How to Understand the Trump Brand in 2017

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The Trump brand is about to undergo a very big shift -- though Donald Trump doesn't necessarily realize it, judging from the longstanding "Let Trump be Trump" approach that he embraced in his campaign and has doubled down on as president-elect.

More on that in a moment, but first a little story: The last time I was in a room with Donald Trump was last August, and it was a huge room: Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena for the Republican National Convention, which I covered for Ad Age.

The first time I was in a room with Donald Trump was 13 years ago, and it was at a then-new Manhattan nightclub called Marquee. "The Apprentice" had just premiered on NBC and the Donald was holding court from a VIP banquette.

Trump and I were at Marquee for the same reason: to attend the 50th-birthday party of Richard Johnson, then editor of New York Post's "Page Six" gossip column. To add to the Manhattan-media ridiculousness of the evening, the party was thrown by Men's Health then-editor David Zinczenko, whose best-selling "The Abs Diet" book came out that year.

In his VIP banquette, Trump was surrounded by assorted well-wishers, hangers-on and a security detail. But his security guys somehow failed to notice that it was possible for anyone, such as me, to walk behind the banquette and thereby come within literal spitting distance of the back of Trump's head when he was seated. At the time, I was a writer for New York magazine, and afterward I wrote a piece (mostly an appreciation of the cheesy pleasure of watching "The Apprentice") detailing how I'd inched up behind Trump, stared directly into the "orangey thicket floating above his scalp, marveled at its engineering (a combination comb-over and pompadour, it's the world's finest pompad-over) and thought about how many construction-code violations it might represent."

Donald Trump took note of what I said about his hair. I know this because in his book "Trump: How to Get Rich," published later that year, he had a chapter titled "The Art of the Hair," in which he (and/or his ghostwriter) wrote, "Over the years, I have been criticized for the way I comb my hair.... New York magazine wrote that I'd perfected the 'pompad-over.'‚ÄČ" He went on to add, "I'm amazed by how often people ask me whether or not I wear a hairpiece, a wig, or a rug, as it is affectionately known.... I do not wear a rug. My hair is one hundred percent mine. No animals have been harmed in the creation of my hairstyle."

The thing is, back then, Donald Trump was fun. He was preposterous, he was ridiculously over-the-top, and he knew it. He was a joke, but he was more or less in on the joke. Later that year, he even showed up on the cover of Esquire wearing rapper-style medallions, hung from gold chains around his neck, that spelled out "BIG D," "$TRUMP$" and "MONEYMAN" in diamond-encrusted all caps. Esquire called him the "King of Bling."

A public figure, a celebrity, who's a joke but knows he's a joke is, at heart, an entertainer. Trump's whole life has been about working all the angles, every angle, to make sure everyone is paying attention to him. The Trump brand, as personified by Donald Trump, has always been about self-absorption. The core brand message: Hey, look at me!

Of course, before Donald Trump became the Republican presidential nominee and then president-elect, his was nominally a luxury brand -- but "luxury" defined loosely, on Donald Trump's terms. Which meant gaudy, gilded towers; a clothing line made overseas (China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and beyond); a Trump University that didn't really teach anything; mail-order Trump steaks; Trump vodka, though Trump himself doesn't drink; and even (no kidding) Success by Trump eau de toilette spray. Basically, anything he could slap his name on. Throw it to the wall and see if it sticks. Say or do whatever you can, whenever you can, as often as you can, to grab market share and mind share.

In other words, his brand was a meta-brand. A brand about branding.

Which is why it made perfect sense that last October, the Trump campaign started soliciting $35 donations in exchange for a "limited edition Trump Black Card," a card that conferred exactly no benefits. The Trump Black Card was about... having a Trump Black Card.

P.T. Barnum, at least, hyped "the Greatest Show on Earth," an actual traveling circus. At some point Trump decided he himself was the Greatest Show on Earth. (Why waste money hiring circus performers? I'm the circus. A tremendous circus, the best circus.)

If (and that's a big "if") you can put aside all the toxicity that swirled through and around the Trump campaign, what does the Trump brand stand for now, in 2017? How do Trump brand values translate to the presidency?

Simple: The brand that's about branding will just keeping throwing stuff to the wall to see if it sticks. Except the "stuff" now is politics. And policy. And national destiny.

As during his campaign, and during his time as president-elect, he'll say or tweet one thing, and it'll mean something else. Or he'll say or tweet something, and it'll mean nothing.

Everyone keeps calling Trump the Twitter president, but I like conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks' formulation: "His statements should probably be treated less like policy declarations and more like Snapchat. They exist to win attention at the moment, but then they disappear." Much like many of the Trump-branded products that have come and gone over the years.

The one consistent thing about the Trump brand has been inconsistency. For decades, that worked just fine (especially in a country where you can write off a billion dollars of losses on your taxes). What Trump doesn't seem to understand is that his new job means his brand, whether he likes it or not, will have vastly different impact. The stakes are way higher on the global stage than they are in Atlantic City.

But he thinks the deal remains the same as it ever was: You give him your attention... and he gives you Trump. And you should be happy with that. My fellow Americans, ask not what Trump can do for you, ask what you can do for Trump.

America elected a meta-brand to the White House, and so far it seems like that's exactly what we're going to get.

Or maybe, just maybe, the man behind the brand can rise to the occasion?

Dear Lord, let's hope so.

Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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