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Re-branding America

Marketing gurus think they can help 'reposition' the United States - and save American foreign policy

SHORTLY AFTER Sept. 11, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell, concerned about rising anti-Americanism abroad, hired Madison Ave. maven Charlotte Beers to blitz the Middle East with pro-American advertising and PR campaigns. The goal, Powell said, was nothing less than to ''rebrand American foreign policy.'' Beers responded with gusto: During her 17-month tenure, the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs oversaw the launching of everything from a monthly pro-American, Arabic-language newsmagazine called Hi, to be distributed around the Middle East, to a series of TV spots featuring smiling Muslim Americans.

But Beers's PR campaign turned out to be a PR disaster. ''The US can't be sold as a brand,' like Cheerios,'' wrote the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board. To Naomi Klein, a columnist at The Nation and the author of ''No Logo,'' Beers's efforts echoed the propaganda efforts of Nazi Germany and other authoritarian regimes. ''It's no coincidence,'' wrote Klein in the Los Angeles Times in 2002, ''that the political leaders most preoccupied with branding themselves and their parties were also allergic to democracy and diversity.'' Beers left before many of her programs even got off the ground.

Yet Beers's failure, far from discrediting the idea of ''branding'' a country, stands out as an exception. The last few years have seen an explosion of ''nation-branding,'' shorthand for coordinated government efforts to manage a country's image, whether to improve tourism, investment, or even foreign relations. Firms specializing in nation-branding have sprouted up around the world. In collaboration with a coterie of such experts, Tony Blair recently established a Public Diplomacy Strategy Board, an outgrowth of his earlier ''Cool Britannia'' campaign, to improve perceptions of the country abroad. And in November, the Persian Gulf state of Oman signed a contract with the marketing firm Landor Associates to develop and sell ''Brand Oman.''

What sets true nation-branding apart from Beers's efforts, according to its advocates, is its focus on brand management rather than just brand promotion. Beers failed, says Simon Anholt, a British marketing expert and one of the world's leading proponents of nation-branding, because she tried to change people's minds without changing the ''product.'' ''What she and her team were doing resulted, and I'm tempted to use the word degenerated, far too quickly into communications,'' says Anholt, whose latest book, ''Brand America: The Mother of All Brands'' (Cyan), coauthored with Jeremy Hildreth, appears in the United States next month.

Anholt and others argue that countries looking to manage their image have to go deeper, aligning their foreign and domestic policies with a well-researched set of national images, much as a successful marketing campaign requires a company to ''live the brand.'' The United States, for example, might brand itself as a nation of personal freedom, risk-taking, and cultural tolerance, and then coordinate policy around the promotion of that brand (by, say, expanding market-friendly foreign aid programs).

''All nations need to compete for a share of the world's attention and wealth, and that development is as much a matter of positioning as anything else,'' Anholt wrote in 2003, ''so it makes perfect sense for governments to do everything possible to ensure consistency of behavior in every area.'' He even recommends that countries appoint Cabinet-level branding ministers. ''I've visited a great many countries where they have ministers for things that are far less important than branding,'' he says.

The American business community is already taking Anholt's advice to heart. He sits on the advisory council of Business for Diplomatic Action, a group of marketing, academic, and corporate veterans-which counts intellectual heavyweights like Joseph Nye and Jeffrey Garten, as well as corporate titans like McDonald's and GlaxoSmithKline, among its ranks-organized in 2004 to combat anti-Americanism abroad. BDA recently distributed thousands of ''World Citizens Guides'' to American students headed abroad. The guides, also available online, include such tips as ''agree to disagree respectfully'' and ''dialogue instead of monologue''-just the sort of advice Anholt would like to see the US government heed as well.

Of course, it may be hard to imagine the United States, or any other country, implementing Anholt's comprehensive nation-branding strategy. But taken less literally-as a policy critique, rather than as a program-Anholt's argument is simply a business-flavored version of what Bush's critics have been saying all along: Talking about freedom and democracy won't get us very far if those efforts are competing with Abu Ghraib and the Patriot Act. In a media-saturated world, image matters, and people won't listen to our sales pitch if our policies send a conflicting signal. In other words, we've got to ''live the brand.''

Nation-branding as a discipline is the confluence of two seemingly disparate fields: marketing and diplomacy. In the 1960s, marketers became interested in what is called the ''country of origin'' effect. Why is it, they asked, that simply sticking a ''Made in Japan'' label on a stereo boosts its value by 30 percent? Clearly, they argued, there was something about Japan itself-perhaps its reputation as a technically savvy society-that made consumers value Japanese technology over similar products from, say, Brazil. What are the roots of these national stereotypes, and how can marketing take advantage of them? And what if Brazil wanted to develop its own high-tech export industry? How could it change those stereotypes?

At the same time, throughout the Cold War the United States operated countless programs in what is known as public diplomacy, from Voice of America radio to CIA-funded magazines, such as Encounter and Look. Unlike propaganda, which spoke directly about the superiority of American values, public diplomacy fostered pro-Western sentiment through the open exchange of ideas and the dissemination of American culture.

During the 1990s, however, public diplomacy was scaled back, a mistake that the 9/11 Commission highlighted in its report. (''If the United States does not act aggressively to define itself in the Islamic world,'' the report declared, ''the extremists will gladly do the job for us.'') But it's not enough simply to revive Cold War strategies, argues Anholt. In a world increasingly connected by ubiquitous 24/7 media, there has to be a ''brand'' strategy-the message has to be coordinated and consistent, and it has to respond to stereotypes already in circulation. Nation-branding, then, is what you get when you take traditional public diplomacy strategies and add marketing tools designed to change national perceptions.

To be sure, Anholt isn't the first person to talk about branding countries, but he has been one of the idea's most persistent and high-profile advocates. He first drew attention with a 1998 article called ''Nation-Brands of the Twenty-First Century'' for the Journal of Brand Management, in which he outlined possible strategies for creating and managing national brands. The article was a hit, and Anholt soon found himself inundated with calls from governments, universities, and fellow marketers begging him to share his ideas.

Today, Anholt is an official adviser to the British and Croatian governments, helping to coordinate their ''brands'' through tourist, investment, and cultural promotion programs. He is also an adviser to the UN, which sends him to developing countries looking to launch their own branding campaigns. In addition to writing two books and a slew of magazine articles, he recently founded an academic journal on nation-branding, entitled Place Branding and Public Diplomacy.

Nation-branding campaigns thus far have been relatively limited in scope. During the 1990s, Spain, in what is often cited as the most successful nation-branding effort so far, took advantage of its exposure during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics to launch a national marketing campaign-think of the Joan Miro sun symbol-that promoted everything from newly privatized utilities to the films of Pedro Almodovar to Ibiza, a Mediterranean party island. The effort, organized from Madrid, was a success. Twenty years ago Spain was thought of as a European backwater; today it's seen as a hip, high-design playground.

Nevertheless, Anholt says that true nation-branding has to go further. On the one hand, it means ''harmonizing'' the brand message across the government. On the other hand, the message has to be communicated internally as well as externally. That means surveying citizens on the values they think should go into the ''brand,'' as well as reiterating the importance of ''living'' that brand.

While no one is calling for such a comprehensive strategy in the United States just yet, the idea of defining and changing America's ''brand'' is starting to catch hold. ''The way to address this issue is not through ads, but through actions,'' says Cari Eggspuehler, executive director of Business for Diplomatic Action and a former special assistant to Under Secretary Beers. ''For Americans in general, it's very difficult to step back and listen. But that has to be the starting point.''

Anholt is the first to admit that talking about a country in the same terms one discusses athletic shoes is likely to offend many people. And on a substantive level, there are serious practical objections. ''You can do this with a company, a small institution, but for a country, unless you're Singapore, which is autocratic, it is problematic because you will have dissenting voices, which may be very strong,'' says Peter van Ham, a Dutch political scientist and nation-branding expert.

Consider the abrupt change in America's world standing from Clinton to Bush. Brand America under Clinton was all about multilateral humanitarian intervention abroad and Third Way liberalism at home; Brand America under Bush is the opposite.

''One of the fundamental tenets of branding is consistency...When you have regime change every four years, or at least every eight years, you are hard-pressed to get consistency of policy,'' says Allyson Stewart-Allen, director of London's International Marketing Partners.

''You only have a certain number of chances to register in people's minds,'' says Anholt. ''And unless each time you register, it appears to be making the same point, you don't have much of a chance.''

It's advice the Bush administration would do well to heed. After all, Bush's democracy-promotion agenda is as much about rhetoric and symbols as it is about military action. If we want to lead by example, then, we've got to make sure that our example is consistent.

Even Naomi Klein, who warned of authoritarian undertones in nation-branding strategies, would have to agree with Anholt on this point. In the same article that she castigated Charlotte Beers, she wrote that ''America's problem is not with its brand-which could scarcely be stronger-but with its product.''

Clay Risen is an assistant editor at The New Republic.

(Illustration / John Ueland)
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