Campaign activists are gearing up for one of the most aggressive and unpredictable election campaigns in modern US history. President Trump has in fact never stopped campaigning since his inauguration. His Twitter account (@realDonaldTrump) has become a personal campaign megaphone whose opinions are amplified to a global audience. Social media has essentially provided Donald Trump an effective platform not only to determine but dominate the political agenda.
Poll numbers continue to oscillate, which typifies erratic US voter sentiment. In the “coastal elite” regions, Donald Trump remains consistently unpopular. However, like the election that brought him to power four years ago, the 2020 election will not be won in the states of California or New York but in the so-called battleground or swing states. And there will be no room for error. In 2016, Donald Trump won the state of Wisconsin by a margin of just over 22,000 votes.
Hard issues in previous elections such as the state of the economy or how a President responded to a national or international crisis made it easier to predict voter intention. This election is different. These factors will of course matter, but it will be softer issues that rarely appear on the political spectrum that will make the subtle but significant difference. A salient soft issue which could potentially keep Donald Trump in the White House is Brand Trump.
The key asset that helped Donald Trump win the Republican nomination was the aura of the Trump personality.[i] Trump came to the White House with a lifetime of experience in personal branding: his property developments featured the Trump name in ostentatious golden lettering; his various business ventures, from steaks to vodka, were all branded with the family name. Trump cultivated his personal brand with cameos in popular Hollywood movies — Home Alone 2 (1992), Zoolander (2001), Wall Street (2010). His autobiographical business book, The Art of the Deal, followed by the long-running Apprentice reality TV series, cemented the Trump brand: a brash, bold, successful businessman in charge of his own empire, the “You’re Fired” guy with household name recognition throughout the US.
Trump leveraged the power of his personal brand from the earliest days of his campaign to establish his credibility as a businessman to be reckoned with, a no-nonsense guy who gets things done. The power of his brand has helped to keep his reputation strong among his supporters, even as scandal after scandal has engulfed his administration.
In the past four years, Trump has consolidated his cult-like following within the Republican Party. The rise of Brand Trump provides an additional layer of protection against political attacks. With a few exceptions, notably Mitt Romney, the glue that holds the Party together is based on Donald Trump’s force of influence.
Trump has in fact followed the effective brand building techniques of the likes of McDonald’s, Starbucks and Apple. Brand Trump has established an emotional connection which sells not a tangible product or service but a brand ideology. Donald Trump’s playbook is centered on delivering meaning encapsulated in simplicity. We have outlined the effectiveness of Brand Trump according to how the brand is projected and perceived. The outcome is a level of trust in the promise of the brand which voters will choose either to reward or punish.
Brand Trump is clearly recognizable through key branding codes: its Trumpian red (confidence), slogan (MAGA), brand story (maverick self-made billionaire disrupting the political establishment), and family associations (Ivanka Trump). The brand’s power derives in large part from its All-American associations: Trump has turned himself into a living symbol of core American values such as American patriotism, embracing the US flag and even the Confederate flag to punctuate speeches. Ideas surrounding his wealth, originally inherited from his father, are particularly telling: transforming him into a self-made man is a better embodiment of the “American dream”, the pursuit of wealth and happiness written into the US constitution.
It is also the brand’s assertive language, style and tone which exerts a distinctive sense of control and authority (tweets which end with repeated exclamation mark, coupled with capitalized words and emphatic repetition of key phrases). Trump’s repetitive way of speaking and writing, which writer Phillip Roth once derided as a “77-word vocabulary”, is actually an asset when it comes to Brand Trump, communicating clear values and sentiments: “tremendous,” “great”, “beautiful”, “nasty”, “loser,” and “sad!” are all instantly recognizable as Trump-speak. It is this consistency which has turned Donald Trump into one of the most iconic brands in modern society.
Brand Trump occupies a distinct place in the minds of the electorate. America First is not a new phenomenon, but it has been subsumed into Brand Trump. Highly symbolic political initiatives, from building the wall on the Mexican border to imposing tariffs on Chinese goods, have helped to underline a distinctive brand positioning. Brand Trump is binary. Brand Trump is not about compromise. The electorate is either with Brand Trump or against it. This is reinforced in how Donald Trump portrays the Democrats as left-wing extremists, the “radical left”. Trump’s messages are unequivocally on-brand, which helps to break through the clutter and create synergy.
Brand Trump does not attempt to “be all things to all people”. It does however tailor micro-messages to important target segments, and this with great precision. He has repeatedly addressed the “suburbs”, a critical share of the electorate which Trump narrowly won in 2016. For example, Patricia and Mark McCloskey, who came to prominence as they were filmed waving a pistol and an AR-15-style rifle at Black Lives Matter protesters in the vicinity of their St. Louis home, were invited to speak at the Republican National Convention. The message was unequivocal: the suburban dream is under threat.
Segmentation is based according to special interests such as winning over evangelicals (e.g. pro-life stance) but also to state interests in battleground areas (e.g. support for oil and natural gas production in Pennsylvania). It is the ability to demonstrate relevance at a personal level which provides a greater incentive for voters to become advocates of Brand Trump. Trump has evinced a remarkable capacity to use broad forums — social media, rallies, television ads and appearances — to deliver messages that speak directly to targeted audiences, and may be missed or ignored by his other segments.
In stark contrast to Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes We Can”, Brand Trump is not about exhibiting “hope”, “optimism” and “empowerment” in the quest of a better future, but looks at the past for inspiration. Trump’s vision, “Make America Great Again,” leverages nostalgia to evoke impressions of a bygone era that remains ill-defined. This is a common marketing technique used by brands from Pepsi to Gucci. Even the Brexit campaign evoked nostalgia with success. When Donald Trump commented on the Oscars at a rally, ““Can we get like ‘Gone with the Wind’ back please? ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ so many great movies”, he was essentially reinforcing the imaginary of conservative values in a better America.
This nostalgia is a powerful branding tool, positioned as it is against messages of hope for the future. It ties in with Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp”: it is as if he were saying that he is not like those other politicians who promise a future they cannot deliver. There is also an element of cross-branding: Trump references “great American companies” to bolster his own brand and tie it to the image of America as a powerful, economically dominant nation.
Many powerful brands exhibit a high degree of polarization.[ii] Brand Trump is no exception: his poll numbers show high valence, a large proportion of voters who either love or hate him.
Polarization can be a risky strategy in politics, where a contingent of enthusiastic voters may not make up for a larger proportion of the electorate put off by a candidate who refuses to seek compromise. Yet Brand Trump turned polarization to its advantage once before in 2016, galvanizing its brand base in swing states to win a victory in the electoral college.
What makes Brand Trump stand out is the way it capitalizes on polarizing political issues such as Donald Trump’s supposed opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement. The impact is to antagonize brand detractors and amplify a polarizing attribute. This may be seen as a high-risk strategy for any brand but in the case of Brand Trump, extreme polarization further differentiates the brand and helps to invigorate brand loyalists.
A key element of Trump’s capacity to benefit from polarization is the way this plays into the mechanisms of social media: Twitter and Facebook seek to “engage” social media users by showing them content that elicits stronger reactions (comments, debate, shares). Content which is loved moves up the feed. So does content which is hated. Brand Trump not only produces enormous volumes of content, sometimes dozens of tweets in a day — enough to rival the most enthusiastic community managers. It also has an uncanny knack for getting that content in front of viewers.
In the 2020 election, Donald Trump will need to navigate Brand Trump through uncharted territory: an on-going pandemic, active protest movements, and double-digit unemployment. Strategists will be quick to dismiss Trump against a resurgent Joe Biden. Yet the power of Brand Trump should not be underestimated. The chances of a Donald Trump re-election will depend less on policy than to the extent the electorate continues to buy into Brand Trump – and whether Biden, on the other hand, can elicit similar enthusiasm. Switching brands is never easy and demands conviction. The perceived authenticity of Brand Trump will provide an additional barrier to competition.
Should Donald Trump fail to be reelected on November 3rd 2020, no-one should write off Brand Trump. Donald Jr. and Ivanka Trump are both active surrogates for their father, touring the US giving speeches in his support. The Trump family dynasty means a relaunch and revival of Brand Trump could potentially return with new vengeance.
About the Authors
Glyn Atwal is Associate Professor at Burgundy School of Business, France. His teaching, research, and consultancy expertise focuses on brand management. Prior to academia, Glyn worked for Saatchi & Saatchi, Young & Rubicam, and Publicis.
Maya Kaiser is a digital anthropologist based at the Burgundy School of Business, France, whose research looks at influence and emotion in politics, marketing, and social media. She is currently writing a book on social transformations in China.
[i] Refer to Atwal, G. and Bryson, D. (2016) The Brand Trump, The World Financial Review, May-June: 18-19.
[ii] Refer to Luo, X. Wiles, M. and Raithel, S. (2013), Make the Most of a Polarizing Brand, Harvard Business Review, 91(11):29-31.