When I first became interested in Tiffany (TIF) as a stock years ago, one thing that stood out was that the company was doing a land office business in almost all facets of its rapid international expansion. One exception: the EU. I quickly became convinced that the reason was because TIF is an American company.
For Europeans, France, Germany, Italy, and to a lesser extent the rest of the EU, are the font of all knowledge and culture. As local literature and philosophy make clear, being situated on the sacred soil of (fill in any EU country) is the key to its superiority. The US, lacking requisite hallowed ground, is a semi-boorish johnny-come-lately. Sporting a piece of jewelry from an American firm therefore implies one has suffered a devastating reversal of fortune that puts “authentic” jewelry out of reach.
In the rest of the world, however, the US is a symbol of aspiration. America stands for freedom, opportunity, cutting-edge technology, the best universities and an ethos that prizes accomplishment not heritage. It’s “all men are created equal” “give me your …huddled masses yearning to be free” and “I am not throwing away my shot.” Wearing, or just owning, a piece of American jewelry becomes a symbolic linking of the holder to these national values. It hasn’t hurt, either, particularly with an older generation (paradoxically, ex the EU) that the US made a monumental effort to help heal the world after WWII.
The “brand” of the United States has taken a real beating since Mr. Trump has become president. Surveys, one of which is reported in INC magazine, show a sharp drop in US prestige right after his victory and continuing deterioration since. I don’t think the biggest negative issue is the president’s insecurities, his constant prevarication, his very weak record as a real estate developer or his (hare-brained) economic policies while in office. I see the worst damage coming instead from his love of leaders with poor human rights records and his disdain for women and people of color …plus the whiff of sadism detectable in his treatment of both.
Whatever the precise cause may be, the deterioration of the America’s reputation under Mr. Trump is a very real worry for domestic consumer companies. Damage will likely show itself in two ways: weaker sales to foreign tourists, and the absence of positive surprises from foreign subsidiaries. For domestic retail firms, it seems clear that economic recovery has finally come to the less wealthy parts of the US over the past year or two–witness the profit performance of Walmart or the dollar stores. On the other hand, it seems to me that people who have trusted Mr. Trump in the past–like the banks that lent him money, the contractors who built his casinos, those who bought DJT stock and bonds, farmers who voted for him–have all ended up considerably worse off than the more wary. So while they may be good temporary hiding places, holders should be nimble.
One final thought: brands don’t deteriorate overnight but the cumulative damage can be enormous. The first to react will be younger consumers, who have the least experience with/of the “old” brand. They will be the most difficult to win back. As well, as time passes, their views will be increasingly important in commerce.
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