The flip side of celebrity? Notoriety. How hitching your business to a star can backfire
As the aphorism tells: If you lie down with dogs, you will wake up with fleas. But in business it’s not quite so simple. You may form a business relationship that seems like a great idea until one day you wake up scratching. Recent victims include the world’s most successful submarine manufacturer and a Vancouver real estate developer.
In 2000 the Subway sandwich chain hired Jared Fogle as a spokesman after it was revealed he had lost a substantial amount of weight on a diet of Subway food. The subsequent ad campaigns did wonders for the chain, positioning it as a healthier fast food alternative. Subway could hardly be expected to know that their regular-guy representative was hiding a secret that would eventually see him sentenced to more than 15 years in jail last year for receiving child porn and travelling to engage in sex with a minor.
The Vancouver fiasco was perhaps somewhat more predictable. Vancouver’s Holborn Group is building a large tower at 1151 West Georgia. It is to be called the Trump Tower. And while having an orange-haired clown as a mascot worked very well for McDonald’s, it’s not proving as successful so far for Holborn. The local iteration of Trump Tower is one of many such branded properties around the world, the others having been built before the Donald began systematically insulting races and people of almost every tint and hue.
Darren Dahl, professor of marketing at the Sauder School of Business, says the Trump brand was a calculated risk for Holborn even back when partnering with the Donald simply meant aligning your company with an attention-seeking celebrity businessman and reality TV star. “Looking at the success of other projects with the Trump name, it must have looked like a pretty good bet,” Dahl says.
That was before Trump’s remarkable emergence as a divisive political figure, beloved by some and excoriated by others. Holborn now finds itself preparing to open a major property branded with the name of a man who described Mexicans as rapists and advocated a total ban on Muslims entering the United States. City councillors have decried the new Trump Tower as a giant middle finger to everything Vancouver is supposed to stand for. Not quite as bad as unveiling Kim Jong Un H-Bomb Plaza, but close.
Still, Dahl sees a clear difference between Subway and Holborn. “Some say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but there’s no upside for Subway,” he says. “That’s just toxic.”
But Dahl believes the controversial Trump name may still have equity. “There are still people excited about Trump,” he says. “Not so much in Canada or in Vancouver perhaps.”
According to Rachel Thexton of Thexton PR, whose clients include various developers, situations like Subway’s are unavoidable. “For the most part, if a company is honest, apologetic and takes actions to fix a problem, the public is willing to forgive and move on,” she says.
Holborn, however, is not moving on. The company insists its hands are tied by a legal agreement. As of press time, Trump Tower remains Trump Tower.
Thexton believes the company should make the best of the situation by going local. “If they can’t remove the Trump name, I would recommend that company communications focus on the local developer and Vancouver team members, and B.C. hospitality and entertainment,” she says.
“It’s also important to emphasize that Holburn does not support Trump’s politics. Transparency around profits will assure locals that Trump does not profit in any way from home sales or amenity use. That will allow people to try the buildings’ restaurant and spa while knowing they are not supporting Trump’s bank account.”
Holborn is contractually linked with Donald Trump. But even without a contract, Trump seems to have successfully tied himself to another famous brand—the United States of America. “He’s wrapped himself in the flag,” Dahl says. “In the democratic arena, he’s been the one with the microphone.”
Vancouver will have a prominent Trump-branded building. But will Washington?