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Trump’s Branding Lessons Leaders Need to Learn Now

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

Whether you believe Donald Trump is the best thing the United States has ever seen, or that he leaves a scar on the nation that may never heal, his brand evokes strong emotion in all of us like little else ever has.  The brand lessons leaders in every arena need to learn from him can, in fact, heal this country, if we will put them into action.

To be clear, a personal brand is what grows our influence and our impact. Personal brands help executives grow their careers, politicians build their support, and CEOs create companies that thrive.

A brand is a persona that is recognizable and delivers on a promise. No one can argue Donald Trump built all of that for himself. When we learn from what he has done well – and also not so well – our own brands can benefit – hopefully, for the good of all.

Lesson #1: Stand for Something

A brand without a clear set of values and a purpose is mediocre at best. Too many brands treat this foundational part of branding as window-dressing. It is not. Trump has understood that. Whether you personally share the same values as he does or not, there is no question he stood firm for what he believes in and what he does not.

For example, few would question his high regard for displays of strength and loyalty. Public opinion did not sway him. So, when you build your brand, it is crucial that you not build it on values you would ever compromise on. They must be your non-negotiables, no matter what.

Lesson #2: Find Your Tribe

No brand can be all things to everyone. If you try to be the people pleaser you will quickly go from being a brand to being a “bland”.  Whatever your brand goals – find individuals who resonate with your values, personality and purpose. They will be the ambassadors of your brand, within your organization or in the larger marketplace. Donald Trump found this both within the Republican Party, which was seeking reinvention, and in a grassroots base that had long felt disenfranchised. 

Lesson #3: Be Consistent

There has never any doubt what you get with Donald Trump. His rhetoric and actions were always on brand, and he repeated every one of them countless times. This consistency builds the trust of your Tribe. They already resonate with your values, and consistency reinforces that this is who you are.  Those who may have seen you, your social media posts, or sat in a meeting with you once, must see that you are exactly who you say you are, before they will promote you, hire you, buy from you, or vote for you.

Lesson #4: Be Authentic

Unfortunately, authentic is not the same thing as truthful. So, if you are not a fan of Mr. Trump’s, this is a very important point. Authentic means being in integrity with who you are. You can be an authentic criminal, for example, if you identify with being one. You then can do the things a criminal would do, and you are fully authentic in your actions. Of course, then you can be fired or arrested for being authentically you! 

This is where marketing gets a bad rap, because it is absolutely true that an unscrupulous brand can be successful, and many have. That is why brands interested in making a positive impact on the world must understand what makes brands successful and then do those things well. We cannot, if we want the greater good, turn up our nose at branding as if it were a dirty business.

Lesson #5: Solve Their Problems

When you are speaking to your Tribe – whether they are your boss, your internal team, customers or supporters; you must have your finger on the pulse of their ongoing challenges and concerns. This means you will need to gather information through conversations or research. When you do, and you can articulate in their language precisely what they are struggling with, you have hit the mother-load. They are longing to feel seen, heard and understood.  

Once you know their problems, you must offer up relatively unique solutions. Many brands fail at this point, because they know that the solution their Tribe wants is actually not what they need. These brands pass over the Tribe’s want in favor of what is needed. That actually aborts the connection, since the Tribe felt heard, and then immediately ignored.  A Border Wall would do very little to deal with a larger societal issue with immigration, but it felt like a solution to many people, and that was enough for them.

Lesson #6: The Emotional Appeal

Over 90% of our decision process is emotional. We buy based on emotion. Why would any brand ever think its emotional appeal is secondary? Certainly not Donald Trump. A brand’s emotional appeal is its brand affinity. When we have established the right brand affinity with our Tribe, our brand becomes immune to almost every misstep, challenge or circumstance.

Many have marveled at how Mr. Trump has managed to weather an unending storm of scandals, six bankruptcies, impeachment, Covid, economic disaster, and countless legal entanglements, and still maintain his loyal base. The answer is brand affinity.

He has built a powerful brand affinity of Aspire (imbuing those who interact with the brand with a sense of being something better than they currently are) and Remember (associating with warm memories -AKA “Make America Great Again.”) If you want your brand to be unstoppable this lesson may be the most powerful of all – not that you should build a brand like Trump’s, but that you need to know which of the seven brand affinities you have, and leverage the heck out of it.

Lesson #7: Respect Your Competition and Your Team

This is a lesson Trump teaches about successful branding via its absence in his own. The cruel, demeaning remarks that he is known for making to his perceived enemies, as well as his well-established vindictiveness, are the Achilles heel of his brand.

Arrogance in any brand is corrosive.  Arrogance, by definition, presumes it is always right, and generally better than anyone else. This presumption brings innovation and learning to a halt, creating an internal echo chamber cut off from fresh insight. Arrogance refuses to learn from what others are doing well, and adapt its approach accordingly. It denies the thread of connectivity in our world which any brand relies on in order to grow.

Successful brands are determined by three factors:

  1. Their profitability (despite the large sums of money Trump’s brand handles, his businesses have filed for bankruptcy six times and he is currently personally in debt to the tune of over $400 million)

  2. Their lack of volatility (Trump has had the greatest turnover of leadership of any president in history with 85% Cabinet turnover in 32 months)

  3. Their growth/longevity (Donald Trump lost the popular vote in the 2020 US presidential election by a bigger margin than any other US president in history – and that is not fraud.)

When individuals are fired via Twitter, maligned and insulted regularly in public and private forums, the brand reflects that. Eventually those who are needed to support and grow the brand become few and far between.  This is not a lesson about being a pushover, or blind follower. It is a lesson about common human decency, which is sorely lacking in our country today. If we, as the leaders of business and government, are going to set this right, this is the most important lesson we must learn: Respect for one another.

The clock is ticking – and it might be a bomb. Let’s get started, shall we?

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