The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The silence is deafening’: Major brands avoid Trump even as he promotes them from the White House

President Trump told the North Dakota State team that “we like American companies” and so we serve “all American” food on March 4. (Video: The Washington Post)
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In a scene probably worth millions of dollars in free advertising, President Trump displayed a spread of burgers from some of the country’s biggest fast-food chains inside the State Dining Room of the White House on Monday as hungry football players looked on.

With cameras rolling, he offered a presidential endorsement of “all-American” restaurants including McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s.

“We like American companies, okay?” Trump said, standing before hundreds of Big Macs and chicken sandwiches alongside the North Dakota State football team. “Go eat up. Enjoy yourselves, everybody.”

But the companies haven’t been quick to return the affection or attempt to cash in on the presidential product placement, with McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s all remaining silent about Trump’s endorsements. When Trump held a similar event in January, Burger King was the only company to reference it on social media — by mocking Trump for misspelling the word hamburger in a tweet.

“Due to a large order placed yesterday, we’re all out of hamberders,” Burger King tweeted on Jan. 15, a day after Trump honored the Clemson football team with Whoppers and Big Macs, adding that it was “just serving hamburgers today.”

The corporate reticence underscores the tense relationship between a polarizing president and top U.S. consumer brands. The companies behind some of the president’s favorite products, including Sharpies, Big Macs and Diet Cokes, have kept him at arm’s length, even as he has lavished them with public praise and highlighted their products in the White House.

“It used to be that brands would love to get an endorsement from the president,” said Tim Calkins, who teaches marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Now, if anything, I think these companies probably squirm a bit.”

Trump’s own divisive brand makes him a less-than-ideal endorser for companies seeking to avoid the partisan fray, Calkins said.

Representatives of McDonald’s, Burger King and Chick-fil-A did not respond to multiple requests asking if they welcomed Trump’s endorsement. Newell Brands, which produces the Sharpie pens Trump has praised while signing executive orders, also did not respond to multiple requests. White House officials also did not respond to requests for comment.

In the past, consumer brands have been eager to highlight their proximity to presidents, whose endorsements are especially significant because they are presumed to have access to the best products, said Nick Powills, CEO and chief brand strategist of Chicago-based No Limit Agency.

When President Barack Obama visited restaurants in Washington and abroad, the companies regularly highlighted the visits on social media, and some still have menu items named after him.

“It was almost like winning a Michelin star,” Powills said of the presidential visits.

During a White House visit by the Boston Red Sox in 2014, slugger David Ortiz took a selfie with Obama on a Samsung smartphone. Samsung, which had an endorsement deal with Ortiz, tweeted out a photo of the “historic” moment, noting that it was “captured with his Galaxy Note 3.”

Presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter each invited instructors from Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics to give speed-reading courses to staff in the White House, a marketing coup for the company.

Today, even businesses that once sought out the Trump brand have acted to distance themselves from a president who is opposed by more than half the country in opinion polls.

Since the 2016 campaign, six New York residential buildings have moved to strip the “Trump Place” logos from their facades, and several retailers have stopped selling Trump-branded apparel.

Nike, which last year moved out of a Trump-owned New York location, started an ad campaign in September featuring NFL quarterback-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick. The ads put Nike squarely at odds with Trump, who had attacked Kaepernick and other NFL players for kneeling in protest during the national anthem.

The company said its sales increased 10 percent in the quarter after the ad was released, despite public criticism from Trump.

“For companies whose consumers are more progressive, more Democratic, being called out by the president isn’t a bad thing,” said Julie Hootkin, a partner at Global Strategy Group, a public affairs firm. “It might be a really good thing.”

Consumers increasingly want companies to take action on political and social issues, according to a study published last week by Global Strategy Group. The survey found that 8 in 10 consumers want companies to take a stand, and almost half said it would be appropriate for corporations to take a position against Trump.

On the other hand, there are a number of brands that have actively played up their closeness with Trump, including U.S. Steel, Boeing, Fox News and Foxconn. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell said Trump was “chosen by God.”

And Trump is certainly not toxic to the thousands of supporters who have purchased his “Make America Great Again” hats and other campaign merchandise. Writers of pro-Trump books have lobbied White House aides to secure a presidential tweet, and the president’s shout-outs have helped propel several tomes to bestseller status.

But companies have also discovered the dangers of associating with a mercurial president.

In early 2017, Harley-Davidson’s top executives visited the White House and showed off several motorcycles to Trump, who praised the company for making products in America.

By 2018, Trump was publicly advocating for a boycott against Harley after the company announced it was shifting some of its production to Asia. The company blamed tariffs resulting from Trump’s trade war with China and Europe. In January, John Olin, Harley’s chief financial officer, told investors the tariffs would cost the company as much as $120 million in 2019.

“Many @harleydavidson owners plan to boycott the company if manufacturing moves overseas,” Trump tweeted in August. “Great!”

A company spokeswoman declined to comment beyond saying “there was no boycott.”

Trump has also publicly attacked other private corporations, including Ford, General Motors and the NFL. The president regularly attacks Amazon and its CEO, Jeffrey P. Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post.

Some companies, including outdoor retailer Patagonia, have taken aggressive stances against Trump’s policies. Patagonia sued Trump in 2017 over his move to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah, and it used its retail website to deliver a stark message to shoppers: “The President Stole Your Land.”

Patagonia spokeswoman Corley Kenna said the move was not driven by profit motives or politics.

“Our community expects us to take bold positions,” she said.

Other brands have been reluctant to take on the president, who has been willing to use the power of his office to pursue vendettas against corporate foes.

“The silence is deafening,” said Calkins, the Northwestern professor. “Everybody is very nervous about how the administration might respond.”

Some brands have found other politicians more palatable than Trump, even in today’s polarized climate. After Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) announced his presidential bid last month, the Twitter account for Hot Pockets posted a picture of the senator holding one of its snacks.

“@CoryBooker don’t forget about us when you get elected,” the company tweeted.

A company spokeswoman, Kate Shaw, said there is no formula for deciding when to engage with politicians and noted the company’s previous interaction with Booker about 2012 Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.

Apparel brand Rag & Bone posted a tweet of Obama sporting a customized version of the brand’s bomber jacket last month.

During his presidency, Obama’s impromptu stops at local establishments would often spark celebratory tweets from the businesses: “#presidentialswag,” Taylor Gourmet tweeted in 2012; “delighted,” said Politics & Prose in 2014; “Super honored!” Shake Shack said in 2014.

Trump has largely avoided Washington’s restaurants and small businesses, opting instead for restaurants inside the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Powills said the lack of response from the fast-food companies highlighted by Trump in recent weeks is striking.

“It’s unfortunate that that’s what we’ve come to,” Powills said. “No matter what, you’re at a celebration at the White House, and it should be something you [promote]. It’s too bad that silence is the answer.”