Love him or hate him Donald Trump is a master when it comes to branding. He has built a business empire and now a presidency on the power of his personal brand. Over time he has adapted, altered and tailored his brand to suit his agenda and his first six months as president have been no different.
However, when it comes to his reputation, Trump’s branding strategy is starting to get in his way as his short-termist approach is leading to long term issues.
Branding is all about aspirations, it should carry the best parts of your company, what sets you apart from others and what you want to be known for. So brands can be quick to create but the problems arise when the brand you are conveying doesn’t match the reality of what you’re doing.
I’ve identified three distinct Trump brands that all share his je ne sais quoi (or brand DNA) but he is using to serve different purposes. This underlines how his focus on branding is affecting his ability to build and sustain his reputation.
1. Strongman Trump
Trump has gone to great lengths to position himself as an unparalleled deal maker who makes things happen. From his book, the art of the deal, to his campaign catch-phrases and slogans, ‘deal from strength’ or ‘make America great again’, he’s sought to position himself as a bastion of strength Americans can rely on.
Any politician or great leader wants to be seen as strong but Trump’s brand is built on an image of absolute strength not on strength of his character.
The best example of this is his obsession with fake news. Trump’s strongman brand leaves no room for weakness or error which makes his positions incredibly inflexible. It gives his communications team no room to manoeuver or deal in shades of grey. So when his administration has been challenged by journalists (whose job it is to investigate and check what the president is saying) they have to stick to their guns.
The strongman brand also abides to the old saying, a good defence is a strong offence. So when the administration is challenged, it labels it fake news and try a different line of attack.
This strategy worked very well for Trump on the campaign trail with those cohorts of people looking for a strong leader to support their world view. But now as president he lacks the wiggle room when things go wrong. Being able to make mistakes, admit them and show an earnest effort to rectify and respond to a situation builds trust, a good reputation and can actually help cultivate the image of a strong leader. As Trump is finding, continuing on his current path may only intensify criticism against him and antagonise many.
2. Anti-establishment Trump
Right from the start Trump was the anti-establishment outsider who wanted to “drain the swamp”. But he now has the same issue as Brexiteers and Daenerys Targaryen* – if you build a brand around challenging the system, what do you replace it with?
Whereas previous Presidents have quickly built up vast meritocracies, full of appointments from loyal partisan candidate and special advisors, Trump has rejected this system and replaced it with one that values personal loyalty to Trump over all else.
Without a long-list of loyal Trump supporters eager to take on government positions Trump has been slow to appoint people to his administration leaving many departments leaderless. This has created a vacuum which some have pointed to as a key reason for the amount of leaks coming from the government bureaucracy.
With leaks fuelling constant media speculation and a lack of leadership preventing change from happening – one can only wonder how long Trump can continue. In reputation management it’s important that you deliver on, or manage, people’s expectations if you want to build a good reputation. Therefore Trump may need to seriously adjust people’s expectations or be quicker at getting his team in place so he can deliver on them.
3. Populist Trump
Trump brought together a range of conservative views to establish himself as a populist candidate, one linked to ‘real’ views of everyday Americans not the stale ideology of Democrats and Republicans. Trump forged this insurgent brand by associating himself with the emerging “alt-right” movement seeking to capitalise on a dynamic range of new conservative voices who took extreme positions on key issues.
This highlights another key issue in branding, what happens when you cannot control what your brand becomes associated with?
The horrific events in Charlottesville last month highlighted this issue for Trump. When an extreme faction of the alt-right movement became involved in fascist demonstrations that ended in violence, Trump was in a quandary. If he was quick to condemn the demonstrations, he may have alienated his populist base, but if he didn’t go far enough he would upset the vast majority of Americans.
Either way, he ultimately wasn’t able to effectively deliver a credible response to help him move forwards. Trump tried to find a middle ground and failed because Americans wanted a definitive answer. Even those who regularly defend his actions and rhetoric found themselves questioning what he said on this occasion.
A clear world-view, ideology or in a corporate setting values, helps defend against these challenges. It makes it easier to communicate what you stand for and thereby easier to point out where you disagree with others and why.
Can Trump’s reputation survive?
Many brands coasted by for years without people investigating or paying too much attention to the reality behind them. This was the time when Trump thrived.
However, in the new age of reputation it is not possible to get away with this. Trump’s strategy of re-invention and branding is unstainable and with Bannon, Priebus, Gorka, Scaramucci and Spicer no longer in the picture he’s running out of senior advisors to help him continue to rise from the ashes.
Putting my own political views aside, I believe Trump should set out his stall once and for all. Make a stand on what he believes in and more importantly, how he’s going to begin delivering it. That way he stands a chance of being able to build a good reputation.
* Daenerys Targaryen is a fictional character from Game of Thrones