Brand Despotism: a post-mortem of the Trump regime
January 15, 2021
Introduction: the brand despots among us
This 4-part series will explore what I call the ‘abuse of brand power’ and how it led to the decline and near fall of the United States.
We will talk about the methods despotic personalities employ to corrupt brand, and how you can avoid brand despots in your own business. We will talk about identity and values, and how brand despots thrive on attention, while only pretending to have values.
And we will talk about deflection: how brand despots project their fears and flaws upon others and conflate inexperience with purity.
What we won’t talk about is politics. While we certainly disagree with most of Trump’s policies, brand despots are only interested in power, and use policy expediently as a match to burn the flame of their malignant narcissism. So this isn’t a screed against the Right, or conservatism. Instead, we hope it may be a new lens by which to reflect upon today’s most divisive brand despot. Castro was a brand despot. So was Hugo Chavez, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao. Brand despots only care about themselves.
This is an important concept to understand not only when it comes to electing our leaders, but in running our businesses. Brand despots in the form of supposed entrepreneurs can lead investors and customers astray, as did Elizabeth Holmes with Theranos, or Adam Neumann with WeWork. Or they can infect and destroy organisations from within, as happened in our financial services sector, leading to a Royal Commission investigation and the loss of trust among consumers.
What is brand abuse? How despots corrupt brand
A friend recently wrote: ‘Marketing is a clever tool whose purpose is to substitute a lie for reality.’
Of course the purpose of marketing is not to substitute a lie for reality but to sell products and services. Marketing in itself is neither moral nor immoral. In fact, it can and should be truthful and transparent. Marketing can inform us about reality, fulfill our needs, even—in the case of marketing emergency services—save our lives.
So why do so many people like my friend perceive marketing as devious and unethical? I think it is because the corrupt marketers, the con-artists, often get the most attention. They’re the ones who make the news after all, when their deceit is discovered, and serve as a warning to us not to trust business.
It’s the same with brand. It’s very unfortunate that con-artists understand brand so well. Because they use that understanding to corrupt brand, to fool us. And in the end, we blame not only the criminal but the fields of marketing and branding as well. It’s as if we were to blame cars for the accidents caused by drunk drivers. Cars are neither moral nor immoral. They are just vehicles. So is brand a vehicle—a vehicle to express and position yourself.
Brand Trump and the 68th floor
Donald Trump was born to great wealth, yet branded himself as a self-made entrepreneur and populist politician. He couldn’t read a blueprint, yet branded himself as a builder. He never read books, yet branded himself as a bestselling author. He bankrupted his casino—who loses money on a casino?—yet branded himself as a successful businessman.
What he did understand was how to fool people. That if you put your name on a building people will associate everything about that building with you. They will think it has 68 floors when it only has 58 because the elevator buttons start at 30. They will think it is the tallest building in the area because the architectural model of the taller GM building was deliberately made shorter. They will think you are the owner when the property is leveraged to the hilt.
It is a testament to the power of brand that, over time, people no longer cared whether Trump could read a blueprint or write a book or finance a building without defaulting on loans. They only cared about the image. So instead of developing properties, he earned millions simply by licensing his brand. There is an apartment tower in Seoul, South Korea with a sign ‘Trump World’ on top. But it is no more his world than a Disney facade is the Old West.
At the beginning of his campaign, Trump distinguished himself by stating he didn’t need donors because he was rich enough to self-finance. But in reality, he didn’t use his own money at all. And after he lost the election he fundraised a further $207.5 million in less than three weeks from his mostly working-class supporters to pay for his legal challenges.
His supporters never saw the substance, only the signs, only the brand. Only the elevator button for the 68th floor.