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.
This week we’ve been discussing America, and the challenges facing it, in the context of a brand. Black, Indigenous, and people of color have arguably the most complex relationship with who this country is, so I wanted to get the perspective of Black and Hispanic ad and brand execs on the state of the Brand USA. Here’s what they had to say:
If the United States were a brand, how would you describe its overall brand reputation or image?
Chuck Welch, cofounder of Brooklyn-based Rupture Studio, a Black-owned brand strategy consultancy that works with such brands as Pepsi, Hennessy, LVMH , and Nike
America’s the dream factory for the world. It’s the siren that calls people to its shores. Some people crash and burn when they get here, just like in the old Greek myth. Just like any brand, it’s a story that it tells to itself and others. Brands have evolved, just like the U.S. has evolved, where there’s too much story, too much myth, not enough function, not enough utility. Then it’s disconnected and doesn’t have integrity. From a Black and brown perspective, we’ve always understood the myth and reality of the American Dream, who that dream applies to, and how that dream is applied.
Nandi Welch, cofounder of Rupture Studio
It’s so great when a brand has a rich history and an original ideal that it’s based upon. But it’s also a red flag when, because a company has history or past success . . . they just talk about, “We’re iconic, we signify this . . .” and they don’t really have anything specific to point to right now. That shows inaction and is a major red flag. And it’s akin to what you hear from the people who are most satisfied with America.
Derek Walker, founder of Columbia, South Carolina-based advertising agency Brown and Browner
Opportunity has always been at the core of what the American brand has always been. There’s an underlying idea that people see us for freedom, democracy, and opportunity. People come here expecting to be able to make their way. And there are very few countries on the planet that people immigrate to where that expectation is as strong.
Ryan Ford, executive vice president and chief creative officer at Cashmere Agency, a Los Angeles-based marketing agency that works with brands like Google, Netflix, Sony, and Yves Saint Laurent
I’d call it a failing brand. That isn’t the same as a failed brand, it’s a failing brand. America is a failing brand because it’s been a brand talking about the past, not the future. It’s something we see from time to time when there’s an evolution, change, or shift. Often when we talk to brands that are trying to understand a new shift in culture, demographics or communication, I ask them if they want to be Blockbuster or Netflix. We all saw that happening. There is no reason Blockbuster shouldn’t be Netflix, [it] just didn’t shift with the cultural evolution or shift that was happening.
Joaquin Molla, cofounder and chief creative officer at The Community, a multicultural agency with offices in Miami, New York, San Francisco, Buenos Aires and London that works with clients like Verizon, Mondelez, Samsung, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Constellation Brands.
In general it’s the land of opportunity, the leader of the free world. There’s a truth when we say, “The world is watching.” Some people may watch to criticize it, others watch it to be inspired, but if we think of it as a brand it’s what we call a leader brand. These are brands people follow to see how they move. “It can happen in America” is a common expression, and it’s tied to people’s beliefs about the possibility here.
Steve Stoute, founder and CEO of Translation, which works with major brands and sports leagues such the NFL, Brooklyn Nets, Anheuser-Busch, Beats by Dre, and State Farm
The brand is called the United States of America, and the first word isn’t true. So until you deal with that, you’ll never be able to get to be a trusted brand. It’s not trusted because it doesn’t live up to what it says. Everyone sees the hypocrisy in the brand. And until the brand reconciles the truth, the only way you can be on your way to repair that is to live up to the United States of America, to all men are created equal, to the statements that it makes that are perfect in its goals and desires to fulfill equality, but absolutely not managed day to day in order to fulfill that truth, that goal, or that dream.
How has that reputation or image changed most over the last four years?
Nandi Welch: When you’re reading a brand’s customer reviews, it’d be concerning if they were talking more about the history of the brand and not so much how it’s actually functioning and working for them today. Despite what a company says about itself, we all read reviews, and if you see 50% were distraught about the experience they were having, that, too—no matter what the brand says about itself, or what its biggest fans say—would be an enormous red flag.
Walker: As of late, it’s sort of like Mercedes-Benz is known for making great cars, but every now and then they have a model that just . . . sucks. And recently we’ve been in a sucky model year for Brand America. We forgot who we were and what we stood for, and it’s been happening because we took for granted that we were always going to be the best and didn’t have to do the work to stay there. This happens at a lot of big companies and brands. Our brand took a hit. If you’ve ever gotten food poisoning at a restaurant you know it takes longer to recover from bad experiences than good ones. People aren’t going to trust us the same, and they shouldn’t. We have to earn that trust.
Stoute: The last four years held up a mirror to ourselves and we finally found out how ugly we are. Or, we finally found out how off-brand we were based on the name of our business.
Looking ahead, how do you think the American brand can be saved, rebuilt, or evolved?
Chuck Welch: To reposition a brand you have to confront your orthodoxy. You have to confront what made the brand the brand, and confront that the thing that made you who you are may not be the thing that carries you forward into the future. So what do we take forward and what do we leave behind?
Luis Miguel Messianu, creative chairman and CEO of Alma, a Miami-based multicultural agency that works with clients like Sprint, State Farm, Netflix, and McDonald’s
In marketing terms, the brand equity of this country is so strong and so powerful that it can sustain a bad campaign over the last few years. Representation matters, and 2020 was the year that Americans under 18 are made up of a minority majority. And all those voters will now see a White House that will look a lot more like them. I think, from a multicultural perspective, there’s an opportunity here for this brand to better reflect its audience. This is part of progress, and that notion takes into account the need to restart and rebuild. There’s a lot to test and learn. It’s why America is referred to as the Great Experiment. This country is a continued work in progress, and I think that’s part of the American Dream.
Walker: The disenfranchised may be disenfranchised but they see the potential for the American Dream. And they hold on to the fact that with more work we could be better. It’s one thing to buy into the brand, it’s another to believe that the ideal of the brand is worth enduring what we have to endure to achieve it. Think about Native Americans, think about Blacks and Hispanics. They still believe enough to participate in the system. They believe enough to not turn away, to not turn violent, they haven’t quit. We still vote, we still show up, we’re pushing for that ideal. I don’t know how it got to be so strong that people would still give it the benefit of the doubt, but it’s got that kind of cachet. It’s amazing how much hope [there is] in what’s described in our Constitution. It’s amazing how groups who haven’t benefited from that promise still believe in it.
Stoute: 2020 has made it clear that the realities of the USA must reconcile to project a coherent brand image. Obviously the election of 2016 was not a fluke. The generation of civil unrest over the past year is not a fluke. The contested election in recent days and weeks is not a fluke. What has changed, and what we can hope, is that the glossing over of this country has not come to terms with this reality. It’s when we get to that truth, and the acceptance of that truth, and not glossing over it by saying these are flukes and one-offs, when we accept that, that’s when we can coherently and effectively articulate the brand.
Molla: The path to heal the brand is aligning what you think, what you say, and what you do. It’s also coming back with a more mature version of what America can do, the role America has, and the responsibility that comes with that. I think there’s a huge opportunity right now. This can be a different way this brand can inspire the world. A more realistic, inspiring example of a country that does the hard work it takes to be great. For real. What if now we can show how hard it is, and how mature you need to be, and how much you have to look at yourself to be able to evolve? That would be amazing.
Ed. note: These answers and conversations have been edited for space and content.