Brand Trump

How the developer-cum-TV star-cum-presidential candidate became a living product

Donald John Trump wasn’t always a brand.

In fact, he was almost a movie director—until, he once said, he “decided real estate was a much better business.” That was 1964. Young Trump set off for Wharton and then chose to take Manhattan. He did some deals, built some buildings, decided they looked better with his name on them. You know the rest: Trump Tower, Trump Plaza, Trump Taj Mahal casino, et al.

But somewhere along the line, The Donald crossed into that magical world where only the likes of Oprah get to go: His name became a brand. “A brand unto himself,” offers one marketer. “Only a brand, with no substance underneath it,” jabs another.

The billion-dollar question: How? This model of American success has paid four visits to bankruptcy court. His popularity ratings are “as bad as they’ve always been—they’ve never been otherwise,” says Q Scores president Steven Levitt. “Four-and-a-half times more people are turned off by him than turned on.” Yet that hasn’t stopped Trump from affixing his name to condos, casinos, books, golf clubs, an airline, a furniture collection, a menswear label, boxed chocolate, loose tea, and bottled water. It hasn’t stopped him from getting a TV show, nor from dabbling—three times—with a run for the Oval Office, nor from being unapologetically, unrelentingly Donald Trump. So let’s just ask: Does he actually see himself as a kind of living brand? “Absolutely,” says one of his spokespersons.

Witness one of the miracles of the American mise-en-scène: Trump has fed us so much Trump that we’ve come to accept what he stands for—luxury, success, fearlessness—even if we don’t quite cotton to the man. Says Gregg Lipman of marketing consultancy CBX: “Much like Ralph Lipshitz—uh, Ralph Lauren—Trump has effectively created a brand that stands for something more than himself.”

Brand Trump has been decades in the making. Turn the page to a look at how we got here.

The Towers Trump

No story of Trump’s branding exploits would be complete without a nod to where it all started—in the ground. “All he did back then was build,” remembers Hayes Roth, CMO of global brand consulting company Landor. And boy, did he build. It started in 1983 when the gold-tinted Trump Tower opened at 721 Fifth Ave., and it never really stopped. Not counting the casinos, there are 29 buildings carrying the Trump name today, by our tally (Tower appears on seven structures currently, along with two Plazas, two Parks, and a Palace)—in addition to 11 golf clubs. Roth adds that Trump raised the I-beams first, then began a building of another kind entirely: “his character.”

The Bossman

Television is cool because it lets you watch terrifying things from a safe distance: tsunamis, state coups, and, uh, working for Donald Trump. After all, has anyone imbued “You’re fired!” with more dread? While Trump Card aired for only a year and viewership of Trump’s Miss Universe pageant has faded, The Apprentice (and its guest-tyrant offshoot The Celebrity Apprentice) has probably put brand Trump in more American living rooms than anything else he’s done. The possible exception would be Trump’s noisemaking about Obama’s birth certificate, which may have actually cost him viewers. The April 3 episode of The Celebrity Apprentice reportedly garnered 9.7 million people, an audience that shrunk to 7.6 million by April 17. We still don’t know if Trump will run for president, but thanks to the show, we at least know what he looks like angry, in a big leather chair.

Books by Trump

You’ve got to admire the gumption: Just as Trump was hitting a personal low in 1990 (heading toward bankruptcy with the casinos and in the dog house with Ivana), bookstores took delivery of his Surviving at the Top. Perhaps the author didn’t get all the advice giving out of his system. Beginning with The Art of the Deal in 1988, Trump has graced bookshelves with a slew of not-so-subtle titles including Trump 101: The Way to Success, Think Like a Champion, Think Big and Kick Ass, Never Give Up, Think Like a Billionaire, How to Get Rich, and The Way to the Top. (Are you detecting a theme yet?) It’s too bad that books don’t make the margins that real estate speculation does, but Trump’s authorship is clearly an integral cog in his marketing machinery. “He’s selling an idea,” notes Brett Gerstenblatt, principal of marketing consultancy Sequel Studio. “He’s constantly professing the notion of success.”