For most companies, picking a side in a partisan fight is perilous because it can alienate customers in the process. When businessman Donald J. Trump entered the presidential race in 2015, no one knew how his political career would impact his commercial brand. The results so far, one year into his presidency, have been mixed.
On one hand, the presidential campaign and the presidency have offered multiple opportunities for product placement and free advertising for the Trump commercial brand. Notably, on nearly a weekly basis, the President visits one of his Trump-branded properties, typically to golf. This brings reminders of his golf courses, resorts and condominiums to a world-wide audience of potential customers.
On the other hand, Mr. Trump’s candidacy and presidency have been marred with controversy including an on-going criminal probe into his 2016 campaign, which could expand into his business dealings, his family, and his associates. Already, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has indicted President Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort and received a guilty plea from President Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI.
Another source of controversy for the new administration has been the President’s perceived racial insensitivities, including most famously, his reaction to neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the late summer of 2017. This bizarre episode led many business leaders to resign from White House business councils in protest.
And meanwhile, the strength of the Trump commercial brand seems to be largely on the decline. There are several ways to document this decline. First, the brand is the subject of a large and on- going boycott. Moreover, former business partners of the Trump Organization have severed ties. There are efforts to remove Trump’s name from buildings around the world. And there have been rebranding efforts to move away from the Trump name by the Trump Organization itself. Further evidence of the brand’s diminishment includes the fact that the Trump Organization tumbled to 40 on Crain’s New York’s list of the largest privately held companies in 2017 from number 3 in 2016.
But the story is complicated. For one, Trump branding is on everything from water, to ties, to wine, to golf resorts. While the consumer goods may be particularly vulnerable to boycotts, other Trump services like hotel rooms may still fetch a premium. For example, brand tracking in late 2017 found the Trump hotels and golf courses doing well while at the same time Trump branded ties, watches and clothing were losing ground. And without more transparency from the Trump Organization, it is impossible for an outsider to tell for sure whether the Trump commercial brand overall is doing better or worse now than the day before he declared his candidacy in 2015.
But there are interesting lessons to learn from the two-year presidential campaign and the first year of the Trump Presidency. First, Trump’s commercial brand is an on-going Achilles heel for Trump the man because those who are disenchanted with his politics can focus that rage at his commercial interests. Second, while the limelight that follows the presidency does give his commercial brand a large platform, that attention can also bring damning criticism. And with an eponymous brand, critiques of the man may end up devaluing the associated commercial brand as well.
Finally, a reason that the Trump commercial brand is such an easy target for boycotts (and other forms of rejection) is that the Trumps have not hidden their commercial role in promoting Mr. Trump’s political ambitions. This is dissimilar from many companies’ approaches to political involvement, which tends to be more circumspect and even purposefully hidden. However, as counter-intuitive this may seem, from an accountability standpoint, the brazenness of the Trumps makes it easier for voters and consumers to react to their behavior. This is actually preferable to the trend of companies’ hiding their political actions through opaque front groups, which leave the public without a means of objecting. If businesses are going to get involved in politics, they should at least be honest about the behavior so that their constituencies can take their politicking into account.
This post was pulled from the new report ‘Boycotting the President’s Brand: Commercial Reactions to Trump’ by Professor Ciara Torres- Spelliscy. To read the full report, click here or view it on our Reports page.
 Jessica Estepa, President Trump has visited a Trump property on 34 out of his 45 weekends in office, USA Today (Updated Nov. 22, 2017 6:27 p.m.) (“The president has visited at least one of his properties on 34 out of his 45 weekends in office (including this one).”).
 Jeremy Herb, Katelyn Polantz, Evan Perez & Marshall Cohen, Flynn pleads guilty to lying to FBI, is cooperating with Mueller, CNN (Updated Dec. 1, 2017).
 Ben Jacobs, Trump disbands business councils as CEOs flee after Charlottesville remarks, The Guardian (Aug. 16, 2017).
 Aaron Elstein, The Trump Organization sees fortunes fall, Why the firm saw itself drop on our list of the largest privately held companies, Crain’s New York (Updated Dec. 15, 2017).
 Cory Schouten, The Trump brand’s shrinking power, MoneyWatch (Oct. 5, 2017, 5:30 AM).