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.
I spent the first half of my career protecting America’s global image as a diplomat on the streets of Tikrit, Caracas, and Antananarivo. Serving as director of Global Engagement at the Obama White House, it was my job to build long-term strategies to strengthen our influence around the world. When I left the government in 2015, I felt that we were making good progress.
Then came Donald Trump, a former reality show mogul who seemed to exemplify all of the worst caricatures of America. He banned Muslims and called Mexicans rapists, attacked allies while embracing dictators, rejected science and facts. Our credibility crumbled. Our prestige plummeted. Decades of work was destroyed in a tweet.
For the past four years, our national brand became synonymous with denigration and division. The inspirational ideals and international influence we once enjoyed were dramatically diminished, our star dimmed during his time in office. American businesses have struggled mightily to put distance between country and company.
Many now hope that Joe Biden can rapidly repair and restore our reputation to its rightful place on the world stage. Unfortunately, I don’t believe it’s going to happen. Here’s why.
America’s “brand” has been declining for years
The degradation of Brand USA predates Donald Trump. Considerable damage was inflicted by George W. Bush’s presidency: The war in Iraq, human rights abuses at Guantanamo, and our alienation of old allies drove America’s popularity abroad to what seemed at the time to be rock bottom. There was palpable relief in foreign capitals when Bush strode out of the White House for the last time.
There is no doubt our brand improved markedly under President Barack Obama, at least with the Nobel Prize committee. But we didn’t go back to where we were before 2000. While 64% of Germans had a favorable opinion of the United States after Obama’s election, that number was 78% before Bush. From 2008 to 2009, Turkish opinion of the U.S. inched up only two points from, 12% to 14% favorable, compared with 52% in 2000.
This is part of a phenomenon I have called the “Post-American Era.” It did not start with Trump, though he absolutely did accelerate the process. Not even George W. Bush gets full credit. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has steadily withdrawn from its global engagements. We have increasingly defined relations with other countries through a narrow lens of security concerns. The result is a world in which we are no longer the principal protagonist.
Biden will enter office with a lot of goodwill, but it would be foolish to think he can reverse that which has been lost. Our credibility and the willingness of foreign leaders to make serious compromises was permanently eroded by Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and the nuclear deal with Iran. Even if Biden assuages concerns about our commitment to NATO or the World Health Organization, serious doubts about their long-term viability will linger.
Opportunity in the post-Trump era
All of this directly impacts America’s brand and that of our companies. We have seen a considerable drop in international visitors during Trump’s administration. His trade wars hit sales of U.S. products and services overseas hard. Half of Chinese consumers report they have boycotted our goods. More broadly, our brands used to benefit from the sense of strength, trust, and quality they contained. Those consumer preferences or perceptions are not easily changed.
So what can companies do to effectively navigate these headwinds? It’s perhaps time to consciously decouple brands from American politics. Begin to build a more global image that is less dependent on the United States. It’s not just about changing your packaging or your postal address. The language used in communications should be more more international, too—no longer filled with American slang and cultural references.
It is more important than ever that brands stake out positions on social and even political issues. Being less dependent on the U.S. position on the world stage requires your company more often to take a stand. Whether on climate change or racism, threats to democracy or truth, brands can no longer afford to be passive actors. Otherwise, they risk being defined by positions taken by whomever is in the White House. It’s increasingly important to establish and elevate your own voice on issues that impact the international community.
This separation is part of a process I call counter-crisis communications. In today’s polarized political environment, businesses are regularly getting dragged into the middle of heated public debates. Establishing beforehand your public position on sensitive subjects decreases the ease with which others can misrepresent what you believe. In many cases, it may be finding middle ground, which is far preferable to some of the alternatives.
The end of Trump’s presidency doesn’t mean that business leaders can ignore this hard work. America’s illustrious international image is not coming back anytime soon, and companies that don’t proactively define themselves may find themselves defined by politics. For many, this is an unfamiliar and indeed an uncomfortable spot. Yet it also affords companies a unique chance to reposition their global brand. That is an opportunity that does not come along often—seize this moment to tell the world where you stand.
Brett Bruen is President of the Global Situation Room, Inc, which specializes in complex communications. He teaches crisis communications at Georgetown University and was Director of Global Engagement in the Obama White House.