Just when presidential candidate Mitt Romney thought he was in the final stretch of the nomination process, along comes Donald Trump to muddy the waters of Romney's campaign strategy. Trump, a high-profile supporter of Romney, has thrown himself into the heat of the election with recent comments that again question the birthplace of President Barack Obama.
Romney, who has said he believes Obama was born in the United States, has tried to strike a delicate balance between distancing himself from Trump's "birther" remarks while not eschewing Trump's support altogether.
The Romney campaign faces the same challenge as any other brand that suddenly finds itself embraced by a fan who receives lots of exposure, but doesn't align directly with the company's brand image.
We asked five branding and marketing experts to weigh in on how Romney should handle the Trump situation.
Farrah Parker, image consultant at FD Parker & Associates strategic marketing and public relations:
"Political surrogates provide necessary ammunition during highly contested campaigns. In the case of Donald Trump, a surrogate can be a monumental distraction from a candidate’s platform," Parker said. "Mitt Romney already struggles to relate to 'everyday Americans' thanks to his extensive background of grandiose experiences. To attract the vote of independents, those who decide elections, Romney must unequivocally state that birth certificates, race and religion have no place in the campaign. To take a safer route, the Romney campaign should assign surrogates to minimize and diffuse Trump’s verbal avalanche."
Karen Kessler of public relations firm Evergreen Partners, who has counseled high-profile individuals, politicians, business leaders and sports figures on issues related to reputation management:
"Trump's outsized media presence could easily alter or impact the Romney brand, if not managed and contained. Romney needs to recognize that Trump is not constitutionally able to be kept 'under wraps' and only brought out for targeted messaging," Kessler said. "With that acknowledgment, what are the options? Divorce is too expensive from a publicity standpoint. Distance will make the heart grow fonder from Trump's perspective. Romney can strike the perfect balance by turn in a few warmhearted glib comments."
Steve Mason of The Brand Mason, who has more than 25 years experience in advertising and marketing:
"Trump is eccentric and controversial, but he has hordes of fans (as well as of detractors). Therefore, Romney shouldn't disavow Trump's endorsement; rather, he should reposition the endorsement as an example of his broad appeal and coalition, in contrast to Obama's narrow appeal," Mason said. "And he should do it with a bit of humor."
"When someone or something is absolutely antithetical to your brand image, then you must clearly disavow them, but their position has to be appalling in order to justify that rejection," Mason said. "Businesses can and should use similar strategies."
Mark Grimm, founder of communications and political consulting business Mark Grimm Communications:
"Romney should be clear about his position on the Obama birth stuff and he should have a direct conversation with Trump," Grimm said. "If Trump continues on the birther stuff, Mitt should simply tell the press, 'We don't agree on everything and that's one area of disagreement.' Their joint appearances should be limited, depending on the audience and on The Donald's level of cooperation."
Abe Novick, president and owner of AbeBuzz, who has more than 20 years experience in corporate public relations and new business development at major advertising agencies:
"If he is to be taken seriously, Romney needs to distance himself from Trump, for several reasons," Novick said. "A brand is judged by its associations. Mercedes represents prestige. Volvo equates with safety. Trump is associated with the phrase 'You're Fired,' and in an age of widespread layoffs and economic hardship, Romney, who is perceived as a boss who slashed workers to raise profits on paper while at Bain Capital, aligning with Trump only lends more weight to the charge. Most importantly, a brand needs to be authentic."