For many years, the United States had its own distinctive brand — in the collective consciousness people knew we lived by a distinctive set of values. With the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency, we are now witnessing an appropriation of our national identity as our chief brand ambassador 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. In my 30 years of work in the advertising and branding industry, I have never seen anything like this. There are new brand ripples from Trump so often it’s hard to keep up with them.
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. While not personifying the rags-to-riches American dream, 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.
As Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama tilted America’s brand toward the more hopeful angels of our nature, and Abraham Lincoln and FDR attempted to over-index our fundamental value of unity, 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 in our hearts and souls as we contemplate with each passing day who we are in relation to the American brand.
All brands are entities with a distinct set of values—a kind of mirror whereby people see either a flattering reflection of their own values and engage as an expression of their aspirational selves, or a distortion of their own values, in which case they choose not to engage and move on to some other brand. That’s easy to do when we think of a brand of soft drink, hotel or dating service that are not fundamentally aligned in our own minds with our essential selves.
Not so for a national brand, especially one as powerful and prominent as America. “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. On the other hand, inside the ongoing rallies Trump still holds, America’s current brand identity is playing well to these packed houses.
Looking on from beyond our borders, the leaders of other countries are experiencing the same identity crisis. Angela Merkel’s statement after the first G7 summit with Trump — “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 Canadian Prime Minister 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.
Furthermore, for the first time in our history, our national brand is being confounded with Trump’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, D.C. As journalists and pundits have pointed out, it is no coincidence that countries excluded from Trump’s first two proposed Muslim bans have business interests with Trump’s empire. One wonders if Qatar, finding itself increasingly isolated on the world stage, 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 Trump-inspired 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.
Vince Parry, president of Parry Branding Group, is the author of “Identity Crisis: Health Care Branding’s Hidden Problems and Proven Strategies to Solve Them.”
Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.