Trump brand too hot to handle

Story highlights

  • Timothy Calkins: Nordstrom won't be alone dropping Ivanka; most retailers want to stay away from politics
  • With White House 'counseling' Conway after her plug for Ivanka's line, situation even more fraught for Trump brands

Timothy Calkins is clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and the author of "Defending Your Brand: How Smart Companies Use Defensive Strategy to Deal with Competitive Attacks." The views expressed here are his.

(CNN)Donald Trump is taking a battering from all sides. He has started his term with historically low approval ratings, and the first few weeks of his administration have brought controversy and chaos. Late night talk show hosts are attacking his new administration with jokes that are both funny and pointed. Not all of the humor is good natured; some of it is sarcastic and biting. Political leaders around the world are pushing back against some of his policies, and Americans are protesting them in the streets.

Timothy Calkins
All of this is not good for the Trump brand, which only two years ago was synonymous for many with success, luxury, wealth, and elegance -- so much so that his children had successfully leveraged it to foster ventures in the wine and fashion industries. Wearing a Trump branded suit made a statement. The brand didn't appeal to everyone, but it had a generally positive association. Today, however, the brand has a completely different meaning. It makes a very different statement, with associations of racism, sexism and xenophobia.
    And now that statement is blowing back onto the Trump children's businesses too. Given the polarizing nature of the Trump brand, Nordstrom's decision last week to drop the Ivanka Trump line shouldn't come as a surprise. It's a reflection of the state of the whole Trump brand today.
    Nordstrom claims that the decision was driven purely by sales results. A company spokesperson explained the move, noting, "Each year we cut about 10 percent and refresh our assortment with about the same amount. In this case, based on the brand's performance we've decided not to buy it for this season."
    I suspect Nordstrom's decision was a bit more complex, and that ultimately both results and branding played a role in phasing out the line. The Trump brand currently is so polarizing that Nordstrom was probably eager to drop it. The brand is too hot to handle. Nordstrom doesn't want to be seen as supporting the new administration strongly, a wise move given that some people intensely dislike the Trump brand.
    On the other hand, Nordstrom doesn't want to be opposed to the Trump brand either. It is never smart to publicly provoke a president.
    It is a very delicate balance, made all the harder when selling the line of products. By dropping the Trump brand due to sales trends, Nordstrom was simply attempting to back away from a conflict.
    Of course, things are rarely simple when dealing with Donald Trump. He attacked Nordstrom on Twitter, writing "My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person ... terrible!" The situation grew even more fraught Thursday after the White House 'counseled' adviser Kellyanne Conway after she plugged Ivanka's line during a television interview.
    Donald Trump is not the first president to defend his family. Back in 1950, music critic Paul Hume wrote a negative review of performance by President Harry Truman's daughter. Truman sent off a frosty letter on White House stationery: "Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens, you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes."
    Still, Trump's habit of criticizing individuals and companies such as Nordstrom on social media raises the stakes for brand leaders.
    It's worth dwelling on the flap between President Trump (as a father and a businessman) and Nordstrom, because more brands are following Nordstrom's lead. Most firms want to be politically neutral -- there is no reason to side with one party or the other and risk turning away customers. As Nordstrom noted in a November Twitter post, "We hope that offering a vendor's products isn't misunderstood as us taking a political position." Unfortunately, with the Trump brand, it is seen that way. Supporting Trump in any fashion is making a statement.
    All of this means that the Trump brand, including the Ivanka Trump line, will have a challenging time going forward. For the Trump brand team, there are two keys for success with the Donald in the White House.
    First, plan for a soft year. Assume sales will drop, so manage expectations down. Proactively make moves that might logically explain a sales drop, and scale back and conserve resources.
    Second, work to reduce polarization. The Trump brand will rebound if it can get some early wins and become more broadly appealing.
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    For retailers and licensees, it will be important not to be seen as taking a stand on the Trump brand. In most cases, this means just backing away from ties. The goal is not to be against Trump -- this can result in a Twitter attack from the President, which is not desirable (as Nordstrom experienced). The idea is to just not be seen as a supporter.
    With retailers such as Nordstrom abandoning the Trump brand, it is clear that a repositioning is in order. Until then, most brands will keep a safe distance away.