The Spectacular Failure of Brand USA

March 11th, 2002
By Naomi Klein

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 a 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 rather to perform an overhaul of the U.S.’s image 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, and she’s 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: to sell 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. We are selling a product. We need someone who can rebrand American foreign policy, rebrand diplomacy." Besides, he said, "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 Ms. Beers went on a mission to Egypt in January to improve the image of the U.S. among Arab "opinion-makers," it didn’t go well.

Muhammad Abdel Hadi, an editor at the newspaper Al Ahram, left his meeting with Ms Beers frustrated that she seemed more interested in talking about vague American values than about 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 the United States’ 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 in Guantanamo Bay. The anger comes not only from the facts of each case but also 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, and backfire badly.

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 pledgethat wherever you go in the world, your experience at Wal-Mart, Holiday Inn, or a Disney themepark, 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, whether by pirating its trademarks or by spreading unwanted information about the brand on the Internet.

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 this fanaticism for homogeneity with them. 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 have 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 U.S.—admiring its creativity, for instance, but resenting its double standards-doesn’t mean you are "mixed up," to use Mr Olins phrase, it means you have been paying attention.

Besides, much of the anger directed at the U.S. stems from a belief-voiced as readily in Argentina as in France, in India as in Saudi Arabia-that the U.S. already demands far too much "consistency and discipline" from other nations; that beneath its stated commitment to democracy and sovereignty, it is deeply intolerant of deviations from the economic model known as the "the Washington Consensus." Whether these policies, so beneficial to foreign investors, are enforced by the Washington-based International Monetary Fund or through international trade agreements, the U.S.’s critics generally feel that 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 consistency of brand: centralized information, state controlled media, reeducation camps, purging of dissidents and much worse.

Democracy, thankfully, 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, or assembly line hamburgers, or Gap khakis.

Its strongest "brand attribute," to use a term from Ms. Beers’ world, is its embrace of diversity, a value Ms. Beers is now, ironically, 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 enemies of branding.

This article first appeared in the LA Times.