Branding The USA

From: Steve Drew (
Date: Mon Mar 18 2002 - 22:32:41 GMT

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    Subject: Branding The USA
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    I came across this which i thought would interest you all (maybe?).

    America is not a hamburger

    President Bush's attempts to rebrand the United States are doomed

    Naomi Klein

    Thursday March 14, 2002

    When the White House decided it was time to address the rising tides of
    anti-Americanism around the world, it didn't look to a career diplomat for
    help. Instead, in keeping with the Bush administration's philosophy that
    anything the public sector can do the private sector can do better, it hired
    one of Madison Avenue's top brand managers. 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 US image abroad. Beers had no previous diplomatic experience but she had
    held the top job at both the J Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather ad
    agencies, and built brands for everything from dog food to power drills.

    Now she was being asked to work her magic on the greatest branding challenge
    of all: to sell the US and its war on terrorism to an increasingly hostile
    world. The appointment of an ad woman to this post raised some criticism but
    Colin Powell, the secretary of state, 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." Besides, he said, "She got me to buy Uncle Ben's rice."

    So why, only five months on, does the campaign for a new and improved Brand
    USA seem in disarray? Several of its announcements have been exposed for
    playing fast and loose with the facts. And when Ms Beers went on a mission
    to Egypt in January to improve the image of the US among Arab "opinion
    makers," it didn't go well. Muhammad Abdel Hadi, an editor at the newspaper
    Al Ahram, left his meeting with Ms Beers frustrated that she seemed more
    interested in talking about vague American values than about specific US
    policies. "No matter how hard you try to make them understand," he said,
    "they don't."

    The misunderstanding probably stemmed from the fact that Beers views the US
    tattered international image as little more than a communications problem.
    Somehow America still hasn't managed, in Beers' words, to "get out there and
    tell our story". In fact, the problem is just the opposite: America's
    marketing of itself has been too effective. Schoolchildren can recite its
    claims to democracy, liberty and equal opportunity as readily as they can
    associate McDonald's with family fun and Nike with athletic prowess. And
    they expect the US to live up to its claims.

    If they are angry, as millions clearly are, it's because they have seen
    those promises betrayed by US policy. Despite President Bush's insistence
    that America's enemies resent its liberties, most critics of the US don't
    actually object to America's stated values. Instead, they point to US
    unilateralism in the face of international laws, widening wealth
    disparities, crackdowns on immigrants and human rights violations, most
    recently in Guantanamo Bay. The anger comes not only from the facts of each
    case but also from a clear perception of false advertising. In other words,
    America's problem is not with its brand - which could scarcely be stronger -
    but with its product.

    There is another, more profound obstacle facing the relaunch of Brand USA:
    the values Beers is charged with selling are democracy and diversity. Many
    of America's staunchest critics already feel bullied into conformity by the
    US government (bristling at phrases like "rogue state"), and America's
    branding campaign could well backfire, and backfire badly.

    In the corporate world, once a "brand identity" is settled upon, it is
    enforced with military precision throughout a company's operations. The
    brand identity may be tailored to accommodate local language and cultural
    preferences (like McDonald's serving pasta in Italy), but its core features
    - aesthetic, message, logo - remain unchanged. This consistency is what
    brand managers call "the promise" of a brand: it's a pledge that wherever
    you go in the world, your experience at Wal-Mart, Holiday Inn or a Disney
    theme park will be comfortable and familiar. At its core, branding is about
    rigorously controlled one-way messages, sent out in their glossiest form,
    then sealed off from those who would turn corporate monologue into social

    The most important tools in launching a strong brand may be research,
    creativity and design, but after that, libel and copyright laws are a
    brand's best friends. When brand managers transfer their skills from the
    corporate to the political world, they invariably bring this fanaticism for
    homogeneity with them. For instance, when Wally Olins, co-founder of the
    Wolff Olins brand consultancy, was asked for his take on America's image
    problem, he complained that people don't have a single clear idea about what
    the country stands for, but rather have dozens, if not hundreds, of ideas
    that "are mixed up in people's heads ... you will often find people both
    admiring and abusing America, even in the same sentence."

    F rom a branding perspective, it would certainly be tiresome if we found
    ourselves simultaneously admiring and abusing our washing powder. But when
    it comes to our relationship with governments, particularly the government
    of the most powerful and richest nation in the world, surely some complexity
    is in order. Having conflicting views about the US - admiring its
    creativity, for instance, but resenting its double standards - doesn't mean
    you are "mixed up"; it means you have been paying attention.

    Besides, much of the anger directed at the US stems from a belief - voiced
    as readily in Argentina as in France, in India as in Saudi Arabia - that the
    US already demands far 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
    Washington consensus".

    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. But when governments do the
    same, they can look distinctly authoritarian. It's no coincidence that the
    political leaders most preoccupied with branding themselves and their
    parties were also allergic to democracy and diversity. Historically, this
    has been the ugly flipside of politicians striving for consistency of brand:
    centralised information, state-controlled media, re-education camps, purging
    of dissidents and much worse.

    Democracy, thankfully, has other ideas. Unlike strong brands, which are
    predictable and disciplined, democracy is messy and fractious, if not
    outright rebellious. Beers and her colleagues may have convinced Colin
    Powell to buy Uncle Ben's, but the US is not made up of identical grains of
    rice or hamburgers or Gap khakis. Its strongest "brand attribute" is its
    embrace of diversity, a value Ms Beers is now, ironically, attempting to
    stamp with cookie-cutter uniformity around the world. The task is not only
    futile but dangerous.

    Making his pitch for Brand USA in Beijing recently, President Bush argued
    that "in a free society, diversity is not disorder. Debate is not strife".
    The audience applauded politely. The message may have proved more persuasive
    if those values were better reflected in the Bush administration's
    communications with the outside world - both in its image and, more
    importantly, in its policies. Because as President Bush rightly points out,
    diversity and debate are the lifeblood of liberty. And they are enemies of

    Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

    I know i say that the biology analogy can be stretched too far, so it pains
    me some what to use it :-)

    Before the human race knew much about biology we were domesticating and
    breeding both animals and crops. This included selecting for traits, even
    though we did not know the underlying genetics of these. In short most of
    the time the human race could breed other species without worrying about the
    underlying knowledge.

    Klein's article suggests to me (along with her book NO LOGO) that the
    advertisers, and more importantly, government agencies, business etc are
    managing various forms of memetic engineering without quite realising what
    they are doing. They know what they want to achieve, i.e. get the
    public/arab world on side, or buy our goods, they just don't have a coherent
    and workable theory to make it happen.

    I'm just a tad worried that we may end up supplying it.

    Two thoughts are always at the back of my mind, and i will miss quote them.

    "I am become Vishnu, destroyer of worlds"

    "picture a boot stamping on a face, forever"

    Robert Oppenhiemer and George Orwell.

    Just a thought.





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