The highest accomplishment of the advertising and marketing business—and its most cherished word—is the brand, a semi-fantasy world that is real enough to engender a type of willing suspension of disbelief (that Starbucks, for instance, isn’t merely a fast-food chain).
Wally Olins, the British marketing guru, and an architect of the branding movement, describes the power of brands and their accompanying story lines in a way that can seem quite exhilarating. Brands are the culture come to life, the desires of the commonweal made real (and economically productive), a virtual and democratic experience. A commercial universe once dominated by the monotony of packaged goods becomes, for better or worse, a world of services and concepts and aspirational identity. Apple.
Say what you will about him (and we all will), Trump may be the purest exercise in modern branding. Apple, beyond the creation of its own mystique, has a product. Trump is purely notional—a fiction. He represents a consummate hard-nosed real estate man and exemplar of superior quality, and yet, in actuality, is neither of those things (and no one reasonably believes he is).
This is both a technical as well as a cultural feat.
The first stage of building the Trump ubiquity involves a savvy but basic media buying plan (think of it as outdoor advertising). It costs x to put up a building with your name on it, which will then be seen by y amount of people who will necessarily utter it exponentially more times (fast-food franchises use this media method). And while the buildings and casinos will never, on a financial basis, return x, the value of y is even greater.
It is a triumph of leverage. Trump has never really owned his buildings—he has, in effect, just borrowed them to create the name, which he does wholly own. He transforms himself from a real estate person to a symbol of real estate person, able to monetize an imprimatur that succinctly indicates what’s urban, big, new, and showy.
This is a trick that fashion people have accomplished: lending their names and likenesses to products in which they have no real stake, creating an annuity, which is, usually, the happy end point of brand development.
Trump, however, continuing to hold the stage, pioneered a further level of brand extension.
Brand, personified in a character, becomes narrative. The Trump story—the striving, the grasping, the overreaching, the personal operas, the posturing (Kennedy-like in some down-the-rabbit-hole way)—earned ever-more attention. And publicity, as politicians have always known, makes opportunities: That would be reality television.
The thing about reality television is that, curiously, no one cares if it’s not real. It just pretends to be real (novels used to claim they were real). Trump is a pretend character. Everybody knows this and is, accordingly, entertained or infuriated. But no one questions his right to maintain his fiction—to be a happy imposter (the more elaborate the fiction, the more he is entitled to it, and appreciated for it).
This is what everybody at the highest level of marketing is trying to do: create a persona (for a product or for a character) which has value. Since branding is an overused word, we might better call it Trumping. I’m in Trumping. I run a Trumping agency. I think we can Trump this.
But the point is that few marketing people are capable of the kind of public fiction and theater that creates a Trump—which might seem fortunate. Except if this is your business.
Fredrik CarlstrÖm, the CEO of Great Works America, argues that a considerable failure of most marketers is that, from a narrative and performance point of view, they are pitifully timid creatures. They aren’t showmen enough to create the shows that create the brands. In other words, if post-industrial commerce is all about creating new worlds and spectacles and mythologies (comic book or not) for the consumer, Trump’s the model.
Let us not argue right and wrong, worthy or meretricious. Just that the world is as it is.