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.