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Donald Trump at the Republican presidential contenders’ debate, Dec. 15, 2015. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Donald Trump at the Republican presidential contenders’ debate, Dec. 15, 2015. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)


How Donald Trump has transformed his brand Add to ...

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.


It’s generally bad news for your brand when you’re compared to both Hitler and the Islamic State on the cover of multiple major newspapers. Indeed, Donald Trump’s ideologically driven candidacy has become so polarizing that doormen at his eponymous luxury buildings in New York report being sworn at regularly.

If Mr. Trump doesn’t win the presidency, his brand will still be a powerful and lucrative asset for him – but it probably will look very different, and appeal to very different audiences, than it did prior to his campaign.

Since the 1980s, the name “Trump” has been synonymous with high-end status. His memoir The Art of the Deal became a No. 1 bestseller, and he built an empire of real estate, casinos, restaurants, home furnishings and more.

Two decades and several glamorous wives later, he introduced himself to a new generation with The Apprentice, which hit the airwaves in 2004. In keeping with the tropes of reality TV, Mr. Trump turned his Big Apple aggressiveness up to 11, popularizing his signature phrase, “You’re fired!”

That version of Donald Trump was brash and a bit of a caricature; his unique hairstyle was always a frequent subject of speculation. But his branding reinforced the central message: This is a talented entrepreneur who has earned the right to pass judgment on others’ business prowess.

Mr. Trump had long flirted with presidential aspirations. It wouldn’t have been a stretch for him to run a Mitt Romney- or Carly Fiorina-style campaign, citing his business accomplishments and ample fortune as evidence that he would make a worthy commander-in-chief.

So it was especially surprising when he instead jumped on the populist bandwagon, winning major support from white, working-class voters without a college degree – exactly the demographic one might imagine would bristle at a plutocrat’s candidacy. Theories abound as to why he has resonated so well, but one way he has sought to connect is clearly through vilifying minority groups, notably Mexican immigrants and Muslims (prompting the recent spate of Fuhrer comparisons).

But here’s the trouble. Jonah Berger, who has taught for Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, has shown that controversy is a double-edged sword for brands. As he points out, “While a little garners attention, too much can hurt,” and Mr. Trump’s juicy sound bites – which successfully drew attention away from his opponents and made him the focal point for the race early on – are now perilously close to branding him a zealot out of step with American values.

Indeed, Mr. Berger’s research indicates that when you’re lesser-known, even some negative publicity can be a good thing, because it raises your overall brand awareness. Mr. Trump entered the race as a celebrity, but he wasn’t established as a politician and his policy views were relatively unknown, so early controversy may well have been helpful. But as you become more famous, negative publicity begins to stick – and hurt.

If Mr. Trump does become president, his brand will take on the aura of the Oval Office, and he’ll be virtually guaranteed seven-figure book advances and quarter-million-dollar speaking engagements after he leaves office, as previous White House occupants have commanded.

But if his campaign falters and he has to return to civilian life, the negative publicity he has incurred – even though it has made his name recognition almost universal – may be distinctly unhelpful to his business endeavours.

This summer, Macy’s pulled Trump merchandise off its shelves; a MoveOn.org petition requesting the removal drew more than 700,000 signatures. (NBCUniversal and Univision also severed ties.) And recently, one of the Middle East’s largest home retail chains pulled “Trump Home” merchandise in response to his views on Muslims.

Mr. Trump will surely retain a large fan base, even if he doesn’t win the presidency. But they won’t be buying his products at luxury retailers, and wealthy real-estate buyers may hesitate to brag to their friends about purchasing a new condo bearing his name.

Mr. Trump’s campaign has shifted his brand irreparably away from aspirational opulence, and toward parochial jingoism.

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