recognition as wide, deep, lasting and powerful. To a villager in Papua New Guinea, a taxi driver in Mumbai or a hairdresser in Latvia, America stands for pretty much the same things: money, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness.
The power of Brand America has always helped to sell US brands, of course. "Made in America" is a premium label across a vast range of product and service sectors, from technology to fashion, travel to finance, food to engineering and youth brands to medicine. For decades, products from America have merely needed to state their country of origin, and consumers around the world have welcomed them with enthusiasm.
Commerce is only one aspect of the nation-brand. America comfortably dominates the whole spectrum of national image, from its massive trade presence in imports and exports to foreign policy, where, like it or not, it has the loudest voice and the strongest brand. In international cultural activity, no other country comes close to America's dominance—some would say its stranglehold—over television, cinema, the Internet, music, books and magazines.
The tale of how Brand America was built is a truly heroic one. And it must be said that this is a brand that has been managed, for the most part, with honor and integrity, or at least with the best intentions, as well as skill, inventiveness, vigor, consistency and passion, for a quarter of a millennium.
All the more pity, then, that the last few years have seen such a decline in the passion, consistency, vigor, inventiveness, skill, integrity and honor with which it has been managed. From the dismantling of the United States Information Agency to the recent failure of the "Shared Values" public diplomacy initiative, America simply seems to have lost its extraordinary talent for enlightened and effective self-promotion.
Partly for this reason, and partly because of America's current style of foreign policy, some new ideas have joined the list of qualities that we associate with Brand America: bullying, polluting, domineering, imperialistic, ignorant, fat, selfish, inconsistent, arrogant, self-absorbed, greedy, hypocritical and meddling.
So Brand America today finds itself in an unfamiliar situation. Derided, mistrusted, misunderstood, even hated, it just can't seem to do anything right any more. This sometimes happens to very powerful brands, even when their behavior is immaculate, which America's hasn't always been.
American industry in particular is finding itself in a strange and hostile world. A world of consumers with money to spend, surrounded by good, attractive, well-branded products at sensible prices, more and more of which aren't American. It's a world where "Made in America" is suddenly not the only offering, nor automatically the most exciting, nor the best: it's just one choice among many.
By contrast, communism was a pale threat to America's brand leadership. The real challenger today is capitalism: not America's military foes, but the disaffection of its consumers and the skill and determination of its competitors.
America, like all market leaders, is now facing the consequences of having fulfilled most of its ambitions. Its dominant market position is described as a monopoly; every action it takes in order to protect its commercial interests creates shrieks of protest; its (usually well-intentioned and occasionally bungled) attempts to live up to its responsibilities as sole superpower and maintain a bit of order around the planet are called empire-building; its confidence is called arrogance; its good acts described as hypocritical; and when it really does do something bad or wrong, all hell breaks loose.
America's mistakes are typical of market leaders too. There's a good deal of complacency, and a tendency to forget or undervalue the qualities and behaviors that built the brand in the first place. Some real arrogance, combined with a reluctance to get to grips with understanding the marketplace in depth and detail—and this creates an inability to deal sensitively with friends, foes and customers. Thus there is a certain amount of disorganization and incoherence in the way America manages its own vast business (again, this is often the price of success in big organizations; consistent and well-coordinated group behavior is necessary for getting to the top, but once you get there, it easily slips) and a lack of clear thinking (or at least clear communication of the thinking) about what happens next, and where it goes from here.
It's hard to behave like a challenger when nobody is challenging you, and it's difficult to keep getting better when you think you're already the best.
America needs to rediscover its brand instinct, and live by the principles that most American companies never forgot: clarity and firmness of purpose and of message; sensitivity to the needs of different audiences around the world; a simple and attractive positioning; transparent and ethical behavior in the organization as well as in the products; coordination between the stakeholders.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely, goes the maxim, and considering how much power America wields, it's pretty remarkable that it has wielded it with such restraint over the last century or so. But the Founding Fathers' fine resolution of "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none" all too soon gave way to reluctant interventions in other people's disputes. This gradually gave way to some well-intentioned meddling; and over the last fifty years or so, circumstances have conspired to create a widespread feeling that the meddling isn't so well intentioned any more.
Today, the consensus is growing that America throws its weight around—culturally, politically, economically and militarily. The trouble is that once you start using coercion, persuasion stops working. Soft power can only be used when there is trust. Trade is a two-way process, and selling depends on consumers allowing themselves to be persuaded; they won't do that if they fear that you have, and are prepared to use, the alternative of coercion. They would rather concentrate on defending themselves from you than welcoming you in.
But there's an important difference between America standing at this crossroads and other powerful nations that have stood in similar places in the past. When the Roman, British, Ottoman, Mongol, Soviet and Greek empires reached crisis points in their histories, it's a safe bet that not many people (apart from their own citizens, of course) cared too much what became of them.
America has a market out there. It may sound trivial or maudlin, but America really did build an empire by making millions of people love it, by giving them wonderful dreams and unbelievable products and the greatest entertainment show on earth. In consequence, Brand America has a vast global consumer-base out there that, deep down inside, cares what happens to it.
In other words, the world wants Brand America back.
America, the first nation to make democracy and free trade the cornerstones of its national identity and national purpose, has always understood that brand is an inherently peaceful and humanistic model for international relations. It's based on competition, consumer choice and consumer power; and these concepts are very intimately linked to the freedom and power of the individual in a democracy. For this reason it's far more likely to result in lasting world peace than a statecraft based on territory, economic power, ideologies, politics or religion.
Best of all, the brand approach offers America the ultimate prize, if it does things well: the chance to be top dog and be loved.
A superpower can't do this: a brand leader can.
Reprinted excerpt from Brand America with permission from the author.