Trump and the Republican Brand: An Alternate Future
OK, so it’s been a full month now. We have all had time to let it settle in…President-elect Donald Trump. Like many others, I didn’t see that coming. And you’ve also probably heard numerous theories trying to answer, “How did Trump win?”: Arrogance of elitist liberals?; Media bias in polling?; The Comey letter? Fake news? Actually, there is a good synopsis of many of the theories compiled by Mother Jones.
But I’m not a political scientist, nor a pundit, and this isn’t a political blog…it’s a branding blog. Where’s the connection? Well, I happened to be reading a blog post from Eric Gautschi a couple of weeks ago on whether the Cubs’ winning changes the face of their brand. Does the embrace of a new focus on winning, and all that goes with that focus, alienate the long-standing advocates of the Cubs’ brand? And so I look with keen interest at whether Trump’s election – and specifically his embracing Alt Right ideology in order to help win - will fundamentally change the Republican brand.
Trump’s Business Approach to Politics
First of all, let’s take a step back. You don’t have to be a pundit to see that Trump took a different approach to politics. His actions often made people wonder if he actually wanted to be President. But Trump is not a politician, so why would he approach the acquisition of new “consumers” the way other politicians do? He is a marketer. The Donald never saw this as an exercise in politics. Rather, Trump was looking at the process as a media blitz to promote himself, and at least early on, wasn’t thinking of winning. If Trump didn’t think he would win, and was instead thinking about life after the campaign, then being as extreme as possible has huge potential marketing benefits…huge. $2 billion huge. The free publicity for a new media brand was worth the ridicule. The revamped brand could be bigger than The Apprentice x WWE x Jerry Springer (and geared to the same audience profile).
But the challenge for the Republican Party is that Trump’s business-minded actions were politically successful.
His actions energized “non-customers” or “low-motivated consumers”. That reinvigorated segment was one that had been largely ignored: White nationalists, and their sympathizers. Politicians usually do not overtly appeal to these types of groups. Embracing their ideals is generally not looked at as “establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, or promoting the general welfare” of the United States. But businesses such as Trump, Inc. don’t always view upholding those values as their primary objectives. Businesses seek profitability, often at the expense of the greater good. Think big tobacco. Think mortgage crisis. Think Enron.
And Trump’s own history has shown that he actively seeks short-term profitability – sometimes at the sacrifice of the brand. Think Trump Steaks. Think Trump University. He doesn’t seem to buy into the Law of Expansion, which says that the power of a brand is inversely proportional to its scope. When you put your brand name on several products, you may see an increase in sales in the short term, but it undermines brand name in the mind of the consumer in the long term. So I wonder, has the Republican brand also ignored this law for short-term success?
Positioning The Brand
OK, I’m not suggesting that the Republican Party, as a whole, is a racist entity. Actually, after their Presidential defeat in 2012, part of the official position was that they needed to intentionally reach out to Hispanics and other minorities. But many on the left would argue that with gerrymandered districts, insistence on voter ID laws that disproportionately affect minorities, and the language used to describe President Obama and family by Republicans, there is plenty of gray area. And when the new leader of the Party embraces some of the ideology of the Alt-Right, re-tweets xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric, and even includes Stephen Bannon on his staff, it reinforces the perception that the Republican Party is racist. And as John Lindsay famously said, “In politics, perception is reality.” Or to put it in branding terms, perhaps the Republican Party has already positioned itself as the party of racists.
So as the Republican Party tries to define its brand for the future, and figure out where/if the alt-right fits, I encourage them to reread The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, paying special attention to #19, The Law of Consistency. And then ask if Trump and the embracing of Alt-Right ideas are a fad or a trend within the party. Will it cause a split of the brand and create a neo-Republican faction and bring about the end of the two-party system? Maybe that’s hyperbole, but other, seemingly invincible brands have failed or drastically altered their business models for failing to appropriately respond to the market. Think Blockbuster. Think Nokia. Think Whigs. Because by embracing the Alt-Right, Republicans are either being true to what they really are, or their brand is being diluted. They will have to decide. Otherwise, in the long term, the market will decide it for them. I assume they’re comfortable with that.