of those surveyed said they will not patronize Trump properties, with three-quarters attributing their decision to Trump’s divisive campaign rhetoric. Meanwhile, sales of Trump’s books are more robust than ever, and he is reportedly contemplating the launch of a cable network.
The central disconnect here, and greatest future threat to brand Trump, is the chasm between the candidate’s core constituency and the brand’s mostly upscale prospects. Cheesy deals for vodka or made-in-China ties notwithstanding, the Trump brand is about luxury. At its best, it’s epitomized in elegant resorts like the Trump Soho or the multimillion-dollar residential properties in Trump Tower. And its recent extensions have been carefully tended; Ivanka Trump has launched successful jewelry and clothing brands, and most recently a Goop-like website for working women that dishes out soft-focus lifestyle and workplace advice.
But it’s tough to square a carefully curated image of female empowerment with a guy who espouses dog-whistle racism and mocks the disabled. The aspirational brand positioning is clearly at odds with Trump the candidate’s ugly remarks and campaign bombast, which at its worst connects with a lowest-common-denominator element in the real world and on social media. The public has a short memory, so a brand rehabilitation is always possible, but there’s no evidence that Trump the man will begin to moderate his comments or behavior to make them more palatable to upscale consumers.
So far, the Trump brand has been resilient. It has weathered bankruptcies, litigation, and personal scandal, and the Trump children show every sign of being equipped to grow it through more strategic and tasteful partnerships. Win or lose, Trump the celebrity candidate will be fine. He will continue to have fans and to command the type of media attention that will bring new opportunities for partnership, although they may be very different from past deals.
But I’m not so sure about the increasingly schizophrenic Trump brand. Its future is tied to higher-income, college-educated millennials whose tastes and values don’t mesh well with nativism or naked bigotry. I’m sure the Trump heirs know this, and I’m not envious of the brand stewardship challenge that they face after the election is over.