What Is Your Brand Whispering?

Teri Lucie Thompson

I am not surprised by any of Donald Trump’s egregious comments, due as much to a personal experience over 10 years ago as to his other public missteps.

While epitomizing luxury, his brand also has been whispering the wrong kind of exclusivity for years. My personal experience happens to relate to sexism. Here’s the story:

Due to my role with a large financial services provider, I was invited to attend the Glamour Women of the Year Awards in 2004. Part of my package with Glamour included a stay at Trump International at Central Park West. My husband accompanied me.

It was a challenge finding our reservation at Trump International; no Teresa or Teri or Teri Lucie Thompson in the system. After much delay and consternation, an astute employee found the reservation under Lyle Thompson — my husband’s name. Quite surprising as all transactions had been handled through my employer, and Mr. Lyle Thompson was simply a guest accompanying me.

The Trump brand was whispering to me that men are more important than women, that its systems are programmed to assume men are the breadwinners.

Nevertheless, I was ready to chalk it up to a mistake . . . until we entered our room and found the “in residence” stationery and business cards that were imprinted with my husband’s name rather than mine. A lovely perk of staying at Trump International is the gift of such stationery and cards with local contact information, but once again the Trump brand whispered its assumption that men do the important work, that a woman staying with her husband at a Trump hotel couldn’t possibly be the person doing business — that the male couldn’t possibly be the trailing spouse.

Politics aside, this public thrashing of the Trump brand provides important lessons for all brands. Importantly, it should provide a powerful prompt to take stock of what your brand is whispering; that is, are there subtle messages in your operations, communications, technology, customer service, or business practices that could foreshadow a brand challenge?

“Whispering” can occur anywhere along the customer experience continuum. For example, I was stunned during a recent car buying experience at a high-end dealership when the sales manager openly expressed displeasure with the salesperson over a math error in front of me. What should have been invisible to me suddenly became part of the customer experience. It wasn’t a showstopper for me, but only because I was ready for closure, having shopped for months and finally found what I wanted. Had it happened early in the buying process, I would have walked. Let that serve as a reminder to look for instances of “whispering” in unexpected places as well. 

— This story was originally published by Forbes.com.