Failure of Brand USA

When the White House decided it was time to address the rising tides of anti-Americanism around the world, it didn't look to a career diplomat for help. Instead, in keeping with the Bush administration's philosophy that anything the public sector can do the private sector can do better, it hired one of Madison Avenue's top brand managers.

As undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, Charlotte Beers' assignment was not to improve relations with other countries, but to overhaul the image of the United States abroad. Beers had no previous diplomatic experience, but she had held the top job at both the J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather ad agencies, where she had built brands for everything from dog food to power drills. Now she was being asked to work her magic on the greatest branding challenge of all: selling the United States and its war on terrorism to an increasingly hostile world.

The appointment of an ad woman to this post understandably raised some criticism, but Secretary of State Colin Powell shrugged it off. "There is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something," he said. "We are selling a product. We need someone who can rebrand American foreign policy, rebrand diplomacy." Besides: "She got me to buy Uncle Ben's rice."

So why, only five months in, does the campaign for a new and improved Brand USA seem in disarray? Several of its public service announcements have been exposed for playing fast and loose with the facts. And when Beers went on a mission to Egypt in January to improve the image of the United States among Arab "opinion-makers," it didn't go well.

Muhammad Abdel Hadi, an editor at the newspaper Al Ahram, left his meeting with Beers frustrated that she seemed more interested in talking about vague American values than specific U.S. policies. "No matter how hard you try to make them understand," he said, "they don't."

The misunderstanding likely stemmed from the fact that Beers views America's tattered international image as little more than a communications problem. Somehow, despite all the global culture pouring out of New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta -- despite the fact that you can watch CNN in Cairo and Black Hawk Down in Mogadishu -- America still hasn't managed, in Beers' words, to "get out there and tell our story."

In fact, the problem is just the opposite: America's marketing of itself has been too effective. School children can recite its claims to democracy, liberty and equal opportunity as readily as they can associate McDonald's with family fun and Nike with athletic prowess. And they expect the United States to live up to its claims. If they are angry, as millions clearly are, it's because they have seen those promises betrayed by U.S. policy.

Despite President Bush's insistence that America's enemies resent its liberties, most critics of the United States don't actually object to America's stated values. Instead, they point to U.S. unilateralism in the face of international laws, widening wealth disparities, crackdowns on immigrants, and human rights violations -- most recently of Afghan prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. The anger comes not only from the facts of each case, but from a clear perception of false advertising. In other words, America's problem is not with its brand -- which could scarcely be stronger -- but with its product.

There is another, more profound obstacle facing the relaunch of Brand USA, and it has to do with the nature of branding itself. Successful branding, Allen Rosenshine, chairman of BBDO Worldwide, recently wrote in Advertising Age, "requires a carefully crafted message delivered with consistency and discipline." Quite true. But the values Beers is charged with selling are democracy and diversity, values that are profoundly incompatible with this "consistency and discipline." Add to this the fact that many of America's staunchest critics already feel bullied into conformity by the U.S. government (bristling at phrases like "rogue state"), and America's branding campaign could well backfire.

In the corporate world, once a "brand identity" is settled upon by the head office, it is enforced with military precision throughout a company's operations. The brand identity may be tailored to accommodate local language and cultural preferences (like McDonald's serving pasta in Italy), but its core features -- aesthetic, message, logo -- remain unchanged. This consistency is what brand managers like to call "the promise" of a brand: It's a pledge that wherever you go in the world, your experience at Wal-Mart, Holiday Inn or a Disney theme park will be comfortable and familiar.

Anything that threatens this homogeneity dilutes a company's overall strength. That's why the flip side of enthusiastically flogging a brand is aggressively prosecuting anyone who tries to mess with it. At its core, branding is about rigorously controlled one-way messages, sent out in their glossiest form, then hermetically sealed off from those who would turn that corporate monologue into a social dialogue. The most important tools in launching a strong brand may be research, creativity and design, but, after that, libel and copyright laws are a brand's best friends.

When brand managers transfer their skills from the corporate to the political world, they invariably bring along this fanaticism for homogeneity. For instance, when Wally Olins, co-founder of the Wolff Olins brand consultancy, was asked for his take on America's image problem, he complained that people don't have a single clear idea about what the country stands for -- but rather dozens if not hundreds of ideas that "are mixed up in people's heads in a most extraordinary way. So you will often find people both admiring and abusing America, even in the same sentence."

From a branding perspective, it would certainly be tiresome if we found ourselves simultaneously admiring and abusing our laundry detergent. But when it comes to our relationship with governments, particularly the government of the most powerful and richest nation in the world, surely some complexity is in order. Having conflicting views about the United States -- admiring its creativity, for instance, but resenting its double standards -- doesn't mean you are "mixed up," to use Olins' phrase. It means you have been paying attention.

Besides, much of the anger directed at the United States stems from a belief -- voiced as readily in Argentina as in France, in India as in Saudi Arabia -- that the United States already demands far too much "consistency and discipline" from other nations; that beneath its stated commitment to democracy and sovereignty, America is deeply intolerant of deviations from "the Washington consensus." Whether these policies, so beneficial to foreign investors, are enforced by the International Monetary Fund or through international trade agreements, critics generally say the world is already far too influenced by America's brand of governance (not to mention America's brands).

There is another reason to be wary of mixing the logic of branding with the practice of governance. When companies try to implement global image consistency, they look like generic franchises. But when governments do the same, they can look distinctly authoritarian. It's no coincidence that the political leaders most preoccupied with branding themselves and their parties were also allergic to democracy and diversity. Think Mao's giant murals and red books, and yes, think Hitler, a man utterly obsessed with purity of image: within his party, his country, his race.

Historically, this has been the ugly flip side of politicians striving for brand consistency: centralized information, state-controlled media, re-education camps, purging of dissidents and much worse. Thankfully, democracy has other ideas. Unlike strong brands, which are predictable and disciplined, democracy is messy and fractious, if not outright rebellious. Beers and her colleagues may have convinced Colin Powell to buy Uncle Ben's by creating a comforting brand image, but the United States is not made up of identical grains of rice, assembly-line hamburgers or Gap khakis.

America's strongest "brand attribute" is its embrace of diversity, a value Beers ironically is now attempting to stamp with cookie-cutter uniformity around the world. The task is not only futile, but dangerous. Brand consistency and true human diversity are antithetical: One seeks sameness, the other celebrates difference, one fears all unscripted messages, the other embraces debate and dissent.

Making his pitch for Brand USA in Beijing recently, President Bush argued that "in a free society, diversity is not disorder. Debate is not strife." The audience applauded politely. The message may have proved more persuasive if those values were better reflected in the Bush administration's communications with the outside world, both in its image and, more importantly, in its policies. Because as President Bush rightly points out, diversity and debate are the lifeblood of liberty. And they are the enemies of branding.


This article is reprinted with permission from the magazine In These Times, ©2002. Naomi Klein writes the No Logo column for In These Times, an independent newsweekly based in Chicago. For more information about subscribing or to read articles from the magazine, visit http://www.inthesetimes.com

Info/Order the book "No Logo" by the author.


About the Author

Born in Montreal in 1970, Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist and author of the international best-seller, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Translated into 22 languages, The New York Times called No Logo "a movement bible." Naomi Klein's articles have appeared in numerous publications including In These Times, The Nation, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Newsweek International, The New York Times, The Village Voice and Ms. Magazine. She writes an internationally syndicated column for The Globe and Mail in Canada and The Guardian in Britain. For the past six years, Ms. Klein has traveled throughout North America, Asia, Latin America and Europe, tracking the rise of anti-corporate activism. In December 2001, Ms. Klein was named as one of Ms. Magazine's Women of the Year. Visit her website at http://www.nologo.org

Photograph of Ms. Klein courtesy The Herald / Gordon Terris. © SMG Newspapers Ltd

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