Failures and breakthroughs – exposed, reflected, considered

Attempt to market America

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In the wake of 9/11 and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, image of America became a rallying call of action for all anti-American elements abroad. When the White House finally decided it was time to address the rising tides of anti-Americanism around the world, it didn’t look for a seasoned diplomat. Instead, in keeping with the Bush administration’s neoconservative philosophy favoring private over public sector (Dick Cheney and Colin Powell being the other two neocons in the Bush Administration), it hired one of the then top brand managers in America.

From October 2001, as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Charlotte Beers‘ assignment was not to improve relations with other countries but rather to perform an overhaul of the American image abroad. A recipient of prestigious “Legend in Leadership Award” from the Chief Executive Leadership Institute of the Yale School of Management, Beers had no previous diplomatic experience but had held the top job at both the J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather ad agencies.

The appointment of an inexperienced (in diplomacy and state politics) person to this post understandably raised some criticism, but the then Secretary of State Colin Powell shrugged it off. “There is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something. We are selling a product. We need someone who can rebrand American foreign policy, rebrand diplomacy.” “The whole idea of building a brand is to create a relationship between the product and its user,” she explained. “We’re going to have to communicate the intangible assets of the United States — things like our belief system and our values.”

From her point of view the tattered international image of America was little more than a communication problem. In fact, the problem was just the opposite: America’s marketing of itself has been too effective. School children could recite its claims to democracy, liberty and equal opportunity as readily as they could associate Nike with athletic prowess. And they expected the US to live up to its claims. And here lied the real problem. Results of economic and political decisions coming from Washington didn’t seem to correspond to the message and promises so staunchly promoted by American politicians. It was like a false ad, where promised qualities and real qualities of a product are different. America’s problem was not with its brand— which could scarcely be stronger — but with its product.

In the corporate world, once a “brand identity” is settled upon by the head office, it is enforced with military precision throughout a company’s operations. The brand identity may be tailored to accommodate local language and cultural preferences, but its core features — vision, aesthetic, message — remain unchanged. At its core, branding is about rigorously controlled one-way messages prevented to being turned into a social dialogue.

America already demands too much “consistency and discipline” from other nations; that beneath its stated commitment to democracy and sovereignty, it is deeply intolerant of deviations from the economic model known as the “the Washington Consensus.” Whether these policies, so beneficial to foreign investors, are enforced by the Washington-based IMF or through international trade agreements, critics generally feel that the world is already too influenced by America’s brand of governance and American brands.

There is another reason to be wary of mixing the logic of branding with the practice of governance. When companies try to implement global image consistency, they look like generic franchises. When governments do the same, they look authoritarian. It’s no coincidence that political leaders most preoccupied with branding themselves and their parties were also allergic to democracy and diversity. Think Mao and Hitler. Historically, this has been the ugly flip side of politicians striving for consistency of brand: censored information, state controlled media, reeducation camps, purging of dissidents, etc.

Democracy can be described as a confluence of different ideas. It is characterized by diversity of means, approaches and ends. The task was not only futile but dangerous: brand consistency and true human diversity are antithetical, one seeks sameness, the other celebrates difference, one fears all unscripted messages, the other embraces debate and dissent.

Little less than two years into her job, Beers stepped down. Indeed, if anything, prospects of improvement looked as gloomy as ever for this was when Blair and Bush were putting final touches for their next target — Iraq.

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Written by Hayk

September 15, 2008 at 1:29 pm

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