Global marketing execs agree -- America's image is in the toilet. The cure? One presidential candidate has what it takes, they say, to save Brand USA.

Published March 3, 2008 1:05PM (EST)

There's no way to put this delicately, so I won't: America's global image is in the crapper. Last year, the BBC World Service conducted a poll of over 26,000 individuals in the world's 25 largest countries and found that more than 52 percent thought the U.S. had a "mostly negative" influence on the world. Fifty-three percent of respondents to a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs felt America could "not be trusted."

Which means that, on top of everything else it represents, the current presidential election is something like an ad agency review -- a chance to put a set of potential stewards for "Brand America" through their paces, to see the creative and strategic directions in which they'd take our product.

What's at stake is more than just popularity. As Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of the globe's second-largest ad agency, DDB Worldwide, notes, "How we're perceived in the world has profound implications. We rely on human intelligence to alert us to threats: We need friends willing to whisper in our ear that someone's planning to blow up jetliners ... Economically, the Commerce Department estimated that we've lost over $100 billion in tourism revenues since 2001. For every share point we lose in that sector, you're talking about $12.3 billion and 150,000 jobs, gone! The bottom line is that we need a world that likes America."

Candidate Slogan Unifying Theme Underlying Values If He/She Were a Brand...
Hillary Clinton The Strength and Experience to Bring Real Change "I've been there" Competence; experience; professionalism
John McCain Straight Talk Express "I'll go there" Resilience; candor; courage
Barack Obama Change We Can Believe In "I'll take you there" Inspiration; inclusion; iconoclasm
Mike Huckabee Faith. Family. Freedom "Let's go back" Earthiness; populism; humility

Given the beating our image has taken during the last eight years, getting back to "like" is an uphill climb -- but not an impossible one. Over the past six months, I've seen this process firsthand, as part of a team of researchers exploring the tarnishing of America's "brand" in the global marketplace. The word from our network of immersed observers in 14 countries: Even as American politics and policies have become a lightning rod for global anger, America's core underlying values retain their appeal. The problem is that, in the eyes of millions of people around the world, we've simply stopped living up to them.

"The virulent strain of anti-Americanism we're seeing now can be ascribed directly to the fact that we've reneged on our promise to the world," says Dick Martin, former executive vice president of public relations for AT&T, and author of the book "Rebuilding Brand America." "That's why it's ultimately a branding problem. At its root, a brand is a promise. KFC is a brand that promises finger-lickin'-good chicken; America is a brand that promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But unlike KFC, we're not delivering."

"Brand America needs a relaunch," says Reinhard. "And this year, this election, is the best opportunity we're going to get."

Convention holds that presidents need at least 100 days to find their footing, establish their policies, and shift the nation out of the previous administration's inertia. But observers point out that because this cycle's presidential contenders are the most cleanly packaged and clearly differentiated since Kennedy and Nixon, America's makeover will begin even before inauguration. As soon as a winner is announced on Nov. 4, 2008, he or she will, for all intents and purposes, be Brand America.

So which of the candidates has a brand that best addresses the perceived deficits in our country brand?

Is it Brand Clinton, the name you can trust; familiar, experienced and rich with the mmm-mmm-good aroma of America's last big boom? Or Brand Huckabee, whose folks 'n' faith message promises down-to-earth values combined with hands-to-heaven purity? Is it Brand McCain, tough enough to get it done, an off-road vehicle unafraid of both traffic and muck. Or, perhaps, Brand Obama -- the think-different, just-do-it candidate who combines all-in-one packaging with big, streamlined ideas?

"Let's look at what the world appreciates about us: Our youthful enthusiasm, our optimism, our diversity," says DDB's Reinhard. "And then, our negatives, which are very consistent across the world: No. 1, the perception that we are exploitative -- we take what we want, and don't give back in fair measure. Two, that we're corrupt -- we promote values that are not in concert with the social mores or religions of others. And three, that we're arrogant: We're self-absorbed, we're loud, we're rude." To fix our nation brand, Reinhard suggests we need to steal a page from Johnny Mercer: "Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative."

Although his campaign has largely been written off as quixotic, Brand Huckabee has some unexpected merits, notably a certain self-deprecating humility that's missing from the other candidates' personas. "I was in Frankfurt a few weeks ago, at a panel about the U.S. elections hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce, and that day, the International Herald Tribune had run an article about Huckabee's sense of humor, and about how it's become such a part of his brand," says Reinhard. "And even the Germans were acknowledging, when it comes to personal style, you have to give him full marks."

Branding consultant Patricia Martin, author of "Renaissance Generation: The Rise of the Cultural Consumer," agrees: "Huckabee is what I'd call a 'compassion brand,'" she says. "He's a man of the people. He laughs, and people laugh along. He makes people feel comfortable." (On the other hand, notes Dick Martin, "Huckabee's religious demeanor gives the world pause; it's hard to underestimate the degree to which people outside of the U.S. are confused by our approach to religion. It bewilders people that more people believe in the Virgin Birth in the U.S. than in the theory of evolution.")

The ability to soften the die-cast lines of pre-scripted identity, to engage with humor and spontaneity rather than reason and rhetoric, have only belatedly become a part of Brand Clinton -- and, note commentators, perhaps too late and too halfheartedly to save her campaign. "Hillary built herself into an 'anxiety brand,' a brand that depends on uncertainty or fear to succeed; the whole appeal of familiarity and experience is rooted in this notion that the unknown is frightening," says Patricia Martin. "And when it was clear that that wasn't working, she was able to get some traction by exposing her emotions -- by laying out a little compassion. But her brand was out there so early and already established so solidly that it hasn't been enough to right the ship."

And while Clinton's aura of competence and professionalism (not to mention the global popularity of her husband) would smooth out some of the rough, clumsy edges of America's current global image, her brand would inevitably feel more like a retread than the reinvention the world is hoping for. "Even the fact that Hillary is a woman isn't going to be seen as a significant breakthrough," says Harvard Business School professor John Quelch, author of "Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy. "Many countries have already elected and been led by women, so this is simply America playing catch-up rather than a statement of change in the cultural mind-set. There's also that lurking suspicion overseas that, had she not married as she had, she wouldn't have gotten as far as she has."

Brand McCain is even more squarely planted in the "anxiety brand" space than Clinton: His straight-talking, muscular-contrarian persona (not to mention his shoot-from-the-lip rhetoric about a "hundred-year occupation" of Iraq) are designed to make him look strong, firm and unyielding in the face of challenge. The problem is that from abroad, "unyielding" looks a whole lot like "arrogant," while "maverick" translates into "unilateralist," both of which are fundamental sore points in the way America has presented itself to the world over the past eight years.

Being anointed Brand Bush's heir via endorsements from both H.W. and W. only exacerbates global fears that McCain is the same-old, same-old candidate -- accent on the "old." "For McCain, age is a brand attribute he can't control," says Mark Newsome, senior vice president and CMO of marketing agency Chernoff Newman. "He's in his 70s, and as much as that's an asset as far as experience and wisdom is concerned, he can't help being seen as the kind of status-quo patriarch that just isn't going to play in 2008 like it did eight or 10 years ago -- especially if he's up against a 46-year-old opponent."

Which brings us to the candidate that marketers universally agreed has the secret sauce that Brand America needs to regain its appeal.

"From Day One, Obama was talking about how we have to think outside of the Beltway box -- how we need to enact positive change in a fresh way," says Siegel + Gale's Alan Siegel. "His brand is about uplift, it's about humanity; he uses the pronoun 'we' so naturally. People knock him for style over substance, but the truth is that he just has a tremendous ability to cut through the noise. He's distilled his brand proposition into a single theme, 'authentic change,' and it has resonated with people both here and abroad."

While change -- the notion of a break with the past -- is central to Obama's brand essence, the other values he incorporates are no less important. "Obama represents a lot of what America stands for, at its best: Diversity, opportunity, community," says Dick Martin. "I don't think it's a coincidence that when asked about his qualifications, he talks about being a community organizer; he's emphasizing that his experience is in bringing people together. I think, strictly from the point of view of changing attitudes towards America around the world, electing him is the most powerful thing we could do. He's the embodiment of the American dream. Having him as president would say to the rest of the world that America has renewed its promise."

There's another factor that Obama has in his favor, which no other candidate this cycle -- or, for that matter, in American history -- can lay claim to, and it might be summed up as "trade dress." His name, his appearance, his parentage: All of these are factors that have an immediate, visceral impact, even to those who know nothing else about him. Pundit Andrew Sullivan, guesting on "The Colbert Report," summed it up as follows: "Just show the face of Barack Obama on television to some teenager in Lahore, Pakistan, who has a vision of America that's been determined by the Bush-Cheney years, and suddenly, more than any words, his opinion and views of this country will change."

For Obama, this advantage is almost unassailable. Short of announcing Tiger Woods as a running mate, none of his rivals has a way to force a recalibration of America's image through peripheral attributes alone. It's a big reason why he's captivated global attention, to an extent that Americans might not even be aware. Indeed, the very things that snipers from the right have used to cast doubt on Obama's red-white-and-blue propers -- his schoolboy years in Indonesia, his refusal to engage in acts of symbolic patriotism, his stated willingness to sit down and engage with enemy world leaders, even the Drudge-distributed image of Obama in native Somali garb -- these are the things that have the world trembling with anticipation over an Obama victory in November.

"I was just in Doha, Qatar, for the Brookings Institution's annual U.S.- Islamic World Forum, and one of the moderators asked the non-Americans in the audience, 'If you could vote for one of the U.S. presidential candidates, who would you vote for?'" says Keith Reinhard. "The number of hands that shot up for Barack Obama far outnumbered those for anyone else. So in that part of the world, at least, there's no question at all."

And in other parts of the world as well. "In Germany, they're fascinated with him, they call him 'Der schwarze Kennedy,' the 'black Kennedy,'" says Dick Martin. "They feel he has the same aura about him." In fact, just a few weeks ago, Germany's leading newsmagazine Der Spiegel ran a cover feature on Obama, illustrated by a paired set of images -- Barack on the left, JFK on the right -- and asking whether America will "finally have the chance to be loved again." The issue's cover line raised the stakes to a new level: It read, simply, "The Messiah Factor."

That's because, in Europe, and in Asia, Latin America and Africa as well, the perception is that an Obama presidency represents the potential for catharsis after nearly a decade of frustration with the U.S. "Our brand has been hammered recently, but beneath the anger, there's this underlying hope among people around the world that we can do better," says Patricia Martin. "And we can. We reinvent ourselves. It's what we're known for: We've had more comebacks than Frank Sinatra. I think that's why you have people in every country eating up every little turn in this election's story. This election, the whole world is watching."

By Jeff Yang

Jeff Yang writes the San Francisco Chronicle column "Asian Pop," and has authored three books. His fourth, the Asian-American superhero anthology "Secret Identities," will be published in spring 2009 by the New Press. Facebook:, Twitter:


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2008 Elections Advertising Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton John Mccain R-ariz.