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Guns, Debt & Indecision….The State of America’s Brand Abroad

Jan 25, 2013

Re-Framing & Re-Imagining the American Brand Abroad

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 there was much discussion in the U.S. Government (USG) as well as the private sector regarding the state of America’s image and brand abroad. Much of this began when then Secretary of State Colin Powell appointed Charlotte Beers, an advertising legend, as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. I remember well the historic meeting of advertising veterans Charlotte convened at Main State – shorthand for the home of the Department of State in the Harry S. Truman Building – days after the attack. For two and a half days – running only on a constant flow of coffee and adrenaline – this collective of some of the best creative minds in America delved deeply into how the U.S. could repair, reframe and reset the American brand abroad. This incredible brainstorming session wasn’t about selling the U.S. or putting new slogans in airports – it was an honest discussion about how we were viewed and then what we can try to do about it while marshaling the power of the private sector. Unfortunately, and like many meetings that disappear into the hallowed halls of Foggy Bottom, the results from this historic gathering never saw life. In part, this was due to the tenuous nature of our foreign policy directives at the time, lack of respect for public diplomacy and the advertising community writ large, and our near constant state of crisis response with a small staff and even smaller budget. The seeds though had been planted and the private sector – especially those who manage many of the global iconic American brands that have stood the test of time, war, and economic hardship – stepped up. And so in early 2003, this in part was why Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA) came to be. BDA was the first non-partisan, apolitical, non-profit dedicated to building new bridges to the world. With many of the top global creative leaders at the helm, we researched, monitored and dissected the American brand abroad for nearly eight years. From comprehensive and on-going listening efforts we developed programs where the private sector could work in parallel to USG efforts to help shore up those areas of the American brand that fell short of our ideals. During those years that BDA was focused on the American brand, the U.S. Government and several non-profits also came together to launch a variety of unique partnerships and initiatives to expand public diplomacy efforts and re-imagine the American brand through a citizen diplomacy focused lens. Throughout the BDA era leading up to President Obama’s first election, it would seem our country’s soft power reserves were growing steadily. The American brand was further buoyed by the Obama brand and we appeared to go up in almost every global poll. Keith Reinhard, founder of Business for Diplomatic Action and Chairman Emeritus of DDB Worldwide, remarked in a piece for Fast Company, The Brand Called Obama: “Barack Obama is three things you want in a brand…new, different and attractive. That’s as good as it gets.”

That Was Then…This is Now

Obama’s brand globally though has steadily slipped since 2009. This past June, The Pew Global Attitudes Project released findings that evidenced drops in popularity and affinity.

Of greatest concern is the dramatic drop in confidence for President Obama and his international policies around the world. Notably, China and Japan had some of the largest drops in confidence, which doesn’t bode well for our government’s pivot towards Asia. Confidence in the U.S. President now ranks behind that of the leadership in Germany, France, Britain, the Czech Republic, Japan, Italy, Brazil and Spain.

The current state of America’s brand abroad is no longer new, different or attractive. It is a never-ending montage of guns, debt and indecision. Follow international press coverage of the U.S. and these themes emerge again and again. These are not the images and themes we want imprinted into the global mindset, especially on a week that includes the Inauguration and the official nomination of a new Secretary of State. They are nonetheless images and issues that are increasingly synonymous with the American government’s leadership and the American brand abroad. We need to recognize that our soft power reserves are eroding precipitously and the United States is in desperate need of a new global engagement strategy. To do this will require new, fresh thinking, a comprehensive tri-sector approach, and a radically different approach to diplomacy. Here’s hoping our new Secretary of State is ready to lead the charge.


With all due respect to Ms. Guittard, any PD professional knows that Charlotte Beers' "rebranding" exercise was a spectacular, and very expensive, failure. To promote her as some sort of PD model citizen is to mislead anyone interested in the subject.
Guy W. Farmer
Retired FSO (USIA)
Carson City, NV

Cari Guittard's observations are coming at a time when the US and the free world are on a collision course with many of the haters of democracy. We have played a most vital part in showing what democracy should or could be, only we also have been practicing it for more than 150 years and are constantly assessing it
Christa Dowling
Global Cultural Advisor

I am writing this from Russia, which is one of the few countries shown in Ms. Guittard's data that has an increasingly favorable attitude toward the U.S. I, too, remember Charlotte Beer's positive message at a time when American foreign policy seemed to be leading us (Americans) into an increasingly downward spiral of negative perceptions around the world. I thought is was a breath of fresh air in an increasingly acrid global climate. From what I heard, it was discontinued because it was inadequately funded. Perhaps it was expensive, but compared to what -- the war in Iraq? In any case, our current social divisions, the ideological deadlock in Congress, and the expansion of our military presence around the world is making the decreases in our global image and our credit rating an accurate reflection of the gap between our self image (and, God bless us, we still see ourselves in terms of the best of our tradition) and our global image. Let's work hard to bring our image abroad back into line with our self-image. It's our responsibility as citizens to do so -- now!

From Ms Eggspuehler-Guittard writing: "Obama’s brand globally though has steadily slipped since 2009."

It sounds to me like President Obama has slipped since the day he took office. Since the day he promised to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, my math/best recollection tells me that date was January 20, 2009. January 1, 2009 is the official first day of the year. Is it my understanding since January 21, 2009 the USG Brand has slipped since George W. Bush departed Washington, DC in a helicopter to the cheers of millions? I remember joyous USG Brand celebrations in France, Germany, Russia, and the UK after Obama was elected over the choice of McCain/Palin. Please excuse me for impact McCain/Palin would have brought to USG Brand via their foreign policies. Leadership is relative.

Stop the presses and let's back up on some Global Thinking here. President Barack Obama inherited 2 wars which were not won or resolved plus an economy perched on the fence of the next Great Depression. Global Brand? Thousand of US Troops were dying in one very unpopular war (Iraq and +4000 dead) President Obama ended during his first two years and then brought to justice the most terrifying anti-American in our history. Osama bin Laden. Per "Global Brand" it took "Obama" 2+ years what George W. Bush couldn't do in 8 years. Please excuse me in my thinking President Obama might have had far much more on his plate than a preoccupation with "Global Brand".

A "non-partisan, apolitical, non-profit dedicated to building new bridges to the world"? Those who can subscribe to such a standard should be admitted to impartiality Sainthood.

A great leader takes careful inventory of his/her highest priorities. When the history books are written, President Obama might not get high marks for USG brand but he dodged the next Great Depression, kept American safe from more 9-11 type attacks, ended a War which never should have been fought, and killed The Most Wanted Terrorist on Earth. Not a bad brand.

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