What We Can Learn About Personal Branding from Donald Trump

While shopping with my daughter to find the perfect Homecoming dress this fall I stumbled upon a cute black outfit on the rack at Lord & Taylor. This was our fourth department store of the day and I hoped this find would end our search. I excitedly pulled the garment free from a tangle of other dresses and looked inside for the price tag. My hopes of finding the perfect dress were dashed as soon as I saw the Ivanka Trump label. There was no way I would buy anything associated with the Trump name.

It’s amazing the feelings generated by a name or brand and your personal brand is no different. What people think and feel about you when they hear your name is important. Despite the negative feelings some have toward Donald Trump, he did successful leverage and shape his personal brand to become the next President of the United States. Although this wasn’t the only reason he was elected…fake news, Russia’s interference, Dems lack of messaging to the working class, hatred towards Clinton (take your pick)…, there are some branding lessons worth noting from Donald Trump’s presidential evolution.

I’ll readily admit I’m a Democrat and believe Donald Trump is truly deplorable, for reasons too numerous to list, so it’s safe to say, I will never be a Trump customer. But to others, Donald Trump’s plain speaking style appealed and inspired hope for a better economy and admiration for his billionaire status.

From a branding perspective, he understood his target audience and spoke directly to their pain points. He stuck to an authentic persona and hooked his brand to an even bigger brand— the United States of America. Trump executed these critical elements of personal branding well and tied together many intangible and tangible qualities to create a fervent brand experience which compelled people to action.

Trump also alienated a huge number of Americans and will enter public office with the lowest approval rating of any newly elected U.S. President and now is associated with every type of bad – ism. The perception of the Trump brand pre- and post- election is striking too, for both who gravitated to his message and at the same time who was repelled by what he said. The Trump brand has also spilled over to his supporters who are now sometimes viewed in a negative light because they voted for him.

Here is a breakdown of Trump’s personal brand and its impact.

Audience

As mentioned, knowing your audience is paramount to creating a personal brand that resonates. Donald Trump saw an opening in the frustrated electorate that Democrats and Republicans missed and he capitalized on it. Trump used his reality star and real estate mogul status to become a champion for the white working class (and white supremacists.) He expanded his brand and message to an audience beyond those who buy condos in his luxury buildings, stay at his hotels or golf at his clubs, and it worked to get him elected. His challenge now will be to appeal to a wider audience of the 65,844,954 million people who voted for Clinton (roughly 2.9 million votes more than Trump) and the millions of people who did not vote.

Strengths and Weaknesses

As you develop a personal brand, identifying your strengths and mitigating your weaknesses is a must. You also have to communicate how your expertise can solve a problem for your audience. Donald Trump did this well. While his approach was nonsensical to some and based on falsehoods, it succeeded in wooing voters. He sold himself as a successful businessman who could fix our country’s economic problems by highlighting a wealthy lifestyle that people could only dream about despite proof of his failed business dealings. He deflected weaknesses by blaming others, changing the subject and insulting people his voters already hated.

Positioning

When you think about your own personal brand, you should evaluate the qualities of other professionals in your industry and understand how you are better and different. In Trump’s case, he well understood how much people distrusted politicians. He cast himself as an outsider and said repeatedly he was not a politician. Trump claimed unique knowledge of a corrupt the system and promised to use this knowledge to “drain the swamp.” Also, Trump well-articulated a list of enemies and “others”— the political establishment, the media, illegal immigrants (the list goes on) – which further differentiated himself and solidified a position followed by millions of people.

Authenticity and Persona

Trump is a pure a showman. The hair, the big talk with lots of superlatives, the playboy lifestyle in the 1980s which oozed confidence and purported success in the gaudiest sense. The confluence of these things, love him or hate, made an impression. He is a master brander who created a persona of success. Finally Trump’s panache for self-promotion and the ability to generate press he parlayed into a never-before-thought-possible Presidential run.

For anyone developing their personal brand, remaining authentic to who they are and cultivating a persona reflective of their values is key. This will attract the right people for your purpose. I’ll leave it up to you to decide who Trump attracted to his campaign. Donald Trump presented himself consistently (his unpredictability became predictable) and he never pretended to be something that he wasn’t. He insulted his way into convincing people he speaks the truth, even though he told some pretty big whoppers.

Platform and Promotion

If you’re not able to promote your brand and create a platform to engage your audience, you will not gain the reputation or traction you seek. Trump leveraged a family pedigree to get into the real estate business and then his real estate mogul status to become a reality TV star. He made a habit of creating many promotional outlets to perpetuate an image of a successful businessman and to repeatedly claim he and his company were tremendous, incredible, the best, etc. The catchy tagline, “You’re Fired,” from The Apprentice is now part of pop culture. His use of Twitter today successful engages followers and drives news cycles. This is a lesson to everyone that you can’t ignore social media and should use it to promote your skills and have direct conversations with your audience.

Here’s where Trump’s brand falls apart.

Goals and Messaging

Behind every personal brand, there needs to be clear goals and messaging. Although he messaged clearly that he wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, build a wall to fight illegal immigration and keep jobs in America, he never clarified how he would accomplish these goals or demonstrate a working knowledge of the issues. This disconnect will catch-up to him and kill his message. And while he spouted off a great tagline, he ripped off from Ronald Reagan, “Make American Great Again” there’s nothing to back up this empty slogan. It’s even puzzling to understand why he wanted to be President of the United States in the first place.

Value Proposition

For your personal brand, it’s necessary to articulate the value you deliver and how you will solve a problem for your audience. The value proposition is typically a brief statement that articulates the pure value of what you bring to the work at hand. This is the weakest part of Trump’s brand. No one is quite sure what value he brings or what he believes in and seems to bend in whichever direction serves his needs or ego. Remember, cultivating an underlying brand value should come before pushing out messaging and marketing. Branding and marketing are not the same.

It remains to be seen if Trump really has the country’s best interests at heart. The colliding of his business interests and duties as President muddles his purpose and value and casts doubt on a professed “America First” approach. Let’s be clear, most Trump products are not made in America so we already know he doesn’t practice what he preaches. There’s a longer list of racist and sexist remarks that chip away at the value he might deliver to any women or minority rights causes. This latter point, in fact, should be an entire article on its own to do it justice. In a nutshell, there are many actions that Trump has taken which undermine any value he might deliver.

Credibility

Ultimately a brand is a promise you deliver on to your customers and credibility becomes the make or break of a brand. By saying “I am very rich” and “Make America Great Again” doesn’t prove anything and when you say something, it should be true. As an example, Trump claims to be charitable, and people may believe that because he is rich, but it’s been uncovered he doesn’t give to charity nearly as much as he says which casts doubt on this credibility. With his unfavorable ratings (noted previously) he will have a short time frame to establish political credibility to accomplish some goals.

Whether or not Trump can deliver on his campaign promises and improve the lives of the middle and working class Americans remains to be seen. In the end, his campaign delivered voters, and they are giving him a chance, but will he establish credibility to keep lifelong loyal followers? If Trump doesn’t deliver, patience will wear thin among his supporters many of whom are truly hurting in our country.

The only thing that’s evident is the perception of the Trump brand has been permanently altered and is still evolving. It will be interesting to see how Donald Trump will be perceived after his time in office. What will his legacy be? But for now America’s fate is in his hands (his small hands to be exact) as well as other elected and appointed officials. Despite how I feel about him, he must succeed or be stopped at certain turns for all of our sakes.

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