In the early hours of October 26, while Los Angeles slept, a man dressed as a construction worker demolished Donald Trump’s star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. The man had intended to cut it out of the sidewalk and auction it to raise funds for the victims of Trump’s alleged sexual assaults, but it wouldn’t budge. So he pulverized it with a sledgehammer instead. It wasn’t the first time during this election that Trump’s star had been a casualty of civil disobedience, but what made this episode truly remarkable was that the perpetrator immediately identified himself to the media. So sure was he that the world was on his side that he feared no consequences. And that, dear reader, is about as low as I have ever seen a brand sink.
I will admit, forecasting doom for the brands of badly behaved corporations is a favourite pastime for branding wonks. Examples of such supposed brushes with oblivion are almost too numerous, from little goof-ups like Tropicana’s package redesign, Gap’s short-lived new logo and Lululemon’s transparent stretchy pants to big stuff like BP’s oil spill, Chipotle’s food poisoning and Samsung’s self-immolating phones. But the truth is, most brands are harder to kill than that. People may not forgive, but they do forget. Sometimes they even think those brands will be better for the embarrassment. Crises like this are rarely fatal.
The Trump brand will be a different story. Yes, its signs may still contaminate America’s skylines after this election, and the businesses behind them carry on, and that will be galling. Consumers are still, in the end, pragmatic and self-interested (and finding a decent hotel room in Manhattan can be such a prize that it wouldn’t matter if Rodrigo Duterte’s name were on the building). But in every practical sense, the Trump brand is ruined for commerce in the future. Even years from now, it will hold no more appeal to its putative market than would emblazoning Richard Nixon’s name on a pair of selvedge jeans.
By logic alone, it’s not a hard case to make. Many of the most prominent places you’ll see the Trump logo are actually clients rather than assets of the Trump Organization. These licensing and marketing deals have not only generated revenue, but rather brilliantly extended the fame and value of the Trump brand in the process. In this sense, Donald Trump the candidate really was being, as he likes to say, “smart.” But a strategy like this depends completely on how much people like and trust the Trump name, and residents and developers in several cities are already clamouring to have it removed from their buildings. If you’re going to make money renting out your brand, it can’t embarrass people.
The threat Trump’s damaged brand poses to his businesses is now objectively measurable, too. Research conducted in October showed that 40% of consumers will “shun” Trump businesses, and that number was higher for the brand’s hotels and golf courses, where bookings and prices are said to have fallen sharply (the company has dismissed the numbers supporting this claim, though it somehow avoided using the word “rigged”). Even Ivanka is feeling the pain, with 60% of women in the same study saying they will not buy her branded clothing. And it cannot possibly be a coincidence that Trump Hotels won’t be putting its name on new properties targeted at young urban travellers. Instead they’ll be branded “Scion,” a tactical retreat if there ever was one.
But the toxic state of Trump’s brand isn’t only due to Donald’s recent incorrigibility. The whirlwind Trump is reaping is partly owed to the shallow reserve of goodwill the brand had in the first place. No doubt, it was famous; awareness was never Donald Trump’s problem. But the values for which it has stood since the 1980s have never really been easy for people to identify with. More about ego and excess than about making great products, they flowed from a kind of cartoon capitalism that was amusing to watch as long as nobody got hurt. But this narrative supplied the seeds of its own destruction, with the election surfacing fears about Trump’s dark side that were probably there from the start. The result has been devastating not because Donald’s behavior shocked us, but because it didn’t.
Which leaves us with the question of what marketers should learn from all this. The obvious lessons require no explanation: don’t let your CEO say terrible things in the company name; don’t defend the indefensible; if you find yourself in a reputational hole, stop digging. But the lesson worth thinking about is a little more complicated. Take passions and politics out of this story, and the Trump Organization’s fatal error was its comprehensive lack of self-awareness. All brands are narratives. Every one—whether personal, political, commercial—wears the residue of its own history, and that history provides the context in which consumers judge what it does and says next. To avoid disasters like this, you have to know what people think of your brand, every minute, no matter how hard it might be to hear. Trump didn’t think that mattered, and that, it seems, has made it matter all the more.
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