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How Donald Trump equated his name with luxury and sold it to the masses

Editor’s Note: We’ve spent plenty of time here on Making Sen$e talking about Trump’s trade policies, the outsourcing of his products, his taxes and his economic plan for the U.S. But what about Trump, the brand? On tonight’s Making Sen$e, Paul Solman explores the Trump brand and how it has fared since the start of his presidential bid.

Below, we have a conversation between Paul Solman and brand consultant Robert Passikoff, who has studied Trump for decades. So what makes the Trump brand? Glitz and glamour, says Passikoff. Read that conversation below, and tune in to tonight’s Making Sen$e report on the PBS NewsHour for more. The following text has been edited for clarity and length.

— Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e

PAUL SOLMAN: So any celebrity who attaches his or her name to a property bestows a premium on the value of that property?

ROBERT PASSIKOFF: Yes. It changes the value. It’s the difference between a commodity and a brand. It’s exactly what a brand is supposed to do. Various celebrities, or people, have certain corresponding values that work very well with certain products. And so, if they attach their name or even just stand next to a product, it becomes more valuable.


ROBERT PASSIKOFF: Well, emotionally, you’d have a very hard time emotionally bonding with a bag of sand that you needed to put on the street for ice. But if someone attached a name to it, like Morton’s, all of a sudden, it isn’t just the bag of sand. It’s added value. It essentially means that the product is better fulfilling your expectations.

PAUL SOLMAN: But it’s just a name!

ROBERT PASSIKOFF: Right. Most of the time, it’s just a name. I mean, today you see celebrities all the time looking for additional income streams, and all they have to do is show up for a photo shoot and make a couple recordings, and they walk away from it. It’s easier to attach a celebrity name to something than it is to actually build the brand from the ground up.

READ MORE: Do Trump products really thrive?

PAUL SOLMAN: But, why does it matter? I know the celebrity is being paid. I doubt the celebrity is even using the product. So why does it have any emotional impact on us? It’s always been a puzzle to me.

ROBERT PASSIKOFF: It changes the perception of what the product is about and who associated themselves with it. Virtually everything we buy comes from three factories in China. And yet, certain things have a greater value to us than others because of the name that’s attached to it. You’re never just looking for basic fulfillment. You have choices in the marketplace, and so you pick things that you feel represent your values and that make you feel different, better. And you buy something that you have psychologically created a benchmark for in your head, and you use brands just to sort that out.

Donald Trump franchised his name and brand to categories in which the values seem imbued within Trump, at least up until he ran for president. I mean, people aspire to luxury. They aspire to glamour. They aspire to money. It’s the good life!

I think it would be interesting to go back and see which of the categories, and there have been many, that he has licensed his brand to have done very well and which have not done very well. Because, for example, people point and say, “He’s not successful in everything,” and he hasn’t been. Water, for example.

PAUL SOLMAN: There was Donald Trump water?

ROBERT PASSIKOFF: Yes, but it did not do very well. I would suggest that the reason that it didn’t do very well is because water doesn’t require glamour. Water doesn’t require luxury.

PAUL SOLMAN: I’ll say!

ROBERT PASSIKOFF: Therefore, putting his name on it, no matter what financial deal he cut to do that, doesn’t really bring anything more in terms of differentiation or engagement with the product. And so it probably didn’t do very well for that reason. I mean, he did very well, because he got paid a certain amount of money for permission to use his name, and there was probably some deal where he got a percentage of the sales. He would want all the money he could get, but if it didn’t work out, he wasn’t the one that took the beatings. Whoever was producing Trump water and distributing it were the ones that didn’t do well.

READ MORE: What’s ‘Pre-Suasion?’ How marketers make us receptive to an ad

PAUL SOLMAN: And that’s how it’s been with everything he puts his name on, right?

ROBERT PASSIKOFF: Yeah. He was a human brand, he was an icon for the good life.

PAUL SOLMAN: And was he unique in that respect?

ROBERT PASSIKOFF: Yeah, pretty much. People have suggested now that it was wretched excess, but if you think back to the ’90s and how people were living, and even today, wouldn’t you like to have a billion dollars? Sure, I would! And I would like to be able to jet all over, and I would like to have a triplex on 5th Avenue, with perhaps less gilt all over everything. There aren’t many human brands out there that speak those values.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, I, as a consumer, want to be identified with that?


PAUL SOLMAN: So if I wear a Trump tie, I’m signaling that I’m at least aspiring to be rich and famous?

ROBERT PASSIKOFF: Right. You have a power tie on, you are astute in terms of what you select for yourself. It says certain things about you, and more importantly, it says something to you.

PAUL SOLMAN: And when I have a little Ralph Lauren Polo player guy on my shirt—

READ MORE: Column: Trump’s outrage over outsourcing doesn’t apply to his own merchandise

ROBERT PASSIKOFF: Brands are hired to make you feel better about your choice. The truth is that the 100 percent cotton shirts are exactly the same, except one has a logo, and one doesn’t. And you’re willing to pay three, four, five times the price for that shirt. Now, we can argue, and people nitpick about quality and such. And there are differences, but nothing that you’re actually going to know. I mean, a 400-thread count sheet is a 400-thread count sheet.

There was a time, of course, when you attached Martha Stewart’s name to it and it became something more than just a 400-thread count sheet!

PAUL SOLMAN: Is there still a premium associated with Martha Stewart being on the sheets?

ROBERT PASSIKOFF: Not as much as there used to be. When she went to court and then went to jail, the brand paradigm changed, and the view about her was that there wasn’t any trust there.

She was one of this very select group of people who, everything that she was, imbued the brand with what it was. And the minute she came under attack, she changed and therefore the meaning of the brand changed. We were down, I think at Foley Square, when she was going to court, and there were a million people taking photographs and such, and she whipped around and said, “This is an entirely personal matter.” And the answer is, no! When you are a human brand, it’s never a personal matter. You’re the brand!

PAUL SOLMAN: How much of a premium did Martha Stewart’s name command before and after her public shaming and incarceration?

ROBERT PASSIKOFF: I’d say that it was 50 percent higher than the comparable product. And afterwards, it’s whatever things are going for in the marketplace.

When we have a product, and it has no one representing it, and you take someone and put them next to it, you can get usually between a 10 and 15 percent percent bump.

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