If Donald Trump is headed back to his Manhattan offices in two months, and not the White House, he’ll be returning to a brand that’s been dramatically reshaped by his two-year political adventure. Maybe not in a good way.
“The Trump brand used to be one-dimensionally focused on success. It was simple and relevant to a large audience,” said Allen Adamson, founder of consulting company BrandSimple. “Now it’s more complex and polarizing and relevant to a smaller market segment.” That’s because there’s a mismatch between Trump’s voter base and his target consumers, branding experts like Adamson say. And the data trickling in from the tourism and real-estate industries backs them up.
A walk around the lobby of the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York suggests one reason why. On a recent afternoon, a Tennessee family in matching khaki shorts browsed through merchandise in the building’s store; a young, tattooed couple with backpacks ate ice cream in the food court. The crowd was there to get photos taken in front of the gold-lettered Trump name above the entrance; they didn’t appear to be in the market for $500-a-night hotel rooms.
And that’s the wider problem for Trump: A large chunk of his business depends on filling those rooms, charging golfers thousands of dollars a year in membership fees and selling multimillion dollar apartments. That means appealing to consumers who are relatively wealthy, well educated and clustered in the major cities — precisely the groups that Trump’s presidential campaign has tended to alienate.
Meanwhile, the Americans who flock to the tycoon’s rallies are more likely to be over 55, without a college education and from rural areas. They might buy “Make America Great Again” hats from Trump, but not too much else. Their loyalty would be much better news for Trump’s business if he were selling life insurance or lawn mowers, or running a conservative media company (which some have speculated he might if he doesn’t win the presidency).
Among people making more than $150,000 — the ones who can best afford his products — Trump’s consumer appeal is fraying. Back in 2010, only 5 percent of brands were perceived by those Americans as being more “glamorous” than his, according to BAV Consulting. When the survey was repeated at the end of last year, Trump had fallen about a third of the way down the league table.
Among likely voters with household incomes of more than $100,000, 36 percent view Trump favorably compared with 42 percent for his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and 51 percent for President Barack Obama, according to the latest Purple Slice online poll for Bloomberg Politics.
The news gets worse: Trump the politician has unfavorable ratings that are consistently high among women, who make the bulk of spending decisions in households, and also among millennials, the largest demographic of shoppers, who’ll soon be entering their peak consuming years.
That helps explain why Trump’s hotels, casinos and golf courses in the U.S. saw their market share of visits fall by 14 percent in July from a year earlier, according to Foursquare, which tracks the locations of 50 million users. The hardest-hit venues were in New York and Chicago, while the drop-off was steepest among women in Democrat-leaning states. Travel website Hipmunk, which caters to younger travelers, said Trump’s share of hotel bookings on its site has fallen 58 percent in a year.
[Editor’s Note: A Skift survey in May also showed how Trump’s politics may be hurting his hotel business.]
Trump isn’t the only one who suffers when his brand takes a hit. Some properties with the Trump name on them aren’t owned or operated by Trump, but rather just license his name. Others, he only owns a portion of — including Trump Tower, where he controls 30 of the building’s 58 stories.
The Trump Organization said in a statement that the data from Hipmunk and Foursquare had been “manipulated to appear meaningful” and that the group’s hotels are exceeding their goals while golf-club membership is at an all-time high. The Trump Organization doesn’t disclose its revenue or profits because it’s a privately held company.
“We continue to outperform our competitors, and we are very enthusiastic about the future and our continued growth,” said Eric Danziger, chief executive officer of Trump Hotels.
Even while campaigning for the world’s most powerful office, Trump has missed few opportunities to express his own enthusiasm for his brand, and events have been held at his hotels and golf courses. The media exposure is hard to put a value on, but the recent opening of Trump’s Washington hotel, for example, was covered much more widely than it would have been if he hadn’t been running for president. And next week, the former reality-television star will get a chance to put both his political platform and his personal brand on display at the first debate with Clinton, which is expected to draw one of history’s largest audiences.
It may also prove one of the more divisive events in recent American politics, though. Trump has long been a polarizing figure — “one thing that has been consistent is him being controversial” — and in the past that has fed into his brand’s value, according to Henry Schafer, executive vice president at the Q Scores Company, which tracks perceptions of brands and celebrities. There are people the public loves to hate but will also buy from if the product’s right, Schafer said, citing the Kardashians as another example.
But the dynamics changed when Trump’s name became associated with ideals and values rather than just his personality, he said.
“The difference now is the environment and the landscape the perception is being made in,” Schafer said. “He’s in a much more serious position than he was as a TV star. He isn’t the host of ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ anymore.”
In other words: It’s one thing if you don’t like Trump because he fired Meatloaf on his TV show or you think the Miss USA pageant is tacky; it’s another if you worry he could deport millions of people from the U.S., or start a nuclear war.
Trump’s Manhattan real-estate holdings are probably less vulnerable to the public mood: They’ll stand or fall on old-fashioned market criteria.
“New Yorkers aren’t swayed that easily by a name,” said Leonard Steinberg, president of real-estate technology company Compass. “There are another 100 things that matter more than the brand name.” Plus, he said, brokers are canny enough to skip the Trump reference and use a street address instead if they think it’ll play better with clients. Not all Trump’s buildings have his name emblazoned all over them.
Even there, though, the data suggest a mixed picture. The resale value of apartments in Trump-branded New York buildings rose 4.4 percent in the 12 months through June, beating the market, according to real-estate site StreetEasy.com. But StreetEasy also found that Trump buildings, which used to sell faster than competitors, have lost that edge.
If Trump wins in November, of course, he’ll have limited time to fret about such matters. In that event, the candidate said last week, the next generation of Trumps will take over the business.
There’s plenty of upside for Trump Inc. in that scenario, according to brand consultant Laura Ries, founder of Ries & Ries.
“Those kids are a huge asset,” Ries said. “They seem reasonable, smart, good looking and well spoken. They are very important to the future of the brand.”
And under the alternative scenario of a Clinton presidency — still the likeliest one, according to pollsters and oddsmakers — Ries says that even if the Trump brand has taken a hit, the damage won’t last forever.
“If he loses, he makes the most of the media attention and moves on,” she said. “Five years from now, a lot of that is going to be forgotten, and what will be remembered is that crazy rich guy who ran for president.”
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