The Macy’s Donald Trump Fuss: A Brand Lesson

If you’ve watched “The Apprentice,” you may know Macy’s has a marketing-related deal with Donald Trump. Donald Trump enjoys high visibility – fame, if you will – primarily due to his long successful business career and artful self-promotion.

Nothing changed here save Trump’s association with a hit reality TV show and the show’s sponsors. Trump’s recent public commentary on politics brought the importance of that change into sharp focus, and it’s all about branding.

Why? Because your brand is not your logo, not your in-store décor, not even your customer service, although all these elements may influence how you are viewed. Beneath all the messaging and image crafting, your brand is nothing more than what people think and feel about you. Your brand, therefore, is inherently subject to judgments based on your associations.

A brand forms through all the interactions — whether direct as in the course of business, via media or advertising, or via word-of-mouth (including social media) — between the business and the general public and, particularly, interactions between the business and its customers. Good strong brands, of course, enjoy more positive feelings and among larger groups than do weaker brands.

Beneath all the messaging and image-crafting, your brand is nothing more than what people think and feel about you.

When Trump speaks today, he potentially affects not only his personal brand but also the brands of his own businesses, the businesses associated with him, and the brands of the shows he hosts, “The Apprentice” or “Celebrity Apprentice.”

So, when Trump brought up birth certificate questions surrounding the President during the past year, Macy’s marketers surely had concerns. Even die-hard Republican leaders dismissed the citizenship issue long ago, and election results clarified that a majority of American voters either don’t buy Trump’s claims or don’t care.

Public opinion on Trump’s commentary took concrete form recently in a Moveon.org petition that asked Macy’s to “dump Trump” for a host of complaints, including arrogance and bullying. The petition was apparently annoying enough to cause Trump to threaten a $25-million law suit against the petitioner – a move that also draws more attention to the controversy. It wasn’t so hard for Macy’s to defend Trump’s right to speak his mind. However, when a man accused of bullying and arrogance — and a man who used privileged access to mass media to make personal accusations and criticisms of his own — seeks to silence the voices of those who criticize him, it’s a tougher sell.

Mystifying is Macy’s steadfast support for Trump. In this case, failure to rebuke can convey approval or, at least, indifference to Trump’s words. A quick glance at Macy’s Facebook page (admittedly an unscientific measure) reveals numerous voices of ill-will. Many of the comments claim to be from Macy’s customers who, as supporters of the petition to “dump Trump,” promise to take their business elsewhere.  The comments reveal a sense of betrayal – a feeling that a trusted friend let them down. Not a good thing when it comes to a company brand.

Macy’s may be unable legally to exit from the Trump deal, or maybe it doesn’t wish to. Perhaps they feel the Trump association has more positives than negatives — or perhaps they fell for the fallacy born from Reality TV: that fame somehow equates to popularity, admiration, likeability.

I have to wonder, though, if Macy’s asked the big question up front: Do people like Trump, or do they simply find him entertaining? The latter works to generate large broadcast audiences (after all, protagonists aren’t very interesting without villains) – but it doesn’t mean the audience is sympathetic or even friendly.

We’ll be watching to see how deftly Macy’s steers through this challenge.