Now a word from America

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Predictable skepticism greeted the appointment of Charlotte Beers, an expert in branding and advertising, to the U.S. State Department, apparently to direct a program to communicate American values to other cultures. The objective is to improve our image among people who in fact hate us. The assumption is we should approach them by treating America like a brand. The negative reaction has been that it would debase us to be "sold" like soap.

However, it is wrong to dismiss branding as inappropriate just because it is mainly associated with commercial enterprises. On the contrary, branding precepts can be quite effective in persuading antagonists that our social, political and economic systems are worthy of respect rather than contempt.

Branding is based on the notion that promoting a specific relationship between a product and its user creates psychological value for the product in addition to the benefit of its actual performance. This means creating a relevant linkage, both rational and emotional, between the product and the lives of the people you hope will use it. Branding America thus requires presenting a nation that offers something people can value and aspire to with their minds and hearts. It goes beyond statistics that measure life in material terms. More important, it must capture the sense of decency, fairness and opportunity that characterizes our country.

what branding teaches

Audience segmentation is a primary principle of branding. Terrorists and those who have turned hatred into violent fanaticism are not our audience. Their psyches are warped beyond any possibility of communication. Terrorists are criminals and enemies of civilization who deserve destruction in the name of justice and self-defense. The message of America must instead reach the many millions still in the process of being taught to hate us.

Branding requires that we begin by understanding our audience-why they think and feel as they do. We cannot persuade anyone or "sell" anything unless we approach people on their own terms. Similarly, we cannot convert detractors of America unless we identify and accept their negative beliefs as their reality and address the roots of their animosity.

In commerce, branding teaches us that we cannot simply dismiss or ignore what the competition promotes. Branding insists we accept what the customer thinks, even wrongly, as the state of the market. This means we cannot counter people's hatred just by telling them how much we love America. Showing the flag and singing "God Bless America" is good for our morale but has absolutely no impact on those who wish us ill. And telling ourselves we are hated for our "freedom" is a simpleminded rationale that ignores an array of anti-American beliefs, many of them propaganda nonsense but at least some arguably justifiable.

Successful branding requires credibility. If we say the soap smells like fresh flowers when in fact people don't think so, we may sell someone one bar but not another. The American brand needs to be based on responsiveness to our critics, addressing the reasons for their antipathy. Only then will we have an effective foundation from which we can extol our greatness of purpose, our astounding achievements for others as well as ourselves and the humanity inherent in the egalitarian concepts which govern us through our own democratic consent.

America is indeed a great country. But to communicate that to a contemptuous audience requires a carefully crafted message delivered with consistency and discipline. These are exactly the qualities that successful branding demands as well.

However, one valid criticism of branding America is that we cannot deliver it with advertising, certainly not in the traditional sense. Ads, commercials, slogans, jingles, Hollywood personalities, clever headlines, hearts-and-flowers emotionalism, self-serving testimonials and the like can indeed demean the effort. Given the right brand definition for America and given the fact of a hostile audience, the channels of communication must be appropriate to the immensity, importance and sensitivity of the task. The medium will be at least part of the message, which is a different but equally critical subject.

At the end of the day, the usual critics notwithstanding, what makes us good at selling soap can help us sell America.

Allen Rosenshine is chairman-CEO of Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York.

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