Brand USA

With criticism about the United States mounting and ‘Made in USA’ lacking the cachet it once did, Nick Wreden examines how one might brand the nation

Nick Wreden1
Nick Wreden is the author of FusionBranding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future. He publishes a regular commentary on branding.

IT HAD to be one of the most unusual job recommendations of all time.
   Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee asked Secretary of State Colin Powell why famed ad exec Charlotte Beers was qualified for the position of Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy. According to Time magazine, ‘Beers is close friends with Martha Stewart, dreams of being a country–western singer and favours body-length scarves, Jackie O sunglasses (indoors), and puffy bows the size of Uzbekistan around her neck.’ Her marching orders: Brand America, post 9-11.
   ‘Well, guess what? She got me to buy Uncle Ben's rice,’ replied Powell.
   After confirmation in October 2001, Beers recently resigned, ostensibly for health reasons. While the former head of both Ogilvy & Mather and J. Walter Thompson did a great job of selling Uncle Ben, she flopped at selling Uncle Sam. Her efforts consisted of a 24 pp. booklet about the 9-11 attack, and an $8 million ‘Shared Values’ commercial that showed how happily Muslims live in America, complete with big backyards and big refrigerators. The commercial was only shown in four countries, and was widely panned for promoting decadent consumerism, not Islamic lifestyles. One reaction: ‘It was like this was the 1930s and the government was running commercials showing happy blacks in America.’ The State Department halted the ads.
   The government then turned to long-time adman Jack Trout, who pointed out that ‘America had one idea attached to its brand. We presented ourselves as the world's last superpower. And that was the world's worst branding idea.’ Trout also argued that the Bush administration's shifting rationales, from ‘axis of evil’ to ‘support of terrorism’ to ‘régime change’ to ‘oppressor of Iraqi people’ to ‘weapons of mass destruction’ undercut the importance of consistency in branding. Trout's federal contract was not renewed. 
   Efforts to brand America have taken place against a backdrop of arguments about whether it is possible for nations to brand themselves. Of course they can, if a national brand is defined as perception of the national identity by outsiders.
   According to marketing expert Philip Kotler, nations brand themselves for five reasons: increase tourism; obtain skilled labour; increase factory relocation; increase the number of headquarters or branch offices; or increase prestige of the nation.
   National brands change all the time. Look at how ‘made in Japan’ changed from a criticism to a competitive advantage. Or how the image of Iceland, which has the world's worst pronounceable name, changed from a reindeer reservation to an international hotspot known for its nightlife and hangover cures. Brands can also move down the international hierarchy. The Swissair bankruptcy and failure of UBS, Switzerland's biggest bank, damaged the Swiss reputation for precision and financial expertise. 
   So how do you brand a nation? It's an important issue since there are worldwide demonstrations against the US for the first time in 40 years and US businesses are being harmed. Coca-Cola says an anti-American boycott has lopped 10 per cent off its sales in the Middle East. KFC and Burger King outlets in Saudi Arabia report a 50 per cent drop in sales since September 2000. Stores in Bahrain and Egypt now decline to stock Nike shoes.
   The first requirement is a clear vision of what the country stands for. Currently, there is a fundamental cleavage in America's vision: does world order ultimately rest on American military power? As the number one country music song by Toby Keith puts it: ‘You'll be sorry that you messed with the US of A / 'Cuz we'll put a boot in your ass / It's the American way.’ Or is it an orderly world constructed on the basis of international law and multilateral institutions? Because that contradiction has not been resolved—no wonder Beers and Trout had such difficulties.
   Any national branding effort must follow several principles. First, it is a long-term, multi-functional effort. No single ad, even one costing taxpayers $8 million, will do. It also takes a clear understanding of target markets overseas, a notorious American failing. The State Department refuses to reveal how many Middle East specialists or marketers with cross-cultural expertise it has on staff. Finally, it must acknowledge and articulate problems and issues—such as the Israeli–Palestinian logjam—important to specific audiences. Neither benign neglect nor believing that we always wear the white hat is enough to win the international trust so critical to branding.
   Other tactical steps:

   National branding campaigns can fail. Look at how rapidly the UK's “Cool Britannia”—which had its genesis in a line from an ice cream carton—was shelved, and Britain went back to being the land of beefeaters, warm beer and a dysfunctional royal family. But the stakes are too high for the US national brand to fail. It took centuries to build the American brand of optimism, pragmatism and commitment to liberty. Imagine the consequences if years of anger at American policies destroy that incredibly valuable franchise. •

   1. MA, MS.