Thursday, October 27, 2011

Brand America

In these fractious and partisan times it’s interesting how U.S. politicians of all stripes are eager to distance themselves from their chosen profession. Democrats and Republicans alike, no matter their actual tenure, are all suddenly Washington “outsiders.” Many have also developed a newly found appreciation for how businesses are run, and think government could learn a trick or two from corporate America. We don’t need a President, they seem to be saying, we need a CEO.

Government-as-business is an interesting concept, which got me thinking: Why not elect an American CMO, a kind of Marketer-in-Chief?

The question isn’t as facetious as it might seem. Lots of countries actually do elect or appoint someone – often a “president” with limited legislative clout – to represent their country without having any overt political baggage. Truth is, in Europe that’s what royalty’s for.

America desperately needs a Marketer-in-Chief. America the Brand isn’t so brave anymore. You don’t need to conduct an audit to see the signs of dwindling brand loyalty and a confused brand identity. A good CMO would have read the signals long ago: The latest Rasmussen Poll shows that only 16 percent of likely voters think their country is “heading in the right direction,” while only 35 percent think America’s best days are to come. This is Quickster bad. The truth is, behind all the Tea Party bluster and Take Wall Street theatrics, there’s a shared disquiet that the US has lost its way and compromised on some ideals.

Overseas, Brand America is being bashed as bad as tainted Tylenol or New Coke. A couple of foreign wars certainly don’t help, and a worldwide financial pandemic is also souring the mood. Interestingly, Obama’s reputation abroad remains strong – his personal brand is relatively unscathed.

But Brand America has dealt with crisis before and come through, so, what’s the problem now? I blame the politicians. As some famous American once said, “a house divided cannot stand,” and Brand America has some deep-sea-trench divisions on strategy and values. No self-respecting CMO would stand for this. It used to be that the country coalesced around a universally accepted brand promise: Liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness, etc. This was considered enough. Now, while we might agree on the brand promise, we dogmatically disagree on how to deliver on that promise. Even the role of government is being questioned. Meanwhile, as our fearless political leaders seem to encourage polarization, we flounder dealing with looming competitive threats from Brand China and the rest.

As any CMO knows, brand equity is a fragile commodity, hard to earn and too easily lost. However, in the case of Brand America, I think the gloomy prognosis is overstated.

A couple of months ago I was sworn-in as a US citizen, along with 260 others from over 30 different countries. It was a moving and sobering experience – I sat next to a Somali woman and a Nigerian man, both with harrowing stories of lost relatives and exile. An Indian man told me about the Pharma start-up he was creating – in the US. That same week, I listened to American scientists from the Kepler project describe discovering the first planets from other solar systems. And this year U.S. citizens netted seven Nobel prizes. On the global stage, America is still a place of invention and promise. The old cliché is true: American is a land of opportunity.

All we need is a Marketer-in-Chief to sell it better.

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