Brand stretching: Trump’s towering ambition
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Brand stretching: Trump’s towering ambition

A controversial run for the American presidency shows the risk of stretching a solid brand too far

Donald Trump, titan of the business world and A-list celebrity, announced that he was running for President of the United States by standing up in front of the cameras and saying: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best...They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

It might come as a surprise to hear that the man saying something so controversial – not to mention offensive – is trying to get elected to one of the most powerful political offices in the world. Trump is normally associated with real estate, but he is most notable for his success in selling himself, making his name synonymous with luxury despite a famously awful comb-over and several bankruptcies. His brand has been used to market food, menswear, golf, books, board games, home furnishings and mortgages. He doesn’t even own many of the buildings that bear his name – it’s used under license.

But is politics a stretch too far for brand Trump?

With his campaign, Trump may be falling victim to a brand-stretching issue – offending loyal consumers with a move into a category where the rules are different. As a result of his comments, Trump has already lost an estimated US$78.5m in television contracts, plus agreements with Macy’s, the PGA and NASCAR.

While obviously not at the same level of offensiveness as Trump’s comments, consider the case of Harley Davidson, which hurt its tough-guy brand by releasing perfumes and cake-decorating kits.

Or contrast Trump with another celebrity businessman, Richard Branson, whose projects have been just as varied: records, trains, planes, space exploration and medicine. Even where his projects have failed (anyone remember Virgin bridal shops? Virgin Cola? Virgin water purifiers?), none of them could rebound and hurt his core businesses in the same way as Trump’s presidential ambitions have ­– and could yet – hurt his.

There are other lessons that apply to brand stretching; to do it effectively you should look for fit, leverage and opportunity. The old brand should logically fit with the new one, it should help to boost the new product, and there should be the chance for significant sales.

Trump built his brand in the 1980s by projecting the image of a tough, successful and fabulously wealthy man – the personification of the ‘greed is good’ era. His political brand matches his business one, and is a perfect fit for the part of the electorate that associates wealth and success with worth. His fame and media experience are vital leverage that help him to perform in politics, and the benefits he stands to gain as President are obvious. In some ways, he’s doing it right.

Little surprise, then, that he has been leading his Republican rivals in the polls. Perhaps politics is a stretch too far – but maybe Trump can pull it off, and the fit, leverage and opportunity will help him to win the Republican Party’s nomination so he can take on the Democrat candidate in the general election.

Even if he does find success – whether in the presidential race or in another political role – Trump will face financial consequences. A common brand-stretching issue is that the new release begins to cannibalise the old, taking attention and sales away from a previously strong product. It happened to 7Up, which lost half of its core drink sales when the diet version went to market.

A Trump stint in a field as divisive as politics is bound to hurt his brand, and his business.

Rob Coston Reporter CPL
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