Restoring Brand America

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It's hardly a secret that respect for "Brand America" has plummeted to new lows outside the U.S. In reporting the latest 44-nation Pew survey of global attitudes, which portrays the U.S. as "increasingly isolated," USA Today correctly noted that repercussions of the findings could affect not only U.S. foreign policy but also the ease with which Americans travel and U.S. businesses compete around the globe. It is this last point that I hope might engender support for an idea I believe could at least begin to arrest the deterioration of "Brand America." It is an idea that has nothing to do with ads or propaganda films.

If you believe a brand is not what you say but who you are, what you do and how you do it, then a classic approach to restoring the health of "Brand America" is exactly what our country needs now. And the U.S. business community, especially our big multinational corporations, is best positioned to tackle the job. What's required is organization, a plan and a sense of urgency.

The restoration of "Brand America" could best be done by American business because so many root causes of the widespread resentment against us result from a kind of cultural imperialism, much of it the unintended result of U.S. global business expansion. Granted, America's image at any given time is a blurry composite of our foreign policy, our consumer brands and our entertainment product: "Rummy" and Coke, with a little Madonna on the side. But while our government leaders work to restore peace, our business leaders could productively work to restore respect.

"Why do they hate us?" asked President Bush after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. His question inspired us to form an ad hoc task force of DDB professionals in 17 countries. Their brief was a line from Robert Burns: "O would that God the gift might give us, to see ourselves as others see us."

cultural imperialism

By January 2002, the initiative had produced a white paper titled "America and Cultural Imperialism-a Small Step Toward Understanding." The paper confirmed that, while the roots of anti-American sentiment are complex and varied, associations with American brands and the companies that market them are a big factor. The paper further stated that, while there are many positives connected to American brands, there are significant negatives that could be addressed by global marketers. In order of offensiveness, the four most negative perceptions are:

* Exploitation-the feeling that American companies take more than they give.

* The corrupting influence-the view that American brands enhance thinking and behavior that clash with local customs or cultural or religious norms.

* Gross insensitivity and arrogance-everything from failure to use the local language to the perception that Americans believe everyone wants to be like them.

* Hyper-consumerism-the feeling that, to Americans, dollars are more important than people, that U.S. companies are more interested in money than humanity and present products that are not needed or wanted.

The preliminary findings led us to take the question to the streets. Again, when asked what they liked about America, respondents from other countries had many positive things to say. But their negatives were alarming. A man from South Korea accuses us of "imposing our own culture" on everything. A Chilean woman compares us to a disease that "doesn't care about your body. It just enters to stay." A man from Spain complains Americans see themselves as "kings of the universe," and a young English woman says her friends describe us as "global earth rapists." We are also seen as uncultured and superficial. "[Americans] know little about history," says a German woman, who adds, "they do not think very deeply about things." (The fact that, in one survey, 40% of U.S. high school grads thought the U.S. and Germany teamed against Russia in WWII would seem to prove her right.)

Obviously, U.S. companies abroad are aware of such negative perceptions, and some may be honestly trying to address them. But the idea of a concerted effort on the part of American companies acting together is at least worthy of consideration. And it's generating a great interest at a grass-roots level. We have already staged two events on the subject. The first, a seminar on "America as a Brand," was held May 9 at the University of Texas in Austin. The second, a corporate roundtable on "Brand America," took place May 29 at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. On both occasions, academic and corporate sectors were present and showed widespread support and enthusiasm.

What business can do

In taking on restoring "Brand America," U.S. corporations overseas would enjoy at least five advantages over government agencies and diplomats. First, companies, their representatives and brands directly touch the lives of more people than government representatives ever could. Second, foreign representatives of U.S. companies are likely to be nationals and therefore more representative of local views and perceptions than are Americans living in embassies. Third, once corporations decide to act they can move forward without the bureaucratic entanglements encountered in Washington. Fourth, corporations don't change leaders and policies every four years. And fifth, corporations have urgent business reasons for addressing anti-American sentiment. It's hard to be isolationist if 50% of your profits come from outside the U.S.

Those are some of the reasons a growing number of us believe that U.S. business leaders, aided by experienced brand builders, should organize to address rising anti-American sentiment and take at least the following actions:

1. Agree on a "brand platform" for America, considering current and desired perceptions.

2. Devise and publish a universal checklist of behaviors and messages for employees and representatives of U.S. companies overseas.

3. Develop sensitivity and communications training for all U.S. corporate representatives sent abroad.

4. Identify geographic and demographic priorities where positive American influence is most needed and might be most productive. (e.g. young people in Muslim states.)

5. Identify high-potential projects for "member" companies that connect expertise with international "needs" (e.g. a technology company to work with Sesame Workshop and a Lebanese broadcaster to co-produce an English-language children's program centered on technology, an aspect of American achievement that is universally admired.)

6. Generate third-party reports to publicize relevant but little-known good works on the part of U.S. corporations.

7. Eventually, build bridges with Washington, supporting such suggestions as the one made last year by the Council on Foreign Relations, to establish a Corporation for Public Diplomacy along the lines of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I welcome comments-pro and con-on the basic premise of private-sector diplomacy or on any aspect of the issue. The idea may be flawed. But not as flawed as the idea of doing nothing. keith.reinhard@ny.ddb.com

Keith Reinhard is chairman of Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide, New York.

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