Global Branding: Weighing the risks of selling Uncle Sam - Recent acts of terrorism against the United States have reinforced the determination of many American multinationals to emphasise their global credentials rather than their roots

’America cannot be an ostrich with its head in the sand,’ declaimed Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the US, in 1916. In the era of the 42nd US President, Bill Clinton, it is corporate America that cannot afford to forsake vigilance in its overseas operations.

’America cannot be an ostrich with its head in the sand,’ declaimed

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the US, in 1916. In the era of the

42nd US President, Bill Clinton, it is corporate America that cannot

afford to forsake vigilance in its overseas operations.

Last month’s bombing of the Planet Hollywood restaurant in Cape Town -

hard on the heels of the American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania

- showed that terrorists in some quarters of the world are prepared to

attack targets merely because they have associations with Uncle Sam.

Those peddling the American dream across the world are now having to

consider a nightmare scenario.

Brands built on US glamour and corporations whose reputations are to

varying degrees a product of their origins in the country that created

the blueprint for modern capitalism are realising that that which has

made them great may also be a source of vulnerability. What, if

anything, can they do through communications to improve their


Michael Morley, deputy chairman of Edelman PR Worldwide and author of

the book How to Manage Your Global Reputation, thinks that in PR terms

there is very little that brands strongly redolent of the US can do. ’It

is the very Americanness of Coke and Levi’s and Planet Hollywood and

Disney that is at the heart of their success,’ he says. ’You can’t

de-Americanise in a short time, even if you think it desirable - and I

don’t think it is. If it’s Americanism that sells the product then

that’s your USP and you have to stick to it.’

Disney - the owner of Mickey Mouse and operator of theme parks which

contain the idealised re-creation of American small towns, Main Street

USA - is about as Yankee Doodle as mom’s apple pie. And proud to say


’Our branding would be changed or tailored only if our consumers, and no

one else, told us to,’ says Walt Disney Attractions PR manager Joyce


Many other US-headquartered multinationals are not waving the

star-spangled banner quite so fervently. Cultural imperialism is out,

frequently replaced by a more considered adaptation of business practice

and branding to mesh with local customs and conditions.

David Cox, Middle East and North Africa PR manager for Coca-Cola, adds:

’We’re an international brand and we market Coca-Cola to make it as

locally relevant at possible, for marketing advantages rather than

political or security reasons.’

It all boils down to globalisation. Increasingly companies do ’think

global, act local’.

For example, Russia - currently hit by economic crisis and political

instability - is harbouring some anti-American sentiment. When the

US-owned multinationals first arrived there with the fall of the Iron

Curtain most of the senior managers were American with an American way

of doing business.

Today, says Michael Kuzmiak, chairman of Hill and Knowlton Russia, there

is a whole generation of what he terms ’Russian Americans’: Americans

who have settled in Russia, speak the language and0 have Russian


There are also many more Russians in senior positions together with

executives drawn from around the world, giving the companies an

international rather than a US air. That is probably why individual US

companies have not as yet had censure heaped upon them during the

current crisis.

But it is still wise to be prudent. Conde Nast, for instance, cancelled

its gala party for the launch of its Russian edition of Vogue which had

been due to take place on 10 September.

David Brain, managing director of Burson-Marsteller UK marketing

practice experienced anti-US feeling while working in Asia after the US

bombings of Libya in the 1980s. He says there is little US companies can

do from a ’brand communications perspective’ because many ’already view

themselves as global or international and are trying to integrate

themselves locally.’

Although there are US companies that don’t act in an American way, in

many cases perception still lags behind reality. ’There’s certainly a

job to be done by corporations in stressing the globality of operations,

rather than their nationality,’ says George Pitcher, chief executive of

Luther Pendragon. ’That’s not just important for reasons of terrorist

threats, it’s also incumbent on them for commercial reasons.’

Many companies have gone down that path already. Even those with their

roots in Wall Street.

’We see ourselves increasingly as a global firm which has a very strong

local presence,’ says Richard Spiegelberg, director of corporate

communications at investment bank Merrill Lynch. ’Quite independently of

what has been going on in East Africa and Sudan we have been giving an

enormous amount of thought to how we position ourselves in the world as

a global firm.’

A handful of companies offer a product that is so inextricably American

that a change in positioning would damage their business. For the great

majority of US multinationals, however, the sensible course of action is

to emphasise the international and localised aspects of their operations

over domestic heritage.

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