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Global advertising execs on the promise and problems of America’s brand

Ad execs from Asia, Germany, and India weigh in on Brand America—where it’s been, and where it might be headed.

Global advertising execs on the promise and problems of America’s brand
[Image: Fibonacci/Wikipedia Commons; rawpixel]
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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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As part of our weeklong exploration of Brand USA, we sought the perspective of advertising and brand execs from around the world. Here’s a selection of their insights on the American brand.

If the United States were a brand, how would you describe its overall brand reputation or image?

Prasoon Joshi is chairman of McCann Worldgroup Asia Pacific and an award-winning writer and lyricist.

It has been a symbolic capital of an open-minded culture and vibrant political values. The brand perception was that it did on [the] ground what was embodied in its spirit. The sheen the brand emanated was that of an enabler, a space where ambition is nurtured, one which was source agnostic when it came to talent.

Sean Donovan is from Ireland, was a TBWA exec in South Africa for almost a decade, and is currently president of TBWA\Asia, which serves brands like Singapore Airlines, Ikea, Spotify, and Hilton.

For me, Brand USA has historically been represented by two intertwining pillars—Leadership and Enablement. As a world leader it played a role as the world’s policeman and from the second half of the 1940s until 2016, was the backer of many great American-inspired global institutions like the U.N., the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. As an enabler, the brand operated at both a geopolitical and a personal level. At a geopolitical level, the brand was an enabler of global trade and supply chains. On a personal level, it allowed generations of people to build a better future propelled by their own industry and merit.

Peter Figge is the CEO of award-winning Hamburg-based agency Jung von Matt, with clients that include Google, BMW, Bosch, Adidas, and Vodaphone.

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The “good” brand story is this: The USA brand stands for the promise of limitless opportunity. America is a place where you have the chance to be part of something bigger and to do great things. Whatever you achieve is yours. And your voice will be heard. Values like individualism, liberty, freedom, and choice define this USA brand. And if it goes well, like in the 20th century, then this brand story will inspire people all over the world, wherever they are oppressed or poor or unfree.

The “evil” brand story is this: America’s achievement of independence and freedom was not something that happened by chance but rather was based on the massive use of violence. There are people who claim that the U.S. is a nation of violence. And that the stars and stripes, Mickey Mouse, and the green card can’t always hide the fact that it is a nation without an adequate social system, that it consumes an incredible amount of resources, and that it has extreme attitudes toward guns.

Generally speaking, of course, people want the good USA brand, because it’s attractive, reliable, just, and inclusive.

How has that reputation or image changed most over the last four years?

Joshi: Many would contend or conclude that the brand image has taken a beating. That the image and values of America—that of being a beacon and being in a visionary leadership position—have been diluted. Brands, like life, are living, breathing entities. They can’t stay insulated and must engage with the larger societal framework. So to my mind, the fact that within America there are diametric and opposite viewpoints or that sociopolitical leadership is in a state of churn is an on-ground reality. At such times, the issue is not about the image or the reputation of a brand, it’s about the core product. Has that been eroded or has the idea of America with all the churn been even more chiseled? I would like to believe that a strong core product will come through any churn wiser and stronger.

Donovan: The pillars that the brand stood for have been eroded. Its leadership vision was withdrawn back to containment within its own borders and turned inward. Enablement was replaced with disablement. From immigration policies at a personal level to the withdrawal from global institutions and agreements, and the initiation of a trade war with China without either full contemplation or care of the consequences (if the U.S. and China are not operating a free-trade regime, what’s the incentive for others?). And indeed, we have seen this in a series of intra-emerging marketing trade wars.

Figge: Simon Anholt’s Nation Brands Index shows that since Donald Trump has been president, the country’s reputation has taken a drastic nosedive, from first place (2009‒2016) to sixth or seventh place (2017‒2019). The reliability of the American Dream turned crazy, bipolar, and unstable, because in Trump’s world that dream is reserved solely for white men. It is legitimate for a president to shape the political agenda of a country and society. But from a brand point of view, it is difficult to rewrite the brand story from “limitless opportunity” to “limitless opportunism.” Those who exploit the notion of freedom are simply committing self-destruction.

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Looking ahead, how do you think the American brand can be saved, rebuilt, or evolved?

Joshi: We live in the times where absolute transparency is a must for a brand to have a genuine relationship with its audience. For Brand USA, it’s not just its citizens, but the world, which is its audience. There should be no issue in accepting that it, too, like much of the world, is contending with churn and change. In fact sometimes tension is important, for it is often from friction between old ideas and new that creativity and innovation flows. An open mind and diverse perspective help to not only reframe issues but also inspire dialogue and motivate systemic change.

Donovan: The American brand can be rebuilt by first restoring credibility and statesmanship in the office of the president. Then, through actions that demonstrate a different path from the last four years: actions that demonstrate an understanding that in a globalized world, a global perspective is needed. There is a great Stephen Covey quote: “You can’t talk yourself out of something you’ve behaved yourself into.” For the rest of the world, action is needed over rhetoric. And this will be the greatest challenge. While Trump will have gone away, the legacy of Trumpism won’t. And this will be the key challenge in the next few years in restoring Brand USA.

Figge: A brand story is for the long term; it integrates and assimilates even mistakes. The German brand story can tell a thing or two about that. It would certainly be important to bring the USA brand back into the limelight instead of looking back. While Donald Trump wants to turn back time to the 1950s, Joe Biden wants to go back to the Obama years. He still hasn’t, however, told a truly forward-looking brand story. And this is perhaps the biggest challenge for the USA brand: uniting the many voices of a divided country into a choir that looks forward with the aim of restoring limitless opportunity to a conflict-ridden, ever-changing world.

Ed. note: These answers have been edited for space and content.

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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