July 10, 2015

Image by Gage Skidmore.

In the late 90’s, I briefly fell under the spell of New York real estate impresario and not yet-presidential candidate Donald Trump. At the time, I was part of the newsroom leadership team at business channel CNBC, and “The Donald” had recently purchased the 1930’s era Bank of Manhattan (soon to become Chase) skyscraper at 40 Wall Street. Led by the phenomenal success of NBC’s Today Show, street-level live TV studios were all the rage, and Trump had the inspired idea to use this building’s former bank lobby as a TV studio for reporting stock market news in the heart of Wall Street. My boss Jack Reilly and I were invited down to scout the art deco building as a potential CNBC location.


The pitch was memorable: A tall and confident Trump strode in by himself to lead our tour—no real estate brokers, PR flaks, or handlers of any kind. As novelist Tom Wolfe might say about his aura, here was A Man in Full. If there’s one thing Donald Trump really knows how to do—one area where he is truly world class—it’s salesmanship. He pitched us on the history and splendor of that magnificent building located on the most storied of streets, even having us imagine how we could use the massive bank vault as a compelling backdrop. His visionary, upbeat sales pitch was mesmerizing. But for the fact we had recently committed to upgrading our existing studios in Ft. Lee, New Jersey, we were ready to buy everything he was selling.  


Over the years, Trump has unsurprisingly been a vocal acolyte for the power of positive messaging, preaching to business audiences around the world that “no matter how large and intimidating a challenge might be, facing it with optimism is the thing you can do to manage, shape and eventually triumph over it. Positive stamina is a necessary ingredient for success.”


Trump’s entire value proposition as a presidential candidate is his acumen as a business leader. Yet it seems Trump the candidate is willfully ignoring everything Trump the real estate mogul has learned about the art of the sale. His pitch at his June 16 presidential announcement could not have opened more negatively. Look at how he framed his remarks on the important issues of the day:


  • On trade and the economy, he proclaims:  “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore.… There are no jobs, because China has our jobs and Mexico has our jobs.”
  • When it comes to foreign policy and our place in the world, his position is stark:  “Our enemies are getting stronger and stronger and we as a country are getting weaker…. Putin and all of the other people look at us and say that is a group of people and  a nation that truly has no clue.”
  • And as if enough vitriol had not been spewed by opponents of health care reform, Trump had this to say:  “We have a disaster called the big lie: Obamacare.… It’s virtually useless.”
  • It would be hard to position Trump as being more antagonistic on immigration than headlines have already portrayed him, but we couldn’t overlook this bon mot about how the rest of the world views our immigration policies: “They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity.”


It’s only after painting this vividly bleak portrait of America that Trump pitches himself as the savior. But to what effect? The mood and tone had already been set in the first half of his speech. 


As maslansky + partners CEO Michael Maslansky recently spelled out in a blog post on this site,


In two generations, only 3 non-incumbents captured the popular vote, and in each of those cases, regardless of party affiliation or ideology, in good times or bad, none of their candidacies were defined by America’s problems. Instead, each chose to rise above them. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all campaigned in the language of dreamers. They painted us a picture of what America could become.… From tone to imagery to language, these campaigns made America’s problems a preamble to optimism about the future.


Certainly a salesman par excellence like Trump knows the importance of positive language. So why does Trump the candidate choose instead to appeal to our most base fears? To denigrate rather than inspire? It’s not without irony that we note he delivered this announcement in Trump Tower, an edifice to his most enduring success as a real estate developer. The Trump brand has always sold things that are “elite,” “world class” and “distinctive” (just a few of the marketing adjectives on the Trump Tower website). Where in his brand guidebook do descriptors like “weak,” “stupid” and “useless” come into play? No one needed to coach a young, ambitious Donald Trump to highlight the positive when he was showing prospective buyers around Trump Tower. Trump the businessman knew to sell features like the acres of rare Italian Breccia Pernice pink-veined marble in the lobby rather than harp on the shortcomings of neighboring LeFrak or Tishman buildings.


There could be something else at play here. Perhaps Trump is trying to change the brand paradigm by showing that what a brand stands for (“elite,” “elegant”) is actually less important than how the brand is perceived. Loud, brash, and over-the-top accurately describes both the tone of Trump the executive’s  most successful business endeavors and Trump the candidate’s campaign persona. In this way, Trump is betting that the high rise-dwelling, golf-playing, East coast one-percenters and the churchgoing, mall-shopping middle-Americans can all find something to love in the way he sells himself. Even if the rest of America only sees Barbarians at the Gate.

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