SMITH BRAIN TRUST — Donald Trump has a problem that the opinion polls aren't capturing. It's his brand. If the polls hold and Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election on Nov. 8, the New York mogul will be surrounded not just by the tatters of a failed political campaign, but also by a business brand that's been tarnished beyond recognition. Restoring that brand to its former luster could be his toughest challenge yet.
The Trump name had long been synonymous with success and opulence. But Donald Trump's 16-month presidential campaign has associated his name with something else entirely — populist ire, demagoguery, bombast, racism and misogyny. "The brand is tanking, and that's not at all surprising because for this brand, the image is the name," says Amna Kirmani, marketing professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "And the name, Trump, is Donald Trump."
So strong was the Trump brand that, prior to his campaign, he could make fortunes on licensing alone. Now that's changing. Trump condo buildings in New York and New Jersey have seen sales struggle, according to news reports. Units remain unsold longer than market average and are commanding lower prices in some cases. At some Trump-branded condo and rental properties, petitions are circulating to remove the Trump name from the building and staff uniforms.
"If you look at where he has made his money, it's in franchising his name," says Smith School marketing professor Henry C. Boyd III. "If people begin to say, 'I don't know if I want Trump's name on the side of this building,' he loses that franchising capability."
During the past 16 months, Trump, the presidential candidate, has been crisscrossing America, amassing a following that demographically is starkly different from the clientele that frequents his hotels, golf courses and resorts. The new following, by and large, is not the affluent upper class. "There is a mismatch between who his products are targeted at, which is rich people, and who his followers are, which is the lower income, lower education, white audience," Kirmani says. Despite the large following he has amassed, she says the mismatch will complicate his efforts to rebuild his brand, should he lose the election.
In the United States, 35 percent of the population might believe every word Trump says, but that group isn't his target market. "He has the wrong product to capitalize on that audience," Kirmani says.
The Trump brand lost value last year among wealthier Americans, as the candidate alienated various groups — among them Latinos, women, African Americans and people with disabilities. When a now-infamous 2005 video surfaced, showing Trump bragging about kissing women without their consent and grabbing them by the genitals, Trump's brand dropped even further, as people took to social media in droves to express outrage.
An online campaign with the hashtag #GrabYourWallet urged a boycott of all Trump products. More recently a social media protest with the hashtag #BoycottIvanka has been picking up steam, taking aim at Ivanka Trump's clothing line, in response to the eldest daughter's unruffled support of her father's candidacy. "She has come out very strongly in support of her father, and so her brand is being hurt because of him as well," Kirmani says.
Meanwhile, investigations that found that Donald Trump illegally accepted donations to the Trump Foundation, and used charitable donations to settle his own legal bills further sullied his image. A more-recent investigation revealed that Trump has a history of seeking credit for charitable donations he never made.
"That all undermines the brand," Boyd says. "As you strip down the image, and you start to realize there's no 'there' there, that can have a huge effect."
Trump had image issues before politics, to be sure. But not like these. "His playboy nature, people knew about that," Kirmani says. "But with all of the sexual assaults and the groping and those accusations, that's no longer exciting, that's crossed into immorality." And that, she says, is what's really happening. "His brand has gone from being sophisticated, to being sleazy," she says. "People don't want to be associated with sleazy."
With less than two weeks remaining in the campaign, Trump took time off to promote the opening of his new hotel in Washington, D.C., where protesters had gathered to shout "boycott." The hotel has struggled to fill its rooms and events calendar, according to reports.
"He is such a controversial candidate and his unfavorables are very high," Kirmani says. "Those unfavorables have to transfer to the brand."
A new line from Trump Hotels, meanwhile, designed to cater to upscale millennial consumers, won't bear the mogul's famous name at all, the company recently announced. The line will be called "Scion," a name that Kirmani says, will likely transcend the scandals of The Donald. "People have short memories," she says. "Some people will know that Scion is really Trump, and some people won't."
Before he became a presidential hopeful, it would have been unthinkable to forego the Trump name and miss out on the brand equity it brings, she says.
"I think he has done tremendous damage to his brand," Boyd says. The best thing that could happen to the Trump name is a four-year stay in the White House.
"If he can pull it off" — that is to say, if he can win the election — "Trump would have an opportunity to re-establish his brand as it was," Boyd says. Suddenly, everyone — even the people who didn't vote for him — would want to stay in a Trump hotel, Kirmani agrees. But even with the race tightening, recent polls suggest that Trump has only a narrow path to victory.
"And if Clinton wins," Kirmani says, "I don't see this D.C. Trump hotel doing well at all." He'll have to sell.
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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business
The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.