An Instant Overhaul for Tainted Brand America

But More Than an Obama Election Win Is Needed for World's Current Captivation With U.S. to Outlast Honeymoon

By Published on .

Most Popular
NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In the hours following Barack Obama's resounding victory, Kenya declared a national holiday, and the residents of the Japanese town Obama did the hula in the streets. After years of suffering a reputation as a menacing bully, suddenly America had a new countenance. The world, it seemed, was warmly embracing President-elect Obama -- and, by extension, his fellow Americans.
Obama, Japan: Residents danced the hula to celebrate U.S. election.
Obama, Japan: Residents danced the hula to celebrate U.S. election. Credit: Kiyushi Ota

"Overnight it has become fashionable to be an American again, and the whole world is looking at us once again as this beacon of hope," said Michael Kempner, CEO of Interpublic's MWW. Mr. Kempner is a member of the Obama National Finance Committee and was once deputy finance chair of the DNC.

"The election and nomination process is the brand relaunch of the year," said David Brain, CEO of Edelman Europe, Middle East and Africa. "Brand USA. It's just fantastic."

Complete Coverage:

The latest news and analysis from Ad Age's continuing coverage of the 2008 post-election period and what it means for agencies, advertisers and media companies.
"We've put a new face on [America], and that face happens to be African-American," said Nick Ragone, senior VP-director of client development at Omnicom Group's Ketchum, New York, and a presidential historian. "It takes a lot of the hubris and arrogance of the last eight years and starts to put it in the rearview mirror for us."

Of course, installing Mr. Obama into the White House is just the start to repairing America's tattered image abroad. "The election results zero-bases the image of the United States worldwide," said John Quelch, a Harvard Business School professor who is a former WPP Group board member and co-author of "Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy."

He added, "We have a clean slate with which to work. Let us hope that the opportunity is not squandered the way it was after 9/11. The difficulty will be that there are ongoing national security issues on which the new president will find it difficult to adjust foreign policy in the short term."

Real change
Nor does Mr. Obama's election guarantee the world's new captivation with America will outlast the honeymoon. "Obama singlehandedly is transforming America's image as a government," said Blake Hounshell, web editor of Foreign Policy magazine. "But that doesn't mean the U.S. doesn't have to change its style. It's not all gumdrops and lollipops. ... And American companies have suffered [during the Bush years]. There's a KFC in Pakistan that's been firebombed a dozen times. Is that going to go away?"

Indeed, it will take more than the election to convince the world that Mr. Obama's campaign slogan will become more than just that. "The [American] logo has changed, but it's not clear that the product has changed. This is not likely to be a complete rebranding of the U.S.," said Michael Mandelbaum, author of "Democracy's Good Name" and professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. "I do not see the election of Obama as a revolution of world affairs ... or as a revolution of America's image in the world. ... The revolution comes with changes in foreign policy."

Still, it's a start -- and a strong one. "Winston Churchill once famously said 'Count on Americans to get it right, after they've tried everything else,'" said Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide and  president of Business for Diplomatic Action, an organization working to change global perceptions about the U.S. "This time the world believes we got it right. Now it's up to all of us to prove they are right."

Below are some more thoughts from around the world on Mr. Obama's election:

"He's almost like Che Guevara, in a good way," said Mr. Hounshell. "He has icon status, with all the art around the world of his face."

"While I never felt the world hated American people, feelings toward our government and President Bush were another story," said Carolyn Carter, London-based president-CEO, Grey Group Europe, Middle East and Africa. "The last eight years broke faith in Brand America, and people want that faith restored."

Sense of pride
"I will be pulling out my U.S. passport a lot more often now," said Bill Brock, founding partner of London agency AnalogFolk. "It does feel cooler to be American. I've found the reaction here overwhelming. I was in the pub last night ... the conversation ... was really optimistic about how wonderful Obama is."

"[Obama's win] sends a strong message to the world that despite what many people believe and feel ... America can be very open, democratic and progressive," said American Scott Kronick, Ogilvy PR's Beijing-based president.

"The world is happy for Obama because he represents a break from the past, a hope that he will end the bullying that Bush stood for. From an Indian perspective, also a respect for brains, which everyone believed Bush lacked," said Kunal Sinha, an Indian based in Shanghai as Ogilvy & Mather's executive director of discovery, Greater China.

"Not one Brit I have talked to wanted McCain to win!" said Paul Hammersley, managing partner of London agency The Red Brick Road. "Bush was seen as the archetypal 'ugly American.' Obama is seen as thoughtful and worldly. Oddly he is more like a European politician."

"He is a symbol of America being able to do the unexpected," said Dave McCaughan, Tokyo-based exec VP-director of strategic planning, McCann Erickson. "Obama symbolizes hope, change and honesty."

Lasting feeling?
"Most people outside the U.S. have viewed the last few years as a case of the U.S. against the rest of the world, " said Ian Thubron, exec VP, Asia/Pacific at TBWA Worldwide, Hong Kong. "The feeling is that America has changed with this election and will become a safer place for all of us. If that feeling lasts, terrific."

"I'm not sure that it's cool [to be an American] now. I'm not sure that it was ever uncool. There's lots of criticism about the U.S., but lots of people are still coming here," said Mr. Mandelbaum.

Mr. Reinhard said that on election night he opened an e-mail from a young German woman who told him: "'Our TV is full of American flags and we are all supporting Obama.' This from a country where anti-American sentiment has been the highest in all of Europe, with 66% of Germans holding an unfavorable view of the United States. There is no question that Barack Obama's election will give Brand America an immediate boost. ... But Brand America will now need to act to 'accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives,' to borrow the line from songwriter Johnny Mercer."

~ ~ ~
Contributing: Marissa Miley, Michael Bush, Normandy Madden, Emma Hall
In this article: