The Evolution of the Trump Brand

I have been following the Trump brand since I encountered Donald Trump at Studio 54 in the early 1980s. Back then, he had a reputation in New York social circles. He was viewed as an outsider to polite society. He was seen as a nouveau riche playboy and real estate developer who was aggressive but struggling. His book, The Art of the Deal, raised his awareness and his reputation nationally, as did his stint on The Apprentice. The Apprentice really brought him to national prominence. His awareness grew almost exponentially as he ran for and then became president of the US. His need for attention has insured that he has been talked about constantly for the past four years.

Traditionally, the Trump brand stood for luxury and exclusivity. It was posh. Donald Trump rendered his last name in gold and applied it to condominiums, golf clubs, hotels, resorts, casinos, and even wine and a university to connote quality. But when Donald Trump entered politics and became president of the US, his personal brand began to stand for populism, the common man and people who felt disenfranchised. There is clearly a disconnect between the two manifestations of the brand. And now, it stands for something completely different, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Brand equity is primarily driven by brand awareness. Brand awareness is the cornerstone of any strong brand. And, as the saying goes, “No publicity is bad publicity.” Or is it?

Intrigued by the Trump brand, I fielded a Trump brand survey nationally in 2016 and again in 2019. I just repeated it beginning on January 8, two days after the Capitol Hill insurrection.

This is how the Trump brand was perceived in 2016 versus today.

In 2016, here are the words that Americans thought best described Donald Trump (in decreasing order):

  1. Outspoken
  2. Ambitious
  3. Confident
  4. Businessman
  5. Rich
  6. Entrepreneurial
  7. Successful
  8. Billionaire
  9. Energetic
  10. Hard working
  11. Passionate

In 2021, here are the words that Americans think best describe Donald Trump (in decreasing order):

  1. Narcissist
  2. Egotistical
  3. Bully
  4. Selfish
  5. Rude
  6. Fraud
  7. Dangerous
  8. Outspoken
  9. Authoritarian
  10. Greedy
  11. Corrupt
  12. Crass
  13. Ill-mannered
  14. Bigoted
  15. Superficial
  16. Sexist
  17. Loud
  18. Narrow-minded
  19. Impulsive
  20. Boorish
  21. Pretentious
  22. Angry
  23. Intolerant
  24. Charlatan
  25. Huckster

It is interesting that the second list (2021) had much higher scores of “perfectly” describes than the first list indicating that people are much more sure of their responses in 2021 than they were in 2016. That is likely due to people feeling much more familiar with Donald Trump now than they did in 2016. This is also why the 2021 list is longer than the 2016 one.

You will notice that only one trait is on both lists — Outspoken.

But people in Donald Trump’s political party describe him differently than the average US citizen. Republicans’ top responses in 2021 include:

  1. Outspoken
  2. Ambitious
  3. Egotistical
  4. Authoritarian
  5. Cunning
  6. Rich

Top responses to the open-ended response question, “When you think of the Trump brand, what comes to your mind?” are as follows for 2021:

  1. Fake/fraud (18%)
  2. Gaudy/ostentatious/gold toilets (14%)
  3. Fake elegance (13%)
  4. Lies (11%)
  5. No substance (8%)
  6. Overpriced (8%)
  7. Garbage/trash (8%)
  8. Greed (6%)
  9. Over the top (6%)
  10. Bankruptcy (5%)
  11. Criminal (5%)
  12. Hotels (5%)

Others highly mentioned: casinos, con artist, corruption, gross, egotistical, excess, failed businesses, obnoxious, pretentious, privileged, racism, real estate, sickening, thief, Trump Tower, vulgar, wealth

Top responses to the open-ended response question, “When you think of Donald Trump, what comes to your mind?” are as follows for 2021:

  1. Liar (27%)
  2. Narcissist (25%)
  3. Con artist (17%)
  4. Bully (9%)
  5. Criminal (9%)
  6. Cruel (9%)
  7. Dumb/stupid/idiot (8%)
  8. Deplorable (6%)
  9. Biggest loser (5%)
  10. Dictator (5%)
  11. Evil (5%)
  12. Fake (5%)
  13. Fraud (5%)
  14. Racist (5%)
  15. Traitor/treason (5%)
  16. Vulgar (5%)

Others highly mentioned: cult leader, dangerous, disgusting, incompetent, mentally ill, no moral compass, patriot, revolting, self-promotion, trash, worst president

Republicans’ top responses regarding the Trump brand are as follows:

  • Bankruptcy
  • Casinos
  • Excess
  • Golf courses
  • Hotels
  • Lies
  • Real estate
  • Strength
  • Trump Tower
  • Wealth

Republicans’ top responses regarding Donald Trump are as follows:

  • America First
  • Bully
  • Doesn’t get full credit
  • Liar
  • Loves Americans
  • Misunderstood
  • Own worst enemy
  • Patriot
  • Narcissist
  • Wasted potential

Clearly, while Trump brand awareness has soared between 2016 and 2021, Trump brand associations have gone from mostly positive to very negative. Having said that, there is still a segment of the US population that views Donald Trump differently. They view him as successful, shrewd and a patriot. They associate him with America First and believe that he has been dependable in delivering upon his promises.

In context, companies and institutions are shunning President Trump as a pariah after the Capitol Hill insurrection. Twitter and other social media platforms have blocked him from participating. Shopify terminated online stores associated with Trump merchandise. P.G.A. America is walking away from an agreement for his New Jersey golf club to host the P.G.A. Championship tournament in 2022. Trump hotels are experiencing cancelled bookings from individuals and organizations. Corporations are suspending contributions to his campaign and to the GOP. Deutsch Bank and other financial partners are cutting ties with President Trump. New York City has cancelled all contracts with Trump. Several properties are taking the Trump name down from their buildings. Many of his businesses are increasingly unprofitable and a huge amount of his loans are coming due soon.

Breaking with tradition, the Pentagon will not engage in an armed forces farewell or honor Donald Trump’s request for a military-style parade upon his departure from the White House. Scotland does not want Donald Trump to spend time at his golf course there after his departure from Washington, DC. Residents of Palm Beach, Florida have warned Donald Trump that he should not reside at his Mar-a-Lago Club in their community. He is the only US president that has been impeached twice. And he is likely to face multiple criminal charges and legal battles with individuals, states and potentially the federal government upon his departure from Washington, DC.

So, what does all of this mean for the Trump brand? Despite soaring brand awareness, I believe the Trump luxury brand will be all but dead very soon in every place but perhaps a few outposts where Donald Trump is stilled viewed as a hero. However, I think there is still a franchise with ardent Trump supporters, but I believe it will be a different type of brand with a different clientele. Rather than being a luxury brand, it will be a brand for a certain type of self-described patriot. The audience will be similar to Rush Limbaugh’s or Breitbart News Network’s audience and it will be delivered through various media and supported with insignia merchandise. It will essentially become a fan club of a demagogue. In some small way, this reminds me of how the Abercrombie & Fitch brand pivoted from an upscale brand for mostly older outdoor enthusiasts, especially hunters and fishermen to a hip clothing brand for youth. While the brand kept its name, it changed its audience, product and personality. This is what the Trump brand will need to do to survive.

Originally published at




Brad VanAuken is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on brand management and marketing.

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Brad VanAuken

Brad VanAuken

Brad VanAuken is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on brand management and marketing.

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