Trump The Brand

No question ― things aren’t going well for Donald Trump in the general election. What seemed refreshing and new in the primaries now seems sour and petty. According to Nate Silver, arguably the most celebrated pollster of his generation, Trump’s chances of winning are at a dismal 20.5% while other respected election forecasts, like the NYT/Upshotand the Princeton Election Consortium, have Trump’s odds in the single digits.

But how did we get here? How did someone who has delivered an ongoing broadside against immigrants, vaccination, and Islam win the nomination? The press and the punditry have had a go at explaining it, but their conclusions vary wildly and rely on us forgetting their predictions when Trump was riding high. In the summer, the estimable Michael Moore on the left said the NY billionaire would win for sure. Even more emphatic was the US News & World Report’s earlier headline, “Trump Will Become President, Says Extremely Accurate Statistician.” Helmut Norpoth, a professor of political science at Stony Brook University, predicted a 97 percent to 99 percent chance that Trump would win the 2016 presidential election “Take it to the bank,” Norpoth was quoted as saying. A while back, I wrote a column warning people to be wary of pundits because they are correct in their predictions less than a third of the time and always over predict change.

So, since the pundits have had their opportunity, how about turning to another group of watchers for insight – namely, brand strategists? Make no mistake, Trump IS a brand. In 2013, I wrote about how the value of the Trump name was estimated at $3 billion at the time; but that was in real estate. The way to understand why he’s done as well as he has in the presidential primaries lies in recognizing the type of political brand he is.

One way that strategists segment brands is by using Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s concept of the archetype. Simply put, these are universal characters pulled from ancient myths who reside within the collective unconscious of people all over the world. Jung would say that we like Luke Skywalker or Katniss Everdeen because they are archetypes, which have become motifs of our experience as human beings. Jung believed that there were 12 of these characters who lurked in the world’s consciousness: jester, rebel, ruler, magician, caregiver, innocent, orphan, hero, explorer, lover, creator, and sage.

As modern branding has evolved, we have adopted Jung’s systems to understand the world’s most powerful brands (Nordstrom’s is a caregiver, while Disney is a magician). So what is Trump? No question― Trump is the rebel. Think Harley Davidson, Dolce & Gabbana, and Apple Computers. Sunny Bonnell, co-founder and creative director at Motto, describes rebel brands succinctly by stating, “A rebel embodies rage about structures that no longer serve, even when these structures are supported by societies and our conscious choices. Rebels are rule breakers and catalysts for change.”

In his fine essay, “The 12 Common Archetypes,” Carl Golden, a licensed mental health counselor, gives us a cogent analysis of rebels as embracing the motto “rules are made to be broken”; the core desire of “revenge or revolution;” the goal of “overturning what isn’t working;” and the fear of being “powerless or ineffectual.” I would augment Golden’s formulation by adding that there is a radical fringe to the category of rebel brands, which I term “renegade brands.” These are brands like Benetton, Sisley or Dolce & Gabbana that push at the bounds of taste in order to arrest our attention (very different from benign rebels like Apple or Virgin).

This is why Trump, as a brand, is so powerful: as a renegade brand, he draws his potency from his ability to shock, disrupt or destroy the established order. By necessity, renegade brands have to live at the periphery of mainstream society. Trump wouldn’t have anything near his appeal as a renegade if he didn’t obviate norms of protocol or courtesy in favor of a persona that’s equal parts showman and strongman. It’s part of the theater of a renegade brand. It’s not so different from Benetton which used shocking, (some say) tasteless images of death-row inmates, HIV patients or the Pope kissing an Egyptian imam on the lips, to maintain its departure from the strictures of polite society.

According to Golden, another word to describe rebel would be “outlaw, wild man, the misfit, or iconoclast” (similarly, Joseph Campbell cites a number of wild men throughout mythology who live at the periphery of society, starting with Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh). Trump made it this far because he IS the wild man and the outlaw. Trump thrills his base to the extent that he deviates from all norms of behavior because he provides them (as all rebel brands do) with a form of wish fulfillment.

A way then to think about the Trump candidacy is as a separate psychic space for people with an overbearing bent. The French philosopher, Michel Foucault used the term “heterotopia” to describe a parallel space (such as a prison or even a ship) that contains undesirable bodies or energies that then radiate back at the real world. He believed that we needed heterotopias to affirm our differences, and to escape repression. In many ways, I think the Trump campaign is the ultimate heterotopia for the authoritarian or the disenfranchised.

It’s a looking glass image, a parallel reality, where we can talk tough about China, make Mexico pay for a wall, and keep out people who look shifty. Like most heterotopias, the people in it may not believe that any of this will ever come to fruition, but they are convinced that the release of these energies is cathartic and might alter the real world (maybe by forcing a more established candidate to a more isolationist, xenophobic position).

How does it end for the renegade brand? Not well. Many, like Sisley and Dolce & Gabana had to apologize for their temerity. And some fared worse: Benetton, for example, suffered a profit warning and a slump in the share price with the Benetton family delisting the company in 2012 from the Milan stock exchange. They’ve now purchased back the company and its new campaigns are far gentler. As Chief Product & Marketing Officer John Mollanger, said, “Shock tactics will work if you want to be known for your advert campaigns, but we don’t want just that. We want to be known as Benetton.”

Last week, John Oliver offered a way out for Trump: a grand gesture that would avoid the debacle of a landslide loss and complete the arc of his renegade narrative – by dropping out and showing how his entire project was to expose the hollowness of American political symbolism.

There is a long time to go until November but the brand signs do not bode well for Trump. Like any renegade brand, shock tactics ultimately grow boring and people become inured to the outrageous. Essentially, we tire of the act. As the election gets nearer, entertainment gives way to more sober concerns. Which is the way it should be, because politics isn’t entertainment and public servants shouldn’t be brands. 


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