America’s Brand Crisis in the Era of Donald Trump
Barely two months into the Donald Trump presidency, America is facing an existential crisis as more and more citizens face the stark realization that the 45th President of the United States is off-brand. Though this assertion may sound superficial, it is a culmination of fundamental changes that have occurred as a result of the explosion of cable television and the Internet. And it spotlights the profound roles that branding and marketing play in the context of personal identity in the 21st century. Here is why:
Like their DNA, each individual is a brand that is unique and comprised of both physical and non-physical qualities. The physical consists not only of appearance and physiological characteristics such as an aptitude for sports or how much one weighs, it also includes the products they choose to adopt – from the car they drive, to the house and neighborhood they live in, to the kind of ball cap they wear. Non-physical attributes include intellectual capacity, belief systems, and tribal tendencies.
The sources of information which helped shape one’s brand and sense of country were once largely centralized by the classroom, the dinner table, and the three major networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC, which mostly spoon-fed a pro-nationalistic narrative. With the advent of cable news, reality television, and the Internet, and the push towards globalization, the sources of information have become decentralized and exploded into an infinite number of choices.
Two byproducts of this cacophony of data are that identities have shifted away from families and nationalities in favor of what some call “identity politics”; that is, identifying with and leading one’s personal brand based on political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, and a whole host of other belief systems that revolve around social issues and what one deems is fair or unfair. The darkest side of this tendency is manifested by the likes of ISIS, where family and country are foresworn in favor of a warrior identity at the expense of all others. The second material phenomenon is that with such an overwhelming amount of information coming at us, many resort to confirmation bias, which is the tendency to gravitate toward sources of information that reaffirm and cement already held beliefs, often at the expense of alternative voices. Hence, viewers migrate to cable TV news channels that reflect their own bias, and unfollow friends on Facebook who constantly counterpunch what the offended believe to be true.
Enter Donald Trump, a brand marketer who, no matter how gauche or gold-plated, has built a brand synonymous with wealth and success. Trump’s ascendance is a reflection of the country’s cult of celebrity obsession and numbing weariness over ineffective Washington politics. Think about it for a moment: do you really believe that without fourteen seasons of the reality game show, The Apprentice, that Trump would have won the presidency? All of that time in the primetime spotlight allowed Trump to leverage a kind of “Simon Cowell-effect.” Like the American Idol judge-as-villain, Trump maintains the willingness to do what most of us lack the nerve to do – which is to look someone in the eye and dress them down; in his case culminating with the riposte, “You’re fired!” And while one can argue that Trump was never a very good marketer on a rational or aesthetic level – think Trump Steaks sold at the Sharper Image – his sheer bluster and seeming conviction has managed to cut through all the noise. His use of Twitter in particular, is upending news desks throughout the world, as he spoon-feeds his own counter-narrative to a citizenry split apart. Various perceived flirtations with Russia, NATO, and martial law are just a few examples that have some feeling like America’s brand is in tatters, while others view it as a reason to wave the flag high.
Sadly, the only thing that may repair the current schism, albeit temporarily, is a massive tragedy either borne by a natural or manmade disaster. Note that after 9/11, the equally polarizing George H.W. Bush enjoyed a 90 percent approval rating – the highest of any president in history. It’s kind of like those alien or meteor shower movies where humanity finally gets its act together and finds common purpose – when we’re under the collective threat of annihilation. Some feel that kind of threat now, others shrug, and still others are incredibly hopeful. One’s personal view? Well, that’s a matter of brand.