It’s a warm summer night and you’re enjoying the cool breeze off of a wonderful Caribbean beach. There are no cancer-causing power plants around, because the island has gone solar. A greasy oil company exec is nearby, with the scent of millions or billions earned off the backs of working-class Americans wafting off his pale white chest and copious sunscreen. No, he doesn’t brag to you about his garage full of Lamborghinis and Rolls Royces, or about the way he tried to recreate a Caribbean-styled beach next to one of his mansions. No, this oil & gas billionaire — whose fortune was earned only in the most moral of ways — tells you about how he spent his life trying to help humanity, trying to bring a better life to the underappreciated common man & woman, trying to lift people out of poverty and guide their hearts in the pursuit of true happiness.
All of that pollution, all of the efforts to crank up the profits around every corner, the totally unsatisfactory safety conditions of the workers — none of that was about him and his efforts to chase money piles as high as Scrooge could dream. It was all about helping humanity, helping society and democracy, helping the world fulfill the potential of a better life.
I go by the same assumption as any normal human — millionaires and billionaires of the pollution industry didn’t rise to the top of the economy by putting other humans at the forefront of their agenda. Yet, this is what their spokespeople and message makers have spent millions trying to make you believe. Unfortunately, somehow, a huge portion of the public has bought it. Heck, maybe some of them even partially buy the message — to make themselves feel better about what they’ve done and what they do — but anyone who’s spent their career chasing money must know it slightly deeper down in their hearts.
In all seriousness, though, how do you break through to people who believe the coal, oil, & gas billionaires of the planet — of the USA, Russia, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and so on — have been working to help society? (Oh, wait, scratch that — only the US millionaires and billionaires have such high morals. They are the only true humans of that bunch, right?) Honestly, though, how do we communicate to people who put such a low bar on the morality of the pollution industry that they think people who fight regulations (regulations that would help people not get cancer) are somehow looking out for the interests of the average American?
We got an even starker example this past year. And before people claim that I’m just going on some angry rant (I’m not angry, by the way), I would like to emphasize that I think this is one of the most fascinating sociological, psychological, and communication case studies I have witnessed or even read about. It almost feels like it was conducted in a lab due to the incessantly simple yet textbook approach, the scale and longevity, the unfit subject, and the results. Anyhow, let’s get on with it before returning to the pollution industry and, of course, cleantech….
Donald Trump won the presidency out of an immense amount of luck, dirty tricks, and interference from perhaps US democracy’s top foreign adversary. But he largely won it because of branding, in my humble opinion. I won’t delve into the negative branding around Hillary Clinton (even though that was certainly part of the story), but the Trump branding deserves a close inspection.
Donald Trump spent his career branding himself as “successful.” Even in the midst of horrible bankruptcies, Trump’s focus was the same as it surely had been for decades before and would be for decades to follow — make people think he’s successful. One investigative writer who decided to dig into the charade wrote a book claiming that Donald Trump may not be a billionaire at all, that estimated Trump’s net worth at $150–250 million — possibly less than he was worth when his dad kickstarted his real estate career (taking inflation into account) in 1974. It is estimated Donald was essentially gifted a net worth of $40 million ($209 million in today’s dollars), but nobody seems to know for sure outside of Trump’s family and close associates — and perhaps they don’t even know.
Naturally, Trump sued this author … for $5 billion in damages. As at least one writer put it, if he wasn’t a billionaire before the lawsuit, he aimed to become one from the lawsuit. However, Trump didn’t win the case — he lost it badly. As conservative media outlet the National Review begins its summary:
Those who think Trump is a “winner” ought to take a close look at Donald Trump v. Timothy L. O’Brien. Because Trump didn’t just lose the case. He was humiliated.
At the time TrumpNation hit shelves, Warner Books, its publisher, was headquartered in New York City, not far from the Donald’s palatial quarters at Trump Tower. But Trump didn’t sue in New York City, where judges versed in financial matters abound. He sued in Camden, N.J. — in family court. This move kept a prima facie laughable suit from being thrown out — but began the case down the path of discovery. “Because he came after me on his reputation being damaged,” O’Brien tells me over the phone, recounting the timeline, “the questions about his net worth, that opened us up to getting his tax returns, his bank records, etc., etc.”
For the next three years, Trump dragged his feet. “The case dragged on for as long as it did because he wouldn’t comply with discovery requests,” says O’Brien. “He wouldn’t turn over the tax returns, then the tax returns came in almost so completely redacted as to be useless.”
And it wasn’t the first time the Trump enterprise had been less than helpful. Trump’s lawyers said that O’Brien knew better than to include the low estimates in TrumpNation, because he had had access to a 2004 statement of financial condition prepared for Trump by Weiser LLP, certified public accountants. However, as the accountants themselves noted in the document, they had “not audited or reviewed” the statement and so “do not express an opinion or any other form of assurance on it”; they added that it was not “prepared in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles.”
I recommend the whole article. It is quite revealing, fascinating even. But here’s one more segment that I think ought to be highlighted:
And, of course, Trump himself was deposed, leading to the following exchange, a crystallization of the Trump ethos:
Q: Now, Mr. Trump, have you always been completely truthful in your public statements about your net worth of properties?
A: I try.
Q: Have you ever not been truthful?
A: My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings, but I try.
Q: Let me just understand that a little bit. Let’s talk about net worth for a second. You said that the net worth goes up and down based upon your own feelings?
A: Yes, even my own feelings, as to where the world is, where the world is going, and that can change rapidly from day to day. Then you have a September 11th, and you don’t feel so good about yourself and you don’t feel so good about the world and you don’t feel so good about New York City. Then you have a year later, and the city is as hot as a pistol. Even months after that it was a different feeling.
So yeah, even my own feelings affect my value to myself.
Q: When you publicly state what you’re worth, what do you base that number on?
A: I would say it’s my general attitude at the time that the question may be asked. And as I say, it varies. He also claimed that land in Westchester County, N.Y., had doubled in value over the course of a year. “Do you have any basis for that view other than your own opinion?” he was asked. His response: “I don’t believe so, no.”
Despite the obvious exaggeration and continuously rolling lies, people think and even go out of their way to claim that Trump is a hugely successful businessman. Hmm…
Trump’s business downfall — 6 bankruptcies and unwillingness to pay people he rightfully owed a great deal of money — led US and European banks to close their doors to Trump and not loan his businesses money. Reportedly, Trump & co. turned to Russia for funding, as his sons have claimed on at least a couple of occasions publicly. Having to turn to Putin-connected Russians for cash because Western banks won’t lend you money is not considered winning, is it? Well, Trump would certainly spin it as such, which is perhaps why his sons didn’t even realize they shouldn’t admit it. (Charlie Sheen isn’t the only one who has tried to redefine positive terms.)
Yet, through it all, Trump’s brand focus and his brand recognition have remained the basically same — “successful” .. “rich” … “great.” Talking to Trump supporters in Europe, India, and the US, the sentiment has been the same — “he’s a successful businessman, so he’ll somehow find a way to be a successful politician.” Successful is a dubious claim here, but the image of successful obviously isn’t.
Pollution industries play the same trick — “they just want to love you, they just want to help you, they just want to be patriotic supporters of real Americans.” Cutting corners that lead coal miners dead in mines deep under ground? Come on, it’s all about “keeping the lights on” for cheap pennies on the dollar. Cutting corners that put American kids, mothers, fathers, and grandparents in the hospital bed with cancer? Come on, cut the oil and coal companies some slack. Cutting corners to cover Gulf of Mexico beaches in oil? Come on, the government is an evil demon that is coming to steal your babies and government regulations would have drowned you in a pool of wart-infested Mafia gangster bodies otherwise. Yeah, you get the picture.
But hey, they did one thing very well — branding for millions of voters who gobble it up as the truth.
As much as it might be bullshit, coal, oil, and gas companies get to wear the shirts of “real patriots” and “job creators,” not “cheap as hell abusers of human labor and murderous traitors of Fox viewers.”
Donald Trump? Serial bankruptcy offender and reckless scrub who keeps borrowing money he won’t pay back? No, much of the public still thinks he creates gold carpeting in his footsteps.
Branding is effective. Branding is powerful. It may be superficial and even deceitful, but it sways minds. The question for cleantech advocates who genuinely are spending their work lives and free time trying to help society is, how do you brand your work? How do you brand cleantech to target audiences? Perhaps most importantly in the long run, how do you brand cleantech to the broadest of audiences?
If the pollution industry can convince millions and millions of morons that it just wants to love them, and Donald Trump can convince people that he would be a good president (and is being a good president) by using the most superficial and dishonest branding tools out there, it’s time for progressives to realize that education is great … but branding is insanely powerful and often defines the reality we are creating today for tomorrow.
At our coming Cleantech Revolution Tour conference in Berlin & Wroclaw, we are going to dive into this topic much more deeply and in collaboration with the cleantech-loving leaders who show up. One key end product of the conference is going to be: A branding guide for cleantech industries around the world. I hope you’ll join us, and feel free to drop your thoughtful ideas in the comments below whether you can or can’t make the conference.
Image by Jack Ohman, Comics.com (Portland Oregonian)