Brand America: The mother of all brands
A book by Simon Anholt and Jeremy Hildreth.
Review by Martin Payne.
What has gone wrong with America? It is the world's last superpower and, for many, American ideas and values remain inspiration. However, others hate America and everything it stands for. American foreign policy has been accused of interfering in other countries' affairs while companies are accused of favouring cultural and commercial imperialism (Cola-Colonisation) by marketing their products and services around the world with little thought to local tastes and ways of life.
America is the world's biggest brand. Countries do have their own brand images that are made up of multiple factors but none of these brands are as strong as Brand America. The best-known country brand in the world; the strongest country brand but also the one that appears most likely to polarise its audience.
Americans see themselves as a force for good. They believe that what they are doing is correct. Helping other countries and preventing the expansion of communism while encouraging countries to become more democratic has to be the correct thing to do, hasn't it? Americans believe they are helping others. Furthermore, the recent success of the religious right in the US presidential elections may make this even more acute with America acting as the world's policeman in moral terms.
Brands go through strong and weak periods, times of success and times of troubles. Today, Brand America has problems. Its motives are constantly questioned and the country does not gain the respect it once took (and possibly still takes) for granted. Consequently, the time is ripe for an evaluation of what is wrong with the brand in order that these problems can be addressed and corrected.
Simon Anholt's book does just that. It is concise enough to read quickly but detailed and interesting enough to provide a high level of insight and understanding. It is clear that the problems are not just a result of the current (Bush) foreign policy. The book analyses the development of Brand America from day one and this is crucial to achieve the understanding of how America's role in the world evolved and thus how Brand America evolved. Some of the development was government-sponsored with the forerunner of the CIA sponsoring cultural development around the world, such as in Germany after the Second World War. However, a major watershed appears to have occurred with the end of the Cold War and the effective dismantling or at least scaling back of government-backed spreading of culture. To some extent, this would suggest that current foreign policy might not be that imposing. However, the author suggests that it is not the government but private companies that are responsible for spreading American culture and values. While consumers around the world may embrace Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Hollywood films, Microsoft and CNN, it is these same companies and brands that are the true bearers of American imperialism. Consequently, it is here that criticism, if just, should be directed, less at the successive governments. It is not the governments that are in control of Brand America. The apparent failure of the Charlotte Beers-led attempt to make America appear friendlier more for Muslims is perhaps proof of this but also an indication of the lack of understanding of how other cultures work.
Some of these companies have already made major efforts to become more localised with a product and service offer that is appropriate for different markets around the world. MTV tends to play more local music. McDonald's adapts its menu to local food tastes and Coca-Cola has a very large portfolio of local brands alongside brand Coke. However, the McDonald's outlet in the high street will also stand alongside restaurants from China, India, Mexico and Thailand.
What is the way forward for Brand America then? Key is a substantially greater understanding of differences between countries and cultures. The sheer size of the United States and distances to travel are prime reasons why so few Americans have passports. This limits the ability to take in and understand cultural differences. Overall, what appears to be required is a truly massive internal marketing campaign. The job is as much to educate Americans about the world and cultures beyond their borders as much as educate non-Americans about democracy, freedom and the American dream.