America’s Brand Identity Crisis Under Trump

Back in 2014, I was the lead strategist on the marketing team that, for the first time, created a formal brand identity for New York State (New York State of Opportunity) to coordinate with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s second-term election. I had a ringside seat observing the many ways in which Cuomo’s robust brand influenced the creation of the state’s identity—how the governing force tweaked the values that the state uniquely owns in the minds of its citizens, businesses and tourists, and how it profoundly affected the ways these constituencies see their respective reflections in the state’s brand. We are now witnessing a similar appropriation of our national identity as President Trump impacts the essence and personality of America’s brand experience, both for its citizens and those seeking to engage it from the outside. America is experiencing an identity crisis, and this calls into question what it means to be an American or one of its allies.

For better or worse, Trump’s brand dials up or down core values of the American identity. His maverick style is in keeping with the spirit of our American experiment, characterized by bold, often reckless action in pursuit of a nationalistic manifest destiny. His success surely embodies the aggressive, opportunistic model of American capitalism, at once the most entrepreneurial and cutthroat sides of our national personality. And where some see a disavowal of our bedrock trait of liberty—most notably in Trump’s failed attempts to ban Muslims from immigrating and his antagonism of a free press—others see an expression of American libertarianism as he disempowers federal regulations over businesses and the citizenry whether by intent or indifference. Trump has jerked our national personality inward and jacked up the outrage, Boston-Tea-Party-style, with a vision of America besieged by powers scheming to take advantage of us or do us outright harm.

“Make America Great Again” is nothing less than a tag line for an American brand that seeks to reclaim virility, egoism and anti-intellectualism as essential components of its brand character.

The problem we face today is that Trump’s brand of cynical America divides both the national and world populations into segments that are often vehemently for or against such a brand experience. For some, it’s a welcome change. But many don’t recognize the brand anymore, and that’s all part of the identity crisis we feel as we contemplate with each passing day who we are in relation to the American brand. “Not my President,” is a surrogate phrase for how Trump is fielding a national brand character that’s at odds with how the majority of citizens see themselves as Americans. Nowhere better has this been seen than in his delayed disavowal of Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists at the recent Charlottesville carnage.

Looking on from beyond our borders, the leaders of other countries are experiencing the same identity crisis. Angela Merkel’s statement after Trump’s first G7 summit—“The times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out”—voiced what many of our European allies are feeling about a brand of America that has previously demonstrated thoughtfulness and steadfast commitment. And Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, after threats from Trump to dissolve NAFTA, has eschewed the American brand to the point of engaging with state brands instead on securing trade deals, most notably with New York. And for the first time in our history, our national brand is being confounded with the president’s own brand. Want to curry favor with America? Protect Trump patents, as did China and Russia; or elect to stay at the Trump International hotel when visiting Washington, DC. As journalists and pundits have pointed out, it is no coincidence that countries excluded from Trump’s proposed Muslim ban have business interests with Trump’s empire. One wonders if Qatar, finding itself increasingly isolated, contemplates building a Trump property as a route towards better relations with America.

Whenever any brand departs from its usual behavior, those who chose to engage with it begin to question if their own values are being ill served to the point of abandoning it, or merely enduring a colder relationship out of a practical need. Time will tell if the current identity crisis facing the American brand and its diverse constituencies will flow back from its current ebb and restore a mutual embrace of core values, or if some other national brands will beckon to take our place in the hearts and minds of citizens and others around the world.

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