Every person on the planet is apt to present a distinctive ‘version’ of themselves within certain circumstances. Picture clothing as the most basic example; school dress code varies to office dress code, which varies to pyjamas, formalwear, exercise gear and so on. Style might be altered on the basis of a mood. Fashion may change with time, age or experience.
Every wardrobe choice you make defines your personal presentation. When you wake up in the morning and you slip on those Nikes, Louboutins or Doc Martens, you offer outsiders physical glimpses into your personality.
Whether you realise it or not, you’re branding yourself.
Today personal branding is just so easy to do. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter enable users to curate their image at the touch of a button. Have you ever searched someone’s socials to gain their intimate perspective? Hobbies, holidays, opinions, tastes, beliefs and image have grown to define us in an increasingly public environment.
The individual pressure on celebrities and political leaders intensifies tenfold. To earn public favour, these entities must first create a personal brand identity that resonates positively with a significant amount of people. Then it’s just a matter of keeping strictly within in the boundaries of that brand. At all times.
Political party preferences are certainly influenced by the candidate’s brand. This isn’t to discount the necessary consideration of promised policies – only to focus our study on the material presentation of ‘leadership’. So let’s compare the self-constructed brands of two American president-elects who both engaged social media as a means to propagate their campaigns.
In itself, the Trump name is a corporation. After taking control of his family’s firm Elizabeth Trump & Son, Donald Trump was quick to rebrand as the less domestic Trump Organization. Fearlessly attaching his name to anything and everything within grasp, the entrepreneur built and renovated many Trump hotels, casinos and golf courses, headlined a reality program, and put his stamp on everything from vodka to a controversial foundation.
Branding a personal identity onto an international conglomerate gives the Trump name power. The Trump legacy is affluent, bold and brash. Like Trump himself, it looms.
The president’s personal Twitter account enforces this grand aura of intimidation. Devoid of neutrality, Trump’s loud bias is somewhat unusual in its excess. Emotional tweets flood from his hand constantly. Capitalised phrases are intended to exude a brand of strength, confidence and resolve – but translate as force across a digital forum.
Trump’s harrying tactics are par for the course of his brand. Refusing to compromise or accept any accountability (to do so would contradict his public identity), the president ladles blame and criticism onto anything or anyone convenient.
These accusations are a crude example of strategic branding. By shifting the blame onto his predecessor Obama and The Obama Administration, Trump positions himself as America’s only champion. The ‘dumb deal’ in question – whether right or wrong – implies the previous administration is liable for an uneducated and foolish mistake. Inclusive address inspires public confidence; Trump will debate Obama’s error.
If he fails it was never his fault; if he succeeds he has ‘made America great again’. He’ll have branded himself as an unrelenting, unapologetic hero.
Trump’s pitiless consistency has made his ‘brand’ relatively easy to maintain. But whether the public buy into it will depend entirely on his actions.
Take IKEA, whose brand vision is ‘to create a better everyday life for…many people’. Easy to say, but do they follow through? Yes. In addition to compiling data and customer surveys, IKEA’s design experts physically visit real homes to hone the pressing needs of customers. No one wants Trump to go door-to-door. They just want him to listen.
President Obama was never going to win one hundred percent of the nation’s trust; no leader ever will. But he did his best to listen to the people – implementing an act intended to aid ordinary citizens by lowering the cost of health insurance. Obamacare was not without negatives, but it helped to reinforce Obama’s presidential brand as a pioneer – selfless, devoted, a servant to the people.
As the first sitting president to own a Twitter account, Obama forged the future of social media in American politics. Splitting control of the handle with non-profit Organizing for Action, Obama’s twitter was engaged as both a means of personal branding and a platform to share policy efforts with voters.
The former president’s carefully constructed tone of voice reads as open and professional. To improve trust in his brand’s competence, all tweets engage correct grammar, support claims with external evidence links, and document content relevant to his role. The voice that speaks through Twitter does not represent ‘Obama the person’ (as Trump’s does) – it represents ‘Obama the President’.
Obama chose to advertise his professional identity. Trump made things personal.
Another noteworthy disparity between presidential personalities is the emphasis placed on teamwork and support. Let’s take a moment to compare websites.
This parallel offers insight into the spirit evoked by each deliberate visual representation of the president.
Unsatisfied with just one image, Trump’s website features two ‘flattering’ portraits side-by-side. Double the Trump; double the power. A low camera angle reinforces this idea – the viewer is obliged to look up to the president.
Meanwhile, the Obamas stand united. Intentional positioning serves to highlight their harmony – the supportive body language, the equal lean. Turning away from the camera’s gaze, they look to the future. They are loved by each other and ‘we, the people’ are loved by them.
In President Obama’s campaign, the concept of family serves as a metaphor for the support of a nation; great strength can be found in numbers. Trump’s website tells an entirely different story. His brand doesn’t rely on anyone but himself.
In the age of the Internet – an era that enables the anonymity to voice any opinion with little consequence – holding anyone (or anything) within the public spectrum ‘accountable’ is commonplace.
When clothing franchise GAP rebranded its logo in 2010, people were not happy. The unexplained change raised the question of intent – why edit the brand but not the clothing? Online backlash instigated a PR debacle, and GAP reverted to its original logo in less than a week.
When a brand is ‘working’ for the population, sudden change can be alienating. Obama reinforced the presidential decorum the US had come to expect, so given the choice between two prospective candidates, the majority of citizens voted for the entrant more aligned with that identity. When her defeat became apparent, the nation rebelled. Trump had lost the popular vote by a considerable margin but would still be president. The Electoral College system had cheated America’s ‘freedom of choice’.
Alarmed by his problematic identity and its potential impact on the country, people cried, debated, criticised, rationalised, rallied and protested Trump’s election online. But the vote was final. Unlike GAP, the senate couldn’t call ‘swapsies’ and trade back the original hoping no one would notice.
So, if a brand intended to serve the public fails the public in some fundamental way and refuses to accommodate its wishes, how does the community regain control?
Isolate the Achilles heel.
TRUMP GOES LIVE
Both Trump’s personal brand and his organisation have been built on the illusion of power. It comes as no surprise then that the media has levelled the ‘titan’ with humour – positioning his preening narcissism as the butt of every joke.
Alec Baldwin’s eerily uncanny impression of the president on comedy program Saturday Night Live (SNL) received a hugely popular response, with fans and celebrities even suggesting the actor replace Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Dominican newspaper El Nacional was in fact so duped by Baldwin’s photorealism, they published his image under the assumption it depicted the real president.
The impressive impersonation mimics Trump’s voice, intonation, expressions and appearance – effective in its shrewd accuracy. It thrills through contrast of intent; Trump’s egotism is unrelentingly serious, Baldwin can tell and take a joke.
As born naturals at mimicry (how else did you pick up your accent?) people appreciate the amusing insight impersonations offer. Isolating key traits through exaggeration, good impressions hold the ability to highlight truth of character, and in some instances may actually soften public opinion of the impersonated.
Throughout its course SNL has skewered a bevy of politicians – from Reagan to Palin to Bush. But Baldwin’s Trump shines somehow brighter; a swaggering, blustering, leathery orange barely able to conceal his panic.
TRUMP GOES VIRAL
For those unaccustomed to the ‘meme’ phenomenon, a meme is an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. Online, this could be an image, hyperlink, website, video or hashtag etc. These memes, rapidly propagated, permeate the pop culture psyche, offering any one moment an assortment of potential contextual meanings.
Of the recent presidential memes, one theme has become increasingly apparent; the ‘Internet’ has branded Trump a child.
The president’s penchant for holding signed executive orders up to the camera inspired Trump Draws, a Twitter account dedicated to the president’s ‘proudest’ art. The meme’s creator makes light of Trump’s sombre conceit with childish illustration, asserting “the more simple the drawing, the bigger the response.”
Tiny Trump shrinks the president to toddler-like proportions, positioning him as incapable of even the simplest tasks. Requiring Obama to straighten his tie and assist in basic duties, the meme is a patronising caricature of Trump’s perceived ‘inadequacies’.
For every new meme that appears and spawns online, the inclination to classify Trump as a ‘joke’ increases. The greater the president’s denial and dismissal of personal criticism, the more popular Trump memes become.
Jrump and its successor The Devils Heir share the same objective. Shoot the president higher and higher into the sky by building and jumping from walls, all the while dodging falling scientists, politicians and Mexicans.
The game is both funny and fun, combining the addictive simplicity of the platform game structure with exaggerated political antagonisms. The app’s original entertainment value stemmed from its absurdity – like the possibility of Trump winning the presidential election, it was an entertaining joke.
In the wake of unreality however, the app takes on a new meaning. Illustrations of a burning White House and a ruined planet are humourous at face value; but when we consider that Jrump brands Trump so incompetent he has literally destroyed the earth, a bleak summary of global faith in the president emerges.
For those who don’t fancy Jrump, an abundance of alternative Trump-themed apps await user discretion. These range from silly (Trumpinator) to critical (Trump’s Wall) to cruel (Trump Dump) to overt fixations on hair (Flappy Hair, Hair Madness, Hell Toupee).
Though graphic quality and end objectives vary wildly, Trump applications are plenty and popular because they reinstate power to the people. In exploiting a digital caricature, the public can figuratively control the man that governs America. But consistent exposure to the president as a parody has an adverse effect; nobody can see him as anything else.
Unenthusiastic public response to Trump’s presidency seems especially blatant when compared with Obama’s. Mobile applications and memes are both far kinder on the former president, treating him as either a buddy (Hollywood Selfie: Barack Obama), a voice of reason (Pocket Obama) or a just generally laid-back dude.
Obama’s positive spike in public approval ratings may help explain the disparity. Gallup polls indicate the former president was particularly popular amongst young voters, minorities and college graduates – demographics more likely to produce and circulate meme content. When we consider that presidential ‘vibes’ tend to influence approval ratings over political advances or failures, public reaction makes some sense. There’s no doubting the divisive contrast between the two president-elects’ brand personalities.
All Trump parodies – be they apps, ads, social accounts or memes – embody the laws of ‘’. This notion stems from the ideology that humour helps us release unpleasant emotions. We find respite through ‘socially acceptable’ satire, because it confirms that we are not alone in our sentiments.
But public branding of the president is not without an edge. Sheer volume and breadth of critical parodies indicate ‘superiority theory’ in play; that is, comedy that elevates our position over others through ridicule of perceived shortcomings. Basically, we feel better about ourselves when we make someone else feel bad.
Reconciling the two brand identities of Trump – a powerful, serious leader and an inept, ill-mannered child – remains an impossibility unless both parties agree to compromise.
For Trump, this involves toning down the arrogance, listening to the things that matter – improving the lives of American citizens for one – and refraining to comment on the things that don’t. From the public, a certain level of trust is required. As frightening, uncertain and useless as it may seem, a little faith in a brand can improve its perception a lot.
In the autumn of 2011, Netflix’s CEO was forced to apologise for two errors: increasing prices and attempting to rename the company. Vocal customer disdain prompted an earnest apology from Hastings; he publicly accepted his fault. Since then Netflix’s stock price has risen confidently, reaffirming community faith in the company.
This is of course, an oversimplification of politics, public attitude and personal opinion. Ultimately, the president wants to improve his public perception without improving his brand. That’s like saying you want to win the Olympic sprint by sitting on the couch.
Unfortunately the more Trump works to discredit public criticism, the more he confirms negative public opinion. By finally accepting the public’s estimation of him, the president might just humble his identity enough to offer his people some hopeful optimism.
His established brand got him into the White House. It may be enough to keep him there.