Marketing execs try to polish Brand USA

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As if it weren't tough enough before the Iraq prison photos, a group of U.S. executives is teaming up to combat anti-Americanism with a lofty plan that involves education, research and maybe even a TV reality show.

Foreign-policy experts, however, question whether the nonprofit Business for Diplomatic Action will fare any better than federal initiatives or than nongovernmental organizations with more insight than cash. Founded by DDB Worldwide Chairman Keith Reinhard and incorporated this January, the group has about 150 members, half executives at marketing corporations and the remainder advertising agency heads and academics.

BDA's board met this month to discuss different initiatives. In addition to an initial $1 million for a Web site and education effort, it would like to collect $2 million for a global category- and brand-specific study of how regard for the U.S. affects sales, said Mr. Reinhard, the group's president. It has not started fund- raising.

The group jells as global regard for the U.S. slides, according to surveys like one released this month by NOP World, a market-research division of U.K.-based publisher and business services conglomerate United Business Media. As part of an annual check, it surveyed 30,000 people in 300 countries from January to March and found that altruistic concepts, including internationalism and equality, were less associated with American culture in 2004 than they were since the question was asked five years ago.

`world citizen's guide'

Mr. Reinhard said BDA's immediate plans include a passport-size World Citizen's Guide to be distributed to the 200,000 American students studying abroad annually to make them sensitive to how America fits into the world stage. An Internet clearinghouse of good ideas, or so-called best practices, on doing business abroad (rather than just a compilation of cultural nuances) would help businesses "be good citizens of a country vs. bad tourists," he said. Another idea from the organization is free English and technology classes for children in poor countries as well as cultural education for high school and college-age Americans.

John Quelch, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of "Cases in Strategic Marketing Management: Business Strategies in Muslim Countries" applauded corporate philanthropy and said consistent funding to improve cross-cultural understanding could work-but only after decades, not years. He suggested the contributions would be better spent by nongovernmental organizations already trying to improve education and conditions in poor countries.

"There is no shortage of knowledge and understanding as to what needs to be done and how to do it. The issue is an absence of funds for those organizations that already know what they are doing," he said.

The group is designed to stem long-term problems rather than immediate issues, said Cari Eggspuehler, executive director. A cyber-terrorism expert who worked with onetime Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Charlotte Beers, Ms. Eggspuehler said participants realize foreign opinion affects their bottom line, but also believe helping the BDA "is their way to take part in the war on terrorism."

She said her group would encourage media companies to produce shows that better represented how Americans really live, rather than "Baywatch"-like stereotypes, along with U.S. shows that make Americans more aware of other cultures and reasons for and ramifications of anti-American sentiment. Also on the drawing board is a pilot for a reality show to air on TV in the U.S. with college-age American expatriates trying to navigate the vagaries of working for foreign companies, while foreigners do the same here.

changing behavior

BDA's plans are not about advertising but rather a grass-roots initiative-granted, one that is well-funded and run by marketing gurus-trying to change Americans' behavior when they travel, said David Zucker, exec VP of DDB sibling Porter Novelli and a BDA board member.

"It used to be a bit of the attitude: `Hey, we're the U.S. and we're tough, and I don't care if they don't like us.' We can't abide by that anymore," said Mr. Zucker.

Lee Feinstein, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy director in the State Department under President Clinton, said such efforts would be better received if they built on values-such as education and economic opportunity-admired by even those people who oppose the U.S. He said independent efforts are more credible and thus have a better chance of success than governmental endeavors that are seen as tainted. "In light of the exceedingly poor efforts of the U.S. government in this regard, it is hard to see how they could do worse."

Mr. Zucker said problems with America's image predate the Iraq war, but that politics are only part of the problem. He said business can help rehabilitate the U.S. image by addressing globalization, pervasiveness of American culture and "our collective personality."

"We can't just throw in the towel and say, `It's all about foreign policies.' There is a role for business and for us as citizens to try to become more proactive in countering all the negative imagery," he said.

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