Nobody's saying the love affair is over, but it's clear that the world's affection for American brands is on the wane. The war in Iraq, with all its geopolitical side battles, has made Nike shoes and Coca-Cola anathema in certain corners of the globe. But the erosion is also an amalgam of the side effects of globalization, resentment of the ubiquity and values of American popular culture, and — oh, how to put this gently? — our boorish personality.
That, at least, is what Keith Reinhard, CEO of the global advertising agency DDB Worldwide, found in a study he commissioned in 17 countries. People felt exploited by global expansion, inundated by our entertainment products, and put off by our arrogance. His findings were echoed by the annual NOP World survey of power brands. That study of 1,000 consumers in each of 30 countries found that over the past two years, the number of consumers who use U.S. products from companies such as Microsoft and McDonald's had dropped to 27% from 30%. Non-U.S. brands held their ground in the same period.
The numbers may seem small, but they're significant. "We are not saying that there are going to be massive boycotts or huge migrations away from global brands," says Tom Miller, managing director of NOP World. "But the margins of the market are where the risk lies, and these days even losing a percentage point or two of share is not good news."
Brand U.S.A. needs a makeover. For that matter, it needs a new stylist, too. "The United States government is simply not a credible messenger," Reinhard told the 9/11 Commission in hearings last August. Whatever efforts the Bush administration, or any other, takes to counter this problem will inevitably be dismissed, particularly in the Arab world, as simply propaganda.
Reinhard has a better idea: Use the power and influence — not to mention the marketing chops and considerable bucks — of American companies to do what government can't. He happens to have such a vehicle already in motion. Business for Diplomatic Action is a task force of high-voltage professionals from marketing, political science, research, and media. Its goal: to educate companies about the rise of anti-Americanism and enlist their help in addressing the issue.
While this group draws from Madison Avenue, Reinhard dismisses any notion of an ad campaign pitching the "new and improved" America. But he does think about the problem in much the same way as he would a troubled corporate brand. America's image, he observes, has followed the same trajectory as any number of consumer products. It started off a little wobbly, flourished, and then entered a period of decline. "The good news for organizations — or for nations — is that you can start a new cycle if you're astute enough to start in time. Then the brand can not only be saved but reinvigorated, especially if you reemphasize the core values that got you there in the first place."
Reinhard points out that people still love a lot of things about America: our can-do spirit, our optimism, our creativity, and even our business acumen. But in the commercial world, people don't buy things from sellers they don't trust. And Brand U.S.A. has lost foreign consumers' trust. To restore that faith, American companies must use "soft" power skills to do what military might cannot.
That will mean outreach. Reinhard envisions corporate internship exchange programs, best-practice sharing among companies, and corporation-funded English language programs in Arab countries. Other projects focus on addressing the "ugly American" issue — programs to teach top officers at American multinationals what they need to know to be kinder, gentler global citizens, plus a World Citizens Guide for students and another for adults.
Some would disparage this as a girlie-man approach to a problem that will resolve itself once we succeed in whipping Iraq into shape. But Reinhard argues that leadership by influence and example will beat brute strength — and such thinking is winning traction in some unexpected circles. "We can't fight an ideology with force," says William Parker, a political adviser to General James E. Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command. "We're going to have to focus a great deal of attention on engaging people in the global struggle of ideas. It will impact everything we do."
Whether business has the will to deliver on such a lofty agenda is unclear. International sales at most consumer products makers, after all, are holding their own. But Miller notes that privately, companies are voicing concern about their country's image problem. Sales are a lagging indicator. "Attitudinal change ultimately drives behavioral shifts," he says, and companies already sense the shift in attitudes.
Reinhard hopes to head that behavior off at the pass. He's guided, he says, by the words of Bill Bernbach, DDB's legendary founder. "In the real world, good doesn't replace evil," Bernbach said. "Evil doesn't replace good. But the energetic displaces the passive." The U.S. government won't rescue Brand U.S.A. But an energetic business effort just might.
Percentage who said they trusted:
A version of this article appeared in the November 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.