What’s the value of a politician’s brand?

Donald Trump and Joe Biden

In 2008, a 30-year-old named Mike Merrill divided himself into 100,000 shares and set an initial public offering for his life at $1 a share. His plan was to let stockholders decide what to do with is his life based on a voting system.

Although it was a gimmick designed to generate some extra cash in the middle of the global financial crisis (GFC), about 130 people eventually bought into Merrill’s life and he began to suffer what businesses go through every day: competing shareholder interests, backstabbing, stock price manipulation, short-term blindness and, of course, paperwork – lots of paperwork.

Merrill’s story is a cautionary tale. But what exactly were investors buying when they purchased shares in his life? It certainly wasn’t Merrill’s past financial performance. Rather, they were buying his brand.

We wouldn’t recommend creating a joint-stock company out of your body, but what if this approach to life was more common in, say, politics? What if politicians could divide themselves into 100,000 shares and sell their brand to the highest bidder?

If we’re being facetious, that’s pretty much already happening anyway. Everyone knows politicians are bought and sold by lobbyists and corporations. Corruption is one of the biggest complaints made by normal people when discussing politics. If this corruption was formalised through a register on the public markets, then at least everyone could see who your local representative’s backers really were. After all, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Brand is a major part of politics. In April last year, while Donald Trump was giving testimony during depositions in New York concerning a civil fraud case, he showed a lot of self-awareness about the power of his brand when he claimed:

“I became president because of the brand, OK? I think it’s the hottest brand in the world.”

So, let’s carry this idea forward and pretend for a moment that the two frontrunning candidates for the US general election later in 2024 were publicly traded, joint-stock corporations. If you could buy shares in the brand of either Donald Trump or Joe Biden, which would you choose?

Maybe your metric would be whether Trump or Biden could win the election. Maybe your metric is how good the candidate would be for the US economy. Or maybe a decision to invest in one of those politicians would reflect your support for a policy that is dear to your heart.

Whatever the core reason, the value of Trump’s or Biden’s brand – to you – will be the deciding factor. Voters tend to judge political based on a “vibe,” how they look on television, or even whether they are more conventionally attractive than the other. This all loops back into the politician’s brand.

For example, although Americans historically tend to vote an incumbent president back into a second term, analyses after the 2004 election between George W. Bush and John Kerry found that many voters chose Bush for a second term because they saw him as “better looking” than Kerry. It’s a fickle reason for voting, but it reinforced the power of brand in politics.

A similar phenomenon happened in 1960. For the first time in US elections, the two presidential candidates, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were booked for a series of debates on television, rather than on the usual format of the radio.

While Nixon’s arguments were objectively better than Kennedy’s, Nixon was deemed by the audience to have lost the debates because he appeared on TV pouring with sweat and woefully dishevelled. By contrast, Kennedy looked like a movie star, which was a big part of his brand. Of course, Kennedy went on to win the election a few months later.

What ingredients make up the brands of both Trump and Biden?

The perception of Trump’s brand varies depending on who is talking, but almost everyone would agree that the former president is a “Teflon” politician. Any negative accusation that would scuttle other politicians somehow makes Trump stronger. His techniques of persuasion and wordplay have proven excellent in letting bad press slide off his personal brand like a non-stick frying pan.

Trump’s supporters also see him as the personification of the American Dream. In a very real way, he represents the American promise that anyone can become president of the country, not just the nobility class. Furthermore, people often see Trump’s wealth as not necessarily the result of his own hard work, but that he is being rewarded with wealth for the appearance of being rich. In a way, Trump is famous for being famous, just like Kim Kardashian.

But few would call Trump “cool.” That’s not part of Trump’s brand.

One the other hand, Biden’s brand oozes “cool.” Biden may be a doddering old octogenarian, but at least he is always beaming in a wide, clear smile and sporting Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses that make him look thirty years younger. He even speaks “just like you.”

Biden’s press relations team also encourages him to leans into his “humble beginnings” by regularly including stories of his youth in political talks. Biden was recently filmed visiting his boyhood home in Pennsylvania where he reminisced about how “things were tight growing up” as he addressed rising prices due to inflation that are hurting everyday Americans. Biden has worked to cultivate this kind of grassroots approachability.

The brands of both presidential candidates couldn’t be more different. Trumps brand, if it could be written as an IPO pitch for investors, might sound a bit like, “Choose the future you want.” While Biden’s brand (also as an IPO pitch) could easily be: “We’re in this together.”

Of course, your mileage may vary on this analysis, but it is undeniable that both Trump and Biden have powerful personal brands. Come November, one of those personal brands will prove to be more effective than the other in the minds of American voters.

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