President and CEO, Red Peg Marketing (clients include AOL,
James E. Murphy
Retired Chief Marketing and Communications Officer,
Is Brand America broken? How do we fix it?
Brad Neirenberg: Brand America has been tarnished: The Pew Global Attitudes Project recently found that our standing is lower than five years ago in 26 of 33 nations it surveys. Why? For too long, we’ve been jamming messages down peoples’ throats. We must drop the elitist attitude and demonstrate what our brand is at its best, not try to force it with superficial ad campaigns and spin-doctor talking points. We need to reveal our truths through authentic American narratives and experiences that stick with people and feed their aspirations.
James E. Murphy: I agree on the problem: As the growing clout of both emerging and established nations levels the economic playing field, the American way of life, and our institutions and products, aren’t held in the same regard as just a decade ago. But business has a real opportunity to help restore Brand America’s luster. While government efforts on their own might be met with skepticism, business-led initiatives can build bridges of cooperation, respect and mutual understanding across cultures. The PR Coalition, which I chair, and the State Department at the recent Private Sector Summit for Public Diplomacy suggested an 11-point plan–including assigning specific responsibility for diplomacy to a corporate officer and creating a private-sector corps of “foreign service officers”–that businesses can use to reinforce public diplomacy efforts.
Nierenberg: But one of the core problems with America’s image abroad is that we are often perceived as motivated by our interests in economic prosperity rather than principles and values. While American businesses can be a force for good because of their economic impact and philanthropic efforts, there are too many examples where capitalism and morality struggle to co-exist.
Murphy: Our ideals are not causing our image problem; we are appreciated as a nation that respects people of all cultures. And business contributes to the world in so many ways. Think of advances in medicine and medical devices, information technology, and water purification systems, among other products of American entrepreneurship, that have made their way around the world. We have a unique opportunity to harness the power of that message; we must try harder to refocus and humanize business.
Nierenberg: Throwing corporate money at the problem is not a fundamental solution. We need to create opportunities for individual Americans to show how our nation’s ideals have shaped their uniquely American success stories. Picture an “American Freedom Tour” where citizens set up workshops and demonstrations on free enterprise, free speech, freedom of religion, and democracy. Or an “American Advisory Board,” a social network of immigrants in diverse realms who have succeeded here–and can communicate the message that American ideals are very alive. Trying to buy back respect and friendship is not as effective as sharing time and demonstrating commitment.
Murphy: Certainly, the solution must be much deeper than just “throwing” corporate money at the problem. But to manage our national brand in a more complex, multi-polar world, we must determine how best to engage business in public diplomacy; and we must encourage as many organizations and citizens as possible to join in this effort. A strategic, unified approach, led by business, is our best chance.
Nierenberg: American business and American ideals are not always synchronized in the multi-polar world you describe. The key to reshaping America’s brand is to move away from institutional and political solutions. America is often viewed as a plutocracy; to dispel that notion, let those suspicious of our brand experience American ideals through individual American stories.
Murphy: Our government has a vast global network that can carry our message deep into foreign countries. American business has the people who can most effectively convey this message and represent “the American Way.” Leaders from both sectors already have devised concrete models for action that represent the best of public and private sector thinking–and the best hope for making our values clear.
Join The Debate At Fastcompany.com: Is Brand America beyond rescue?