Life of U.S. multinationals must go on despite obstacles

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After this past week's events, I will not be the only journalist writing about how trivial it is to try to take what we do every day seriously again. But that is exactly what we have to do to not let "them" win.

American multinationals are all too aware of what "getting on with it" really means. They have had to do so repeatedly over the past two decades, most notably after the Gulf War. Mix in resentment of American success and "cultural imperialism" and, clearly, we can see American marketers face some unique difficulties overseas.

The Middle East is particularly volatile. There we have grown accustomed to consumer protests against Western products such as McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Pizza Hut. Unlike Europe's protectionist-based "slow movement," Arab boycotts are not usually based on economics, but politics or religion.

A United Kingdom supermarket chain, J Sainsbury, was targeted this year because extremists believed, incorrectly, that it was owned by a Jewish family. Meanwhile, Procter & Gamble Co. found its Ariel detergent brand targeted because of the similarity of the brand's name with that of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

In this climate, what does being an American marketer abroad mean? There are two ways of marketing in a foreign country: Sell Americana and impose yourself on a local culture, or ignore Americana in the interests of fitting into the local culture. Let's steer clear of the Middle East to make the point.

Growing up, I had no idea that certain famous brands-Ford, Chrysler, Mars and Colgate-were actually American. But I knew that others-Coke, Disney, McDonald's and, later, Nike and the Gap-absolutely were. It didn't matter. With the exception of Chrysler, all succeeded in the U.K.

Of course, the British are the Americans' most loyal supporters. No U.S. flag has been burnt in earnest in London since the bombing of Libya. France is a better example of a "friendly" country that appears deeply resentful of American influence. Although American marketers customize products there, it takes more than the ability to get a beer in the McDonald's on the Champs Elysees to lessen that resentment.

But resentment does not necessarily mean resistance, at least not in Western Europe. Just look at how many McDonald's restaurants have sprouted in France, or are planned for Italy. Often those resenting are not in the target market (they are older), and the target market embraces U.S. values. That's why the Gap and Starbucks are colonizing so fast.

As I said, the Middle East is different. So are China, Russia and Eastern Europe. Here the flag-waving, democratic, aspirational personality of so many American brands, as encapsulated by "Just Do It," needs qualification. Many of the problems mentioned above are actually being experienced in Egypt. A Middle Eastern country deemed economically interesting enough to invest in, it is also the one that is most trying to walk the tightrope between Islamic fundamentalism and Western freedoms.

American corporations defined the term "multinational." They are where they are today because the rest of the world likes their products. It's worth remembering that it is foreign governments that may not agree with the U.S. government. But governments are not citizens. If they are allowed access, the citizens of those same nations tend to embrace America and its brands.

It is also worth remembering that the U.S. has more friends than enemies. Just now it is impossible to comprehend the hatred that could lead to the events of the past week. Some of that hatred is born out of fear of U.S. power, and resentment of what is taken for U.S. arrogance or smugness. Ironically, the tragedy has inspired a worldwide sympathy for a newly vulnerable U.S. unlike anything in living memory.

Life, even business life, does have to go on. And in business life, U.S. multinationals are doing a better job than anyone else in the world at marketing. They should stay on course. It is the best commercial response to the evil of the past week.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of Ad Age Global and Creativity.

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