How Marketing Finally Stumped Trump
Donald Trump was once an expert marketer. Although his beginnings were anything but humble, in 1946, when Trump was born, his family name was little known outside of New York. After graduating from Wharton and borrowing several million dollars from his father, Trump built a multi-billion dollar international real estate empire. More importantly, he made the name Trump one of the most recognizable monikers in the world.
In what seems to be the only mountain yet to climb, Trump now seeks the presidency. But has Trump lost sight of the very marketing principles that led him to such success? In searching for a message to galvanize and mobilize voter support, has he done irreparable harm to his brand? This article examines how Trump used basic marketing principles to take his name to the top, and how falling away from those principles now threatens to tear it all down.
What’s in a Name?
Earlier this year, comedian John Oliver reminded viewers that Trump is not a given name. On arrival to the US from Germany, the original family name was Drumpf. Clearly, one is more marketable than the other. After all, would consumers be more likely to buy Tide or Tidef? Oreos or Oreofs? Mountain Dew or Mountain Dewf? Even before it supplanted the Drumpf surname, the word “trump” had meaning. It referred to the highest ranking suit in a card game; a resource to be used to obtain an advantage. The name already conveyed a certain sense of dominance upon which Donald would seek to capitalize.
Trump followed two broad marketing strategies in his early days. First, create an aspirational brand; one with which the average person would like to associate, but can’t due to cost. This took form in hotels adorned with gold, lavish golf courses and even the lifestyle of Trump himself. In his book The Art of the Deal, he wrote about “playing to people’s fantasies,” that “people may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do.” Make people want what you’ve got. That's the essence of building a luxury brand.
Trump’s second strategy: ubiquity.
Building the Brand
Beyond construction, Trump clearly thought about developing a far-reaching legacy even in his earliest days of business. It was also clear he wanted to be the face of the brand. His 6’2”, wide-framed stature and trademark hair made him a unique and easily identifiable icon. As the Trump name became synonymous with luxury and quality, Donald began licensing the brand. This manifested in the form of everything from building projects to steaks to water to board games to airlines, and many, many other areas.
The pinnacle of Trump’s branding efforts came with the 2004 debut of The Apprentice. Produced by reality TV guru Mark Burnett, The Apprentice pitted 16 contestants against one another for a chance to work for the Donald himself. The show brought Trump into the living rooms of tens of millions of Americans, giving an even more intimate glimpse into his lifestyle and working habits. This was truly the perfect culmination of Trump’s marketing strategies. He made money, showed it off and allowed people to live vicariously through him.
Cracks in the Foundation
There have long been rumblings of Trump running for president. A famous 1988 interview on Oprah’s talk show had Trump denying any direct interest in politics, while characteristically hemming and hawing enough to leave the door open. Nearly 30 years later, Trump is traveling the country, whipping crowds into a frenzy over issues like immigration and trade with Mexico. He has been undeniably, and almost proudly, controversial. However, there are signs his worlds are starting to collide.
In September 2016, the Trump Organization announced a “soft” opening of its newest hotel, Trump International, in Washington DC. But something wasn’t quite right. Early reports of uncharacteristically low booking volumes caused room prices to drop by as much as 50 percent. Additionally, a lawsuit involving Trump and Chef Geoffrey Zakarian came to be of interest. It seems Mr. Zakarian originally signed a lease with Trump to open a restaurant in the hotel. But after Trump made inflammatory remarks as a part of his presidential campaign, Zakarian decided he no longer wanted to associate with the hotel.
Trump is no stranger to controversy. Anyone who involves themselves so personally with business, willingly blurring the lines between professional and private life, is bound to run into their fair share of it. Of course, this is why most business professionals separate the two. Yet, true to his determined ways, Trump moves only forward. In addition to exposing his personal life, he now shares his life philosophy, unfiltered. And if vacancies at Trump DC are any indication, Trump the philosophy does not mesh well with Trump the brand.
At the beginning of his career, Trump solved a marketing problem to create the brand that would carry his legacy. That brand was predicated on an aspirational lifestyle, though the individuals aspiring to that brand have never been the ones driving revenue. For years, it didn’t really matter because the brand was seemingly inexorably linked with luxury. Now, Trump’s political brand seeks consumers of an entirely different stripe. These are the very individuals who may have once aspired to the Trump brand, but could not live it.
There have been many fatal flaws during Trump’s candidacy, but from a marketing standpoint, the most egregious error has been forgetting his audience — and, more importantly, forgetting the customer base that elevated his brand to its current place in the world. Other brands have made similar mistakes. (JC Penney comes to mind.) The Trump brand is becoming a confused mixture of gaudy luxury, abhorrent views and being generally out of touch with reality. For someone who once boasted about how much his name helped him, he might now consider changing it back to Drumpf.