Donald Trump would have made a great ad man.
He evokes another time and another Donald, fictional leading man Don Draper of the recent television series “Mad Men.” Back in the day, ad man Draper’s world was one where men were men, women and minorities knew their place, and the greatness of America was an article of faith.
Just a stone’s throw east of where Trump Tower now stands, where these men of Madison Avenue were at the epicenter of the advertising business in mid-20th century America, Mr. Trump would have felt right at home.
It was all so simple then. And now, he wants to take us there again.
How did we get here? It started years ago when Donald Trump, the high-profile real estate developer, began focusing more on building a brand than developing buildings.
This was his new business model. He would license the Trump name to other developers. As the cash register kept ringing, his brand recognition kept growing. Brash and bold in glistening gold, the name started to appear on properties all over New York. Some assumed all those buildings were actually his, but most weren’t. It became part of the myth, as did his moves into casinos, men’s clothing and beyond.
When he expanded his celebrity to reality television, taking the pursed lips and perpetual scowl national, he further cultivated the persona of a strong and decisive leader who made things happen. Awareness of his brand soared. And he began to flirt with the idea of parlaying this into something more.
Brands have personalities, and the one he built — as he would be the first to tell you — is huge. It’s interesting that, despite the ultimate failure of many of his ventures, in the minds of most people, the Trump name has, over his long career, never stopped being synonymous with success.
Those of us familiar with building brands — I helped build some myself during a 37-year career in advertising — know that the most successful ones create a powerful emotional bond that can, forgive me, trump thought itself. Once prospective customers buy in, they are willing to look past inconvenient facts, and even in Trump’s case, demonstrable falsehoods. They won’t let anything come between them and their brand.
As someone who has always been, first and foremost, a master marketer, Donald Trump the newborn politician, understood and exploited this expertly. He identified and tapped into a target audience desperate to once again have a dream.
And he sold them one, an illusion so grand, he rode it all the way to the White House.
And now, just a little more than three months in office, the self-described winner has been piling up losses at record speed. Political historians can’t recall such an inauspicious beginning to any previous presidency. With a botched travel ban, the failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, and numerous other missteps, a perception of chaos and incompetence is tarnishing the Trump brand.
The Trump team, anticipating an unkind verdict on its performance at month’s end — the symbolic 100-day benchmark — already has had internal discussions about “rebranding.” But an aggressive effort to reframe these first 100 days as a success, to counter the expected media narrative, could prove counterproductive.
As advertising icon Jerry Della Femina has famously observed: “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising. Everyone tries the thing, and never buys it again.”
Right now, the president is selling a bad product. He got people to try it by promising a Mustang, then delivering an Edsel.
While this has yet to put a dent in Trump’s hardcore support, what happens when those coal miners in West Virginia come to realize that their jobs and way of life are not coming back? Or the folks in Arizona start wondering why The Wall they’ve been promised isn’t being built? Or when people across America begin to feel the loss of health insurance they were assured would be theirs?
Is there a tipping point where intense brand loyalty will stop translating to blind loyalty? A year from now, will Mr. Trump be able to say, as he did during the campaign, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters”?
Speaking of Fifth Avenue, it is instructive to look at how he did last November with voters in Manhattan, his home turf. The people who know him best gave him a meager 14 percent of their vote. Clearly, they had no illusions about Donald Trump.
If he doesn’t start to deliver more of what his supporters were promised, before long, even the most ardent among them might start to shed their illusions, too.
The author is a retired advertising executive and a freelance writer.