The Flaw in Trump’s Branding

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Launching a new logo can go spectacularly wrong, causing great embarrassment to the brands they represent and great hilarity on social media. Of course, the higher the stakes, the more you’d want your logo to be spoof-proof. So, if you were running for leader of the free world, there would be no way you would launch a campaign logo that wasn’t water tight? Right?

The day Donald Trump announced his vice presidential running mate, Indiana governor Mike Pence, his campaign launched a logo that immediately caused Twitter to have an aneurism. If you haven’t seen any of the coverage yet then allow let me sum up the Twitter commentary in this one question posed by John Dingell, ex-congressman from Michigan “What is the T doing to that P?

There was also some interesting commentary about the initials “TP” standing for toilet paper. And an article in Vanity Fair that took issue with the kerning (character spacing) in the word Pence. And some debate about whether the shape of the TP insignia resembled a swastika in its outline. And even one detractor who was more upset about the ‘!” in the slogan than whether or not this logo was appropriate for children. The most delightful design “build” on the logo was the animation that circulated on social media, in which the T’s penetration of the P was “brought to life” in rhythmic motion.

But, from a branding perspective, I believe that Trump has made an even bigger mistake than a campaign logo that has gay rights lobbyists defending his typography’s right to bugger itself.

For months now people have asking why Trump seems to be so Teflon –coated. If insulting Mexicans, Muslims, women, Jews, African Americans, war veterans, and the disabled won’t do it then perhaps being described as “a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully” by the editor of the Huffington Post would torpedo a candidacy. For the average candidate, being described on Twitter as a “toupeed radioactive Cheeto” would signal a brand image that was less than presidential. Trump will never be inherently spoof-proof. He is a walking caricature of himself in the flesh. Trump’s hair has been described in so many unflattering ways that there are websites devoted entirely to the lists including such lines as a “Decomposing pumpkin pie inhabited by vicious albino squirrels”. This is not the kind of brand imagery that most campaigns can get away with projecting.

But the toupeed Cheeto marches on leading people around dinner tables all over the world to ponder… is there anything Trump can do to decrease his popularity with his base? From a branding point of view there is only one answer and that is this: Trump’s popularity will only decrease if he fails to live up to his brand.

If the Trump brand is about anything, it is about Twitter-titillating shock factor and rubber-necking entertainment value. The shock value is interpreted by his followers as an indication of someone who tells the truth in contrast to classic Washington politicians. And the entertainment value gives him a “watchability” that the 24-hour news media craves for ratings, propelling his free media machine. Trump has “earned” an estimated $3 billion in free media as compared to just over $1 billion for Hilary, according to Market Watch.

Any time Trump wants to pull focus, he just needs to pick on a new minority or break a rule in the bible of American political correctness. True he is running out of people to insult but there may still be some things he can find to say about the Irish. Or the mentally handicapped.

There is only way that Trump can undermine the Trump brand. And that is by being boring.

And, for the first time, there are signs that he might be falling into this trap. Trump is being pulled in two directions. His own megalomania keeps him always on the brink of the next shocking or entertaining statement. But there are dark forces at work. Corey Lewandowski, his controversy-loving, pugnacious, ex-campaign manager has been replaced by a far more conventional brand manager, Paul Manafort. And the full weight of the Grand Old Party, or at least those not still clinging hopelessly to the “Stop Trump” movement, are pushing him to rebrand himself as a serious, on-script, pious person in a burgeoning relationship with Jesus. In other words, a completely and utterly rebranded Trump.

Trump has just appointed the most boring man in right wing politics, Mike Pence, as his vice president. This is a man who sticks to his scripts, never goes off piste, has boring hair, and bears little or no resemblance to any famous, orange American junk food. He once described himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf”. This is a man so boring that Trump actually forgot to mention him for the first thirty minutes of the speech in which Trump was meant to be announcing Pence as his Veep.

The day after Pence’s appointment, the controversial logo disappeared, replaced by a dull logotype-only lock-up of the two names. A clear sign that Trump is caving in to the demands of those who want a rebrand.

But this is where Trump is making his branding bloomer. The Trump brand is all about disobeying the norms of conventional branding. You cannot make Trump spoof-proof. And you shouldn’t want to. These are the very things that have got him to where he is. They are things that earn him so much free airtime on news channels and on social media. They are a sign of the changing times in which reputations cannot be managed according to the old rules of consistency and probity but must create debate and inspire levity on social media. If Trump gets serious he will lose his Teflon coating and negative stuff will start to stick.

In very many ways the original Trump Pence logo was spectacularly right. It sparked interest online and set fire to Twitter. That it inadvertently symbolized both what Trump is doing to Pence’s reputation and what the Trump Pence campaign is doing to America, is just the icing on the decomposing pumpkin pie.

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