The theme: "United States of Awesome Possibilities."
Suppose Brand USA spent $200 million in each of the next five years promoting its "awesome possibilities" idea. Five years from now, how many people are likely to associate "awesome" with the United States?
Not very many.
That's the problem with marketing today. Almost every campaign starts with a press conference and a blaze of publicity about a new logotype (the letters "USA " spelled out with multicolor dots), a new website (discoveramerica.com) and an inspirational message (United States of Awesome Possibilities).
"We will be able to reach audiences around the world by showcasing the best of America and spreading the message that we welcome visitors with open arms," said Chris Perkins, Brand USA 's chief marketing officer.
Nice thought, but its weakness is communicated by the phrase "showcasing the best of America." No marketing campaign can do that . The best any marketing campaign can do is to emphasize a single word or concept. And oddly enough, the loftier the word and the more abstract the concept, the more difficult that is to accomplish.
Other countries going the "awesome" route:
Brazil is "sensational."
Germany is "simply inspiring."
Korea is "dynamic."
Greece is the "true experience."
Singapore is "unique."
Kenya is "magical."
India is "incredible."
And dozens more.
Only one approach has a chance of working in a message-saturated society: Bring your slogan down to Earth.
Take the launch of Apple 's iPhone 4S. The operating system has 200 new features, including deep integration with Twitter and the ability to edit photos. It has an eight-megapixel camera with a greatly improved sensor, a five-element lens and a wider aperture. It has 4G-class download speeds and an improved voice-call reception because the phone can switch between two antennas to pick up the best signal.
Wow! What an opportunity for the wordsmiths at TBWA Media Arts Lab to capture the essence of this awesome, sensational, unique, incredible phone. Instead, they concentrated on a single feature.
Headline of a typical ad: "Will I need an umbrella this weekend?"
Copy: "You speak. Siri helps. Say hello to the most amazing iPhone yet."
Try to say everything and you end up saying nothing. Make your message real, and you not only connect with people but entice them with the suggestion that there is more to learn about your brand.
The Halo Effect
What psychologists call "the halo effect" marketing people call "positioning." When you focus on one concrete thing, consumers are inclined to attribute good qualities to your product.
It's what "Driving" did for BMW.
It's what the "Slowest ketchup in the West" did for Heinz.
It's what "Please don't squeeze" did for Charmin.
It's what "Pizza. Pizza" did for Little Caesars.
It's what "Curiously strong" did for Altoids.
It's what "Not from concentrate" did for Tropicana.
It's what "Free shipping. Both ways" did for Zappos.
Yet what do most slogans try to convey? Everything. Guess what companies are using these slogans.
"Truth in engineering."
"The power to do more."
"Solutions that matter."
"For those who do."
"Ideas for life."
"Bring your challenges."
"Ready for real business."
Here's the paradox. Even if massive advertising programs were successful in associate these slogans with the companies' brand names, so what? Would you buy an Audi because you thought the company told the truth about its engineering?
And no slogan will work for a brand that covers a wide range of products or services. Before you can bring your slogan down to Earth, you need to bring your brand there so it stands for something.
What's a Subaru?
"If you asked a Subaru dealer or an employee or the press what Subaru was all about, it was pretty confusing," George Muller said in 1993, when he took over as president of Subaru of America.
He chose to focus on four-wheel-drive vehicles. Advertising theme: "The beauty of all-wheel drive." (What the auto industry calls "all-wheel drive," people call four-wheel drive.)
It was an exceptionally bold decision because at the time four-wheel-drive vehicles represented 48% of Subaru's sales. But the company had lost $250 million the previous year, so something had to be done.
It didn't take long to turn the brand around. Three years later, Subaru was essentially a four-wheel-drive brand, and sales were up 16%, to 120,748 units.
Subaru registered a sales increase in 12 of the 14 years between 1996 and 2010. It sold 263,820 vehicles in the U.S. in 2010, more than Volkswagen , Lexus, Mercedes, BMW, Mazda, Chrysler, Buick, Cadillac, Acura and, of course, "Truth in engineering" which moved only 101,629 units. (If Subaru had a better name, it would probably have been even more successful.)
What should Brand USA focus on?
Brand USA should take a tip from iPhone. It's impossible to sum up a smartphone's features. Apple has built its marketing program for the device on Siri, the feature that has received the most publicity and the most attention from consumers.
What feature of the U.S. would most foreign visitors be interested in?
Look at it from the point of view of other countries. What do most first-time visitors to France want to see? Or those to the U.K.? Or to Italy?
Paris, London and Rome.
What do most first-time visitors to America want to see?
New York City.
The Siri of Brand USA is New York. It should be the focus of a marketing campaign to attract foreign visitors. Furthermore, the Big Apple has the perfect symbol for "spreading the message that we welcome visitors with open arms."
The Statue of Liberty.
Al Ries is chairman of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta-based consulting firm he runs with his daughter and partner, Laura. The website is www.ries.com.