America’s image problem

Posted in Business + Economy, History + Culture, Mass Communication, Politics + Diplomacy by expresscheckout on 21 October, 2006

Uncle Sam and gas mask 

America’s Image Problem
By James M. Pethokoukis
Yahoo! News
September 22, 2006

Changing your country’s image isn’t easy. In the 1990s, Britain-home of top fashion designers, hot bands, and soccer’s ultrahip David Beckham-tried to reimagine itself as an artsy, edgy, innovative nation. “Cool Britannia” was the rockin’ phrase (a play, of course, on the patriotic song “Rule, Britannia”). But the United Kingdom’s extreme makeover was as successful as London’s Millennium Dome. “Cool Britannia” had to compete against a thousand-year buildup of other images and perceptions. “Think of England, and what comes to mind?” asks international branding consultant Nick Wreden. “Tower of London? Buckingham Palace guards? Shakespeare in that funny collar? All images that relate to centuries-old traditions, not cutting-edge innovation.”

Still, a country’s “national brand” can change quickly-if only for the worse. Just ask American business executives. Not long ago, being seen as an “American” company was smart marketing. “The American brand was an investment theme that many investment managers tried to play back in the ’80s and ’90s,” says Jeff MacDonagh, portfolio manager at Domini Social Investments. “Companies like Coca-Cola, Levi’s, the Gap. But that’s a theme that has come and gone.”

Bad vibes. As has America’s worldwide popularity. A survey this spring by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, conducted in 15 nations, found that global perceptions of the United States continue to worsen. The percentage of Britons, for instance, who view America favorably had fallen to 56 percent from 83 percent in 2000. For Germans, the number had dropped to 37 percent from 78 percent. Even the brief era of good feeling in 2005 that stemmed from the U.S.-led Asian tsunami relief effort seems to have faded in countries such as India and Indonesia.

Clearly, international opposition to U.S. foreign policy and dislike of President George W. Bush is playing a big role in creating these sour attitudes. Every quarter, consultant Simon Anholt surveys 26,000 consumers in 35 nations for their opinions on national brands. In his most recent survey, the United States ranked 10th overall, right behind Australia and just ahead of Spain. Britain finished first and Turkey dead last. And while the United States scored in the top five in the investment and culture categories, it finished 22nd in governance. “The only thing that America could do to return to its natural position as No. 1 or 2 is a new government with a new foreign policy,” Anholt says.

Are these negative perceptions affecting U.S. businesses and products? Not according to Anholt’s surveys, which show continued high regard for American companies and products. Consumers, it seems, are generally adept at separating people and companies of a nation from that nation’s government. And even if a government becomes so profoundly unpopular that it begins to contaminate a nation’s overall image, what’s a company to do? Culturally iconic brands such as Coca-Cola or McDonald’s are deeply woven into Americana. And good luck to companies like American Express or American Airlines. Anyway, it seems unlikely that a U.S.-based company would admit that its American roots are hurting sales. “But privately you will find CEOs who say that being linked to a country is a lot like working with a celebrity,” Anholt says. “It can be favorable or unfavorable, but you are never quite sure what they are going to do next.”

Not that the business world hasn’t been worried about a sustained outbreak of hostilities toward American brands. “It’s been something we have been closely tracking since the invasion of Iraq,” says Lt. Gen. Daniel Christman (Ret.), head of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “But we haven’t picked up a significant effect on American business at all.”

“The finger.” U.S. company execs have on occasion been highly critical of how some Americans behave overseas. In a 2005 commencement address at Columbia University’s business school, PepsiCo Chief Financial Officer Indra Nooyi called America the “long, middle finger” of the world, reflecting its outsize military and economic power, and said it’s important that U.S. business people “give the world a hand … not the finger.” Nooyi, who recently was named Pepsi’s CEO, counseled the graduates to be more mindful of how their actions are perceived by foreign business partners.

A national identity can be a great asset for an individual brand. A country of origin becomes a sort of symbolic shorthand in the minds of consumers. Italy means cutting-edge fashion, Japan means premier quality. In the ’90s, GM’s Prizm and Toyota’s Corolla came off the same California assembly line. Same chassis, same features, different names. Yet the Corolla sold more, and at higher prices, because of the Japanese reputation for quality.

The Cool Britannia campaign may have been doomed, in part, by the lack of any appeal to business. “The powers that be want Britain to be known as a good place to do business, home to productive and innovative citizens,” says Wreden. “They don’t want Britain to be associated with dope-smoking musicians, outlandish fashionistas, or brooding artists. Leave that to Berlin.”

Some global firms do reject national connections altogether. A U.S.-based company that derives most of its sales from overseas might not give a hoot about Brand America. It’s an attitude that Keith Reinhard has come across. Reinhard is president of Business for Diplomatic Action and chairman emeritus of advertising agency DDB Worldwide. His organization is attempting to use corporate America to help reverse the tide of anti-Americanism. But many CEOs of companies with global operations “have told us they don’t see themselves as American companies,” Reinhard says.

Business for Diplomatic Action has produced guides for business travelers so they can better act as ambassadors for America. The group is also trying to lobby American officials to make U.S. airports more visitor-friendly and to dramatically increase government spending on tourism promotion. Studies show that foreigners become more pro-American after a visit.

The Bush administration may be paying more attention to America’s image. Earlier this month, a group of 14 CEOs who advise Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez recommended making it easier for tourists to visit the United States. Among its recommendations is to streamline the visa process through better technology and staffing. The panel’s report says that citizens of more countries should be able to enter the United States without visas at all. Another recommendation: create a nationally coordinated marketing campaign. How’s this for a possible American slogan-with apologies to David Letterman-“America, Land of a Million Starbucks”? It’s certainly no worse than Australia’s tourism slogan: “So Where the Bloody Hell Are You?”