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The United States of America: Can this brand be saved?

This week, Fast Company will feature an in-depth look at what America’s brand is, how it’s changed over the past four years, and where it needs to go.

The United States of America: Can this brand be saved?
[Source images: Jolygon/iStock; subjob/iStock; Rogotanie/iStock]
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This story is part of Fast Company‘s “USA: Can This Brand Be Saved?” package, approaching the question from a variety of angles and perspectives, ultimately aiming for an in-depth look at what America’s brand is, how it’s changed over the past four years, and where it needs to go from here. Click here to read the whole series.

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What is the essence of the American brand? Perhaps our most iconic and enduring symbol is the Statue of Liberty, that great gift from the French, and our de facto welcome sign in New York harbor, welcoming immigrants since 1886 with the famous lines of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus”: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . .”

Nearly four years ago, immediately following the inauguration of a new American president, the German magazine Der Spiegel ran a cover illustrated with an image of Donald Trump holding a bloody knife in one hand, and Lady Liberty’s head in the other. A New Yorker cover from the same time also featured the statue, her torch snuffed.

A few weeks before the 2020 elections, another prominent foreign publication, The Economist, wrote that over the past four years, President Trump has “repeatedly desecrated the values, principles and practices that made America a haven for its own people and a beacon to the world…. When countries that have fought alongside America look on his leadership, they struggle to recognise the place they admire. That matters.”

A brand is essentially the manifestation of an entity’s values, how the world sees it, and how it sees itself. It may initially seem superficial, even glib, to reduce all the complex issues facing America and Americans today to a discussion about “brand.” And yet companies are also complex organizations; far beyond the slick ads and products are things like accounting, supply chains, and HR departments. The brand, though, is ideally the north star that guides it all.

McDonald’s makes burgers, but its brand mission is to make people happy. Patagonia sells a really nice fleece, but its brand mission is to help save our planet. The function of a brand for any given company is to inform and persuade, sure, but also to motivate and inspire. And in that way, America has been among the world’s most potent brands since its inception.

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As a nation forged by immigration, not beholden to the economic or cultural rigidity of the Old World, the American brand has always been about opportunity and possibility. This is an image constantly reinforced by pop culture, whether through Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches stories of the Gilded Age, to John Hughes a century later, or the rise of brands like Nike and Apple, and the imagination of John Wayne’s Wild West and Sinatra’s New York. “America the Beautiful” and “America, F**K Yeah” all at the same time.

The reality behind any brand, of course, is complex, sometimes messy, sometimes even ugly. The USA has always exhibited a divide between the myth and the reality: The promise of equal opportunity and the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, versus the evil of slavery and ongoing systemic racism, structural poverty, and the ever-widening gap of wealth inequality.

Whether you’re a country or a carmaker, if you continue to fail to deliver on your brand promise, people’s trust will erode. If you continue to say one thing and do another, people’s trust will erode.

The American promise of possibility is something everyone can agree on. Our differences lay in how to achieve it. Make America Great Again aims to get there by invoking the past, while scapegoating immigration, science, and anything else that may stand in the way. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote ahead of the election in The Hollywood Reporter, “We aren’t selecting a president as much as we are proclaiming to ourselves and the rest of the world what America means: either we want to be a theme park version of Mayberry in the 1950s, or we want to be a vibrant and vigorous leader in democracy that our founders envisioned.”

In an excerpt of his new memoir, former President Barack Obama writes that he’s not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America. That in an ever-increasingly interconnected world, facing challenges like climate change, a pandemic, mass migration and more, “we will learn to live together, cooperate with one another, and recognize the dignity of others, or we will perish. And so the world watches America—the only great power in history made up of people from every corner of the planet, comprising every race and faith and cultural practice—to see if our experiment in democracy can work. To see if we can do what no other nation has ever done. To see if we can actually live up to the meaning of our creed. … The jury’s still out.”

This week in a series of stories on Fast Company we’re asking, “USA: Can this brand be saved?” and approaching the question from a variety of angles and perspectives: examining the design of U.S. elections, assessing the historical roots of the American dream, and asking one of the world’s top ad agencies how it might pitch a rebranding campaign to the land of Lady Liberty.

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Talk to experts in advertising and marketing and they’ll tell you that the first step in evaluating any brand is to dig into who you are, what you do, and what you want to achieve. Only then can you start to figure out how to get there. For America, an election is a good first step in that evaluation. Acknowledging the legitimacy of the election would be a crucial second.

Despite the slogans of this most recent election, the possibility and potential of America doesn’t lay in its past. Both Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” and Biden’s “Build Back Better,” to a certain extent, imply that the ideal is behind us. It’s not. It’s exactly the same as it’s always been: striving forward to achieve a more perfect union.

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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