Like It or Not, Donald Trump Is a Purpose-Driven Brand

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Will Trump's brand empire survive the passions he's ignited?
Will Trump's brand empire survive the passions he's ignited? Credit: AdAge composite. Empire perfume: PRNewsfoto/Trump Organization; Trump: Gage Skidmore; Trump Chicago: Basil D. Soufi; all others: iStock
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If there's one thing that all marketing thought leaders can agree on in the 21st century, it's that brands must have a purpose. Advertising just isn't enough. A brand needs a point of view.

As long as that brand's point of view doesn't offend the marketing thought leader or a wide swath of consumers.

One need look no further than presidential candidate and future shock jock Donald J. Trump.

He's the walking embodiment of everything modern-day marketing gurus expound. Earned media. Engagement. Catering to the consumer. And purpose.

His purpose? To make America great again. (Some will say his true purpose is to get himself elected president. Or to start a Trump network. But let's take this congenital liar at his word, for once. After all, a marketer's one true purpose should be to increase sales, whatever it has to say about the environment or social progress.)

Who could argue with making America great again? No one, that's who.

And Trump's very passionate, purpose-fueled, engaged fan base should be putting him over the top in the market-share battle, right?

Not so fast.

Trump's trailing in most polls at the moment. Which is odd considering that Hillary Clinton is the exact opposite of engaging. And her negatives are nearly on par with his.

It could be that she just gives off an air of boring competency. Or it could be that she's spent millions of dollars on -- wait for it -- advertising. But we wouldn't want to confuse cause with correlation.

Further, Trump's purpose-driven marketing seems to be doing a number on the other brands in the family portfolio.

It's hard to get a firm number on the impact because tax returns aren't the only thing Trump doesn't release. He keeps his specific business results close, too. But according to a report from Bloomberg, bookings at Trump hotels through one luxury-travel company, Ovation Vacations, have plunged 29% in the past six months. In New York, a number of residents in Upper West Side rental buildings branded Trump Place are circulating petitions to have the name removed from the buildings.

Even the Trumps seem to have seen the writing on the wall. The next hotel offering from the family will be dubbed Scion. That's quite a change for a company that's previously slapped the Trump name on everything from meat to water.

But wait. There's a flip side to this. According to the same Bloomberg report, "while corporate reservations at Trump Hotels through Altour International fell 10% this year through Oct. 15, leisure bookings rose so much they provided a 16% lift overall."

So far Ivanka Trump's clothing line seems to be doing fine. According to Forbes, it generated revenue of $100 million in the year through Jan. 31, the latest fiscal year at G-iii, the apparel company that makes and sells it. Net sales rose $29.4 million.

Of course, that was well before it became known that her father was going to give Bill Clinton a run for his money as Groper in Chief. All the talk of assault -- and Ivanka's defense of her father -- has led to calls for boycotts.

But we also all know how well boycotts work. Especially when they're called for by people who weren't buying that brand in the first place.

Take a look at Chick-fil-A. The traditional-media and social-media torches were brought out in full force in 2012 in the the wake of company President Dan Cathy's comments about gay marriage. And what happened? The boycott was met with resistance from an extremely engaged, passionate fan base that led to record sales for the brand.

The narrative was that Chick-fil-A had made a social faux pas that was going to destroy its business. Just as the narrative now is that the Trump brands -- the ones that still exist -- will be destroyed by his disastrous run for president.

Not to get into conspiracies about media and coastal elites, but that narrative is shaped by a large number of people who have no love for Trump.

Large swaths of the ad industry dislike him, too. There's not a day that doesn't go by at Ad Age that we aren't sent spec creative from people in the industry who are making anti-Trump or pro-Hillary ads for fun (and for free).

Having a point of view often upsets people. If your purpose aligns with the values of the media gatekeepers (present company included), your purpose-driven effort is heralded as a shining example of marketing done right, even if you're upsetting a large number of consumers. But if, as in the case of Trump or Chick-fil-A, the people upset are the gatekeepers, then it's likely not even considered purpose-driven marketing. It's just playing to the emotions of a misguided consumer base, never mind what the actual numbers say.

But you can't ignore the numbers.

"After all," the Bloomberg story about Scion pointed out after noting signs of success among Trump properties, "more than 13 million Americans voted for Trump in the primaries."

A brand should never abandon whatever values it has in order to cater to people. There are a lot of people out there, many with strong passions, that you and your creatives may be overlooking. And ignoring those is just leaving money on the table.

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