One week after Donald Trump’s stunning win in the presidential election, the debate is still going on, as to how he was able to pull off his stunning election victory. One reason that is being overlooked and should be studied by business communicators and CEOs is that Trump regardless of if you love him or hate him was consistent with his brand identity. In every election since Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election in 1936, the candidate who came across as being more authentic with his brand identity won the election. This election was no exception.
A brand needs to tell a story. That story needs to be consistent and reflect the brands values and beliefs. It is what consumers and voters buy into and will allow a brand to develop a loyalty that will allow it to survive in hard times and flourish in good times.
Donald Trump over the years has built a brand identity based upon being brash, abrasive, in your face, decisive, and one who never backs down. This identity has been built upon countless interviews, books, product lines, and of course Celebrity Apprentice. It is why Americans felt that they knew him, the moment he announced his candidacy, while other candidates like Scott Walker, John Kasich, and even Ted Cruz were struggling to introduce themselves to the American public. This familiarity with the Trump brand is why he was able to survive incidents that would have taken down another candidate (insulting John McCain, the Megyn Kelly episode, the Access Hollywood tape). Millions of voters just saw these events as Trump being Trump and were neither shocked nor angered. They saw it as Trump being consistent with his brand.
Contrast this with Hillary Clinton. Voters were never sure what her brand identity was. She introduced more new Hillarys during the campaign, then Richard Nixon had new Nixons in his entire career. First she was the mother and grandmother breaking the glass ceiling. Next she was the most experienced candidate to ever seek the White House. After that, she was the progressive Hillary in the mode of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. This shifted over time to the consensus candidate who would unite America. Yet at the end voters were uncertain if she was any of these brands.
But it just isn’t in politics that we see this. Recall the Duck Dynasty scandal several years ago when Phil Robertson made homophobic and racist remarks. He and Duck Dynasty survived and continue to flourish because he was seen as being consistent with the brand. Yet Paula Deen who was seen for years as a nice grandmotherly person saw her brand crumble when it was revealed she had used the ‘n’ word. This went against her whole brand identity and she has yet to this day to recover.
The lesson that Trump and others serve is that by being consistent with a brand identity forged over the year will allow a brand to weather the worse of scandals and allow for even greater success. Having no brand identity or going against an established brand identity is a recipe for disaster.
Duck Dynasty star and patriarch, Phil Robertson (Duck Commander) is the subject of a media firestorm over comments he made about homosexuals in GQ Magazine. In his interview, Robertson uses lewd imagery to discuss why he doesn’t understand homosexuality, which he goes on to call it a sin and compare homosexuality to bestiality based upon his Christian beliefs. GLADD vehemently denounced Robertson’s comments as some of the vilest ever directed towards homosexuals. While the controversy has been focused on the remarks he made about homosexuals, he also made controversial comments about African Americans, saying the cotton farm workers he knew in Louisiana were “happy” with their jobs. A&E, the network that carries Duck Dynasty announced that it was suspending Robertson indefinitely over his remarks. This in turn has led to a massive reaction against A&E and in favor of Robertson. Social media is burning up with tweets and Facebook posts defending Robertson. Sarah Palin, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and even Geraldo Rivera have come to his defense. So can the Duck Dynasty brand survive? How has Robertson handled his crisis communications efforts?
The answer to the first question is obvious. Of course the Duck Dynasty brand will survive and will actually flourish as a result of this controversy. Some will say, Paula Deen was caught admitting using the ‘n’ word over twenty years ago and her brand has been damaged severely, why the difference. The difference is that Deen’s brand was built around her persona of being a sweet grandmotherly personality her use of the ‘n’ word didn’t go with that image and her crisis communications efforts were abysmal.
Robertson and the Duck Dynasty brand have never pretended to be politically correct. Part of their appeal and brand identity has been built around their authenticity and saying what is on their mind. Even more so much of their appeal has been their strong Christian faith that appeals to a large number of their fans. In that aspect, Robertson’s remarks and his explanation reinforce that branding. Fans of Duck Dynasty fit into a more conservative outlook and are apt to agree with Robertson. Beyond that many of the shows fans will sympathize with Robertson believing that it was his first amendment right to say what he believes. Overall, the Duck Dynasty brand has strengthened their ties with their existing fans.
Beyond that, people who have never watched Duck Dynasty will probably tune into the show to find out what all the controversy is about that the media is reporting. Not all of these new viewers will stay but some will and become Duck Dynasty fans. So overall the brand comes out ahead earning itself millions in free publicity.
Robertson’s crisis communications efforts have been good so far. He released a brief statement that reaffirmed his Christian belief while stating he would never disrespect anyone. Beyond that he has been quiet and done no embarrassing YouTube videos apologizing nor attacked either his critics or A&E. His cast members (as would be expected since they are family members) are all supportive of him. His fans are vocal on social media and are petitioning A&E to drop his suspension. He has prominent supporters who appeal to his brand’s demographics supporting him. Next he needs to do a media interview with Oprah or perhaps Barbara Walters and address the issue and then continue his silence.
Despite the media firestorm, the Duck Dynasty brand and Phil Robertson are probably stronger as a result of this controversy. Robertson played to his authenticity branding that appeals to his fans and reinforced that appeal. His crisis response has avoided the pitfall that we often see in which the crisis response becomes the story (see Paula Deen and Lululemon). This is living proof that in the 24/7 media cycle and social media world that we live in, at times a crisis can be the best thing to happen to a brand.