Over the course of my career, I’ve served on a number of strategic planning initiatives, and inevitably, the issue of “branding” or “rebranding” comes up: usually the university, college, department, or program wants to establish a public image of itself that will be instantly recognizable and that will convey a particular idea or “feel.” Sometimes the work of branding is invigorating and fun—when we launched the Stanford Writing Center (now the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking), we took out a full-page ad in the campus newsletter announcing “a new Stanford tradition” and used words and images designed to get as far away from any idea of remediation as humanly possible. We pursued this theme, knowing that Stanford students would not identify as “remedial” no matter what, and it worked. The Center is now used by students across the campus and across the years, with usage by graduate students (sometimes professors, too) growing every year.
In this case, we were looking for a very positive brand for our Center. But branding can be negative—and often highly destructive—as well. No one knows this better than our current President, Donald Trump, whom the New York Times refers to as the “master brander.” In a recent article, Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy reported on their analysis of two years of Trumpian tweets (beginning in June 2015 and continuing six months into his presidency), finding that Trump “is much better at branding enemies than policies. And he expends far more effort mocking targets than promoting items on his agenda.”
Badger and Quealy’s analysis reveals the strategies Trump uses in this negative branding. Repetition, simplicity, consistency, and essentializing all work together to brand Trump’s enemies with words and phrases that stick in our minds. In his hundreds of tweets about Hillary Clinton, for example, he used “crooked” and “crooked Hillary” like a drum beat. Tthe simple, memorable, insistent phrase became associated with Clinton in many, many voters’ minds, as did the phrase “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” “goofy Pocahontas” (aka Elizabeth Warren), “little” Marco Rubio.
The use of essentialism—the notion that one characteristic or trait is inherent to a person rather than the result of circumstances or a complex combination of factors—is particularly effective. Ted Cruz is not just a liar but rather he is essentially a liar: in Trump’s orbit, lying is a deep-seated, central and identifying characteristic that trumps all others.
Trump brands himself positively, of course, as a “winner” and “deal maker,” though he has not been particularly successful at branding policies, partially because he changes his mind so frequently about them (and perhaps because he isn’t as interested in policy as he is in personality).
It seems important to me that we share analyses like the one done by Badger and Quealy with students, that we alert them to the power of simple, consistent repetition and of essentializing to mark both people and policies in particularly negative, or positive, ways. Research in psychology shows that these strategies are very effective and that we are often unaware of their power over our thoughts and ideas. Being a critical reader and writer today means understanding how branding works and being able to interrogate it thoroughly.
I suggest reading “Trump Seems Much Better at Branding Opponents than Marketing Policies” on The New York Times July 18, 2017 edition and discussing it with your students. There, you can see excerpts from Trump’s tweets with the repeated word or phrase highlighted: it’s an eye-popping experience!
Credit: Pixaby Image 292994 by LoboStudioHamburg, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License