OP-ED: Global perception is branding reality for US

The biggest challenge any organization has in communicating its brand promise is finding common ground between what it wants to be known as and how its target audience perceives it. That challenge is greater when the brand is a country. At present, no country faces a bigger challenge to its image, positioning in the world and, ultimately, its brand perception, than the US.

The biggest challenge any organization has in communicating its brand promise is finding common ground between what it wants to be known as and how its target audience perceives it. That challenge is greater when the brand is a country. At present, no country faces a bigger challenge to its image, positioning in the world and, ultimately, its brand perception, than the US.

In the aftermath of the UN debates over Iraq and North Korea, the US now faces a daunting challenge not even its impressive arsenal of state-of-the-art weaponry can easily overcome: growing disapproval of its stances and an alarming distaste for what many have come to brand as the "American Way." In foreign relations, the Marlboro Man has met the Surgeon General. The US' efforts at branding, responsible for the war's first casualty in Charlotte Beers, have fallen victim to the delusions of policy-makers crafting a brand based on the precepts of self-image without a clear understanding of the prevalent perceptions of the audiences it is trying to influence. For the overriding themes of the US' branding effort - multi-ethnicity, religious tolerance, democratic values, pluralism, the rule of law, capitalism, free trade, and the inherent goodness of the American people - to work, they need to be contextually relevant to the target audience. In the Middle East, all efforts at trying to establish a dialogue with the Muslim communities and show "the other face of America" face a formidable obstacle in that the perceived reality holds that long-standing US policy on the issue of Palestine seems to greatly favor Israel. Until that matter, which is not one of small consequence or complexity, is addressed, there does not seem to be significant traction for any campaign portraying the US as a crusader for justice, pluralism, and religious tolerance to succeed, even after the "liberation of Iraq." The challenge is different in Latin America. The US' relationship with its distant neighbors to the South has shifted from periods of benign neglect to aggressive interventionism through the landing of Marines or the propping up of military dictatorships, as was the case in the 1970's and early 1980's. Ten years later, it seemed that the US had finally gotten it together in Latin America. Democracy was blossoming, pluralism was emerging, and the economies of the region, marshaled by US-educated economists, seemed to be making significant inroads in helping create the wealth that would, once and for all, impact the need to provide for a better distribution of wealth and social participation long lacking in the region. The Argentinean economic debacle of 2001 was a rude awakening for the policy-makers who had come to believe that the electoral results of the 1990's and the neo-liberalist policies embraced from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego had resolved the long-standing, structural socio-political needs of the region. In truth, they hadn't. What's more, in the sell-in phase of the process, US advisors - both public and private - had hyped the virtues of neo-liberalism much the same way dot-com proponents pressed their case to venture capitalists and Wall Street pundits peddled WorldCom and others. The message was: adopt neo-liberal policies and solve your headaches. Capitalism had found its Alka-Seltzer. Everybody touted the benefits, but failed to talk about the industries that would be displaced, about the workers who'd lose jobs because they'd become the victims of obsolescence and lack of competitiveness. As the Latin American example clearly illustrates, it would be wise not to proceed with a Pollyanna approach to the branding of the US abroad by employing the hyped rhetoric of advertising. In the case of the Middle East, the issue is an inadequate message track in light of audience expectations. In both cases, the time has come to listen to the grievances, research the points of resonance, and confront the obstacles to communicating Brand USA to skeptical audiences. Once that is done, using the points of resonance that emerged in the research portion of the assignment as a springboard, then the time will have come to establish communication bridges to deliver a message with more content than style, one that will be credible and not a jingoistic platitude about the American Way. After all, this effort is clearly not about generating awareness or selling a concept. It's about promoting acceptance, and that requires a clear understanding of how others view the US when its image is at an all-time low.
  • Rissig Licha is EVP and senior partner for the Miami office of Fleishman-Hillard.

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