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Brand America: The Mother of All Brands

Author: Simon Anholt & Jeremy Hildreth

Publisher: Cyan Communications

ISBN: Nick Wreden

Summary:A unilateral US action sparks the largest demonstrations in Europe's history. Angry demonstrators carry signs condemning the White House cowboy. Global editorials moan about US abuse of its superpower status.

A unilateral US action sparks the largest demonstrations in Europe's history. Angry demonstrators carry signs condemning the White House cowboy. Global editorials moan about US abuse of its superpower status.

Sound like Iraq and recent events? Actually, this describes the reaction to President Ronald Reagan's decision to deploy Pershing missiles in Europe. Such eruptions against US policies occur with historical regularity, which makes me suspicious of claims that recent events have irreparably damaged America's standing in the world.

But Simon Anholt and Jeremy Hildreth, co-authors of the book "Brand America: The Mother of All Brands," argue that this time, yes, it is truly different. Once America represented money and freedom; now it is increasingly seen as "bullying, polluting, domineering, imperialistic, ignorant, fat, selfish, inconsistent, arrogant, self-absorbed, greedy, hypocritical and meddling." It is a view that, unfortunately, is becoming widely shared. The lead article in the December 2004 issue of the respected Far Eastern Economic Review was "Rehabilitating America." For a proud citizen, that is shocking. Rehabilitation is usually a word reserved for criminals.

Anholt and Hildreth would be the first to agree that antipathy against America, whether because of its policies, cultural and business exports and even the boorish behavior of its citizens abroad, is not new. But Anholt argues that the American brand, built up over centuries, is being corroded by historical forces, US abandonment of long-held international principles and Bush administration errors, such as the badly fumbled effort to improve US standing in the Middle East by showing TV commercials about how happy Muslims are in America.

Anholt starts by exploring the slippery concept of nations as brands. Nation brands are based on a "hexagon" of deliberate and accidental forces. Elements include tourism (both

promotion and the experiences of visitors); people (ranging from high-profile celebrities to everyday interactions with citizens); culture and heritage; investment and immigration; foreign and domestic policy; and export brands.

So what is Brand America?

"America has taken so naturally to being a nation brand partly because it has always been a country that stands (italics) for things, both for itself and for other people. It has always been fond of big ideas. It's a country that has always liked to feel that its actions reflect deeply held beliefs about itself and about the way the world works, or should work. Ever since it submitted its case for independence to the tribunal of the world, America has tried to justify its actions, especially its foreign policy, in terms of philosophical rationales, grand doctrines and sweeping ideals."

Or, as Anholt says later, "America had the selling proposition to end all USPs."

Anholt argues that American branding started with Benjamin Franklin, who was not only "America's first great publicist" but also the forerunner of the mid-20th century concept of public diplomacy governments need to represent their interests to international (Anholt unfortunately uses the word "foreign," a word that is increasingly archaic in a globalized world and has a slightly unsavory connotation) publics as well as governments.

For much of the 20th century, America was a master of public diplomacy. Its efforts included such external propaganda as the successful "League of Lonely German Women," which persuaded German soldiers in WWII that their wives and girlfriends were on the prowl while they were on duty, and internal propaganda such as "Commander Duck," where Donald Duck destroys a Japanese airfield. Later government efforts to sell America became more subtle, with such cultural tools as exchange programs, Voice of America and other newscasts, covert CIA support of artists and writers, and Fulbright scholarships. (I was disappointed that Anholt did not mention the Peace Corps, my alma mater, as a successful contributor to the American brand.)

America's brand was also built through the export of popular culture. "Until recently, Hollywood movies could get away with some fairly explicit celebration of American values, and foreign audiences just sat back and enjoyed the show," he writes. Another brand cornerstone was American products. In many ways, the Coca-Cola curves are as much a symbol of America as its flag.

But Anholt argues that the American brand is now fraying around the edges for several reasons. These range from a backlash against global brands to weariness with American marketing and, probably most importantly, the rise in the quality and variety of international products. He cites a study that claims one in four consumers in Asia Pacific avoid using

American brands. As a result, more and more American companies camouflage their US origins.

America's public diplomacy is faltering as well. Anholt quotes a study by the US Council on Foreign Relations. "Washington has been stripping bare the institutions designed to share US culture and values. Overseas projects such as English language libraries have been dismantled, and the number of scholarships for foreign students to study at institutions has dropped from 20,000 a year in the 1980s to 900 today." That is a scary statistic to anyone who believes that a major source of America's strength is the ability to communicate its values to the leaders of tomorrow.

Anholt concludes by discussing how the once-powerful American brand can be rejuvenated, or perhaps even rehabilitated. After a cogent and well-researched argument throughout the rest of the book, Anholt lapses into generalities and idealistic solutions. "American needs to rediscover its brand instinct, and live by the principles that most American companies never forgot: clarity and firmness of purpose and message; sensitivity to the needs of different audiences around the world; a simple and attractive positioning; transparent and ethical behaviour in the organization as well as in the products; ... [and] coordination between the stakeholders."  He recommends a "single Brand American working group"with government, NGO, entertainment, media, business, foreign service, education, religious and other representatives with "real influence, real budgets and a direct reporting line to the president." Another suggestion is to develop a compelling nation message that will help persuade American companies and even entertainment artists to become brand ambassadors.

In a country bitterly divided between Red and Blue, with each convinced of its moral righteousness, I doubt that a committee could develop a "simple and attractive position" that so many disparate groups could accept. I also believe that the current administration, which has done everything from invade a Muslim country on a pretext to unilaterally abandoning treaties to renaming French fries as "freedom fries," is genetically incapable of regenerating the American brand that once had so much of the world’s respect.

To me, the answer to restoring Brand America lies in restoring American's role as an economic and technological powerhouse.  While other countries pour money into education so students excel in math and science, the US now spends millions touting the virtues of abstinence. While others subsidize broadband network, the US slashes the budget for the National Science Foundation as well as college scholarships. While others work hard to put their economic house in order, the US squanders a surplus with continuing tax giveaways to the ultra-rich.  Discussions about the misguided fiscal and economic policies that have sapped US strength can get quite arcane, but consider this telling anecdote: In 2004, for the first time ever, the US exported more garbage than it did technology. Will that symbolize the American brand in the future?

Anholt and Hildreth have done an excellent job of explaining the sources of the famed American brand, with useful lessons for anyone involved in the nascent field of nation-branding. They offer a sympathetic analysis of why Brand America has lost its way.  But they fall into the common trap of suggesting that the US - or any brand's - salvation is based on "simple and attractive positioning." Just as the brand strength of products is ultimately based on a profitable bond with customers, the brand strength of nations largely depends on its economic strength. Anyone who doubts this should just keep an eye on China during the next decade.

2005 Nick Wreden. All rights reserved.