Richard Tomkins: Brand of the free

Richard Tomkins

Think of America and what do you think? Of a nation that stands for freedom, tolerance and democracy? Or of the land that gave us Barbie and Baywatch, Hollywood and MTV, Coca-Cola and Chicken McNuggets?

For a country with the biggest marketing industry on earth, the US has made a surprisingly poor job of managing its own image - a problem that has shifted sharply into focus in the propaganda war that has broken out since the September 11 attacks.

It is true that for much of the world, the US stands as a beacon of freedom. But even outside the ranks of the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation and America's other enemies in the Middle East, it is sometimes loathed by detractors who accuse it of spreading a culture of crass commercialisation around the world.

And so the question arises: is it time to rebrand America?

The Bush administration seems to think so. Two weeks ago, a new under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs was sworn in, charged with winning the hearts and minds of the world community in the anti-terrorist war. And the chosen candidate was not some career diplomat or politician but Charlotte Beers, previously chairman of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency.

Variously known as the queen of Madison Avenue and the most powerful woman in advertising, Ms Beers, 66, has devoted her whole working life to the idea of building and selling brands. After working as a brand manager for Uncle Ben's Rice, she went into the advertising industry and fought her way up to become chairman and chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather, later emerging from semi-retirement to chair J. Walter Thompson in 1999.

In her new job, her narrowly defined priority will be to win the propaganda war against the terrorists and their supporters. But in effect, her role is much broader. It means using the techniques she has learnt in advertising to sell the US, its values and its foreign policy to the rest of the world - possibly the biggest brand assignment in history.

It is not just a large task but also an extremely difficult one. People have had various stabs at rebranding countries in the past, including a much-derided and ultimately vain attempt to rebrand Britain as Cool Britannia, but it has been a hit-and-miss affair.

A rare example of success, perhaps, is Spain, which in 30 years has shaken off its image as a poverty-stricken, autarchic society and is now seen as a modern and sophisticated democracy.

Brand experts say it is easier to rebrand a small country than a large one because people in the rest of the world are likely to have fewer preconceptions about it and because the sources of people's ideas about the country, being relatively few in number, can be managed and controlled.

The US, however, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. "We're not dealing with Portugal here. It's not a case of unwrapping some lovely little jewel that nobody knew about before," says Wally Olins, co-founder of the Wolff Olins brand consultancy, who has worked on many projects to rebrand countries. "The US is outstanding in the sense that it is the only country in the world which is so well known that you can guarantee people from all other countries will have a view on it."

Oddly, Mr Olins adds, their views can also be extremely muddled. They may include contempt for the shallow materialism of US consumer culture, admiration for the values the nation upholds and wonder at its scientific and technological sophistication.

"These ideas - there are others as well but these are the preponderant ones - are mixed up in people's heads in a most extraordinary way," says Mr Olins. "So you will often find people both admiring and abusing America, even in the same sentence."

The muddle may reflect a contradiction. In a sense, there are at least two US cultures: the culture of its noble ideals such as democracy and respect for individual rights; and the pervasive popular and commercial culture represented by Hollywood, MTV and its globe-bestriding brands.

While a lot of people admire and desire the former, some are much less enthusiastic about the latter. And they are especially resentful when they feel their own cultures and traditions are threatened by the incursion of tawdry but seductive American consumerism.

Steve Hayden, vice-chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, says part of America's image problem is that, as US pop culture and brands have expanded globally, they have increasingly dominated people's perceptions of the US. "They even serve as surrogates," Mr Hayden says. "If you can't burn down the American embassy, you can burn down the movie theatre where an American film is playing; if you can't get to the air base, you can attack a McDonald's."

A similar thought comes from John Quelch, professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, who quotes John Ruskin, the 19th-century English critic: "Great nations write their auto- biographies in three manuscripts - the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art."

"In a way, brands have become more important than the artistic record with respect to the US," Prof Quelch says. "If you think of European countries, if you ask what comes to mind with Austria, for instance, people will say things like Vienna and opera and Mozart. But the very success of the American economy in driving the global economy has crowded out the arts and noble ideals from top-of-mind."

As ever, it is easier to diagnose the problem than to find a solution. Addressing the Senate committee on international relations last week, Ms Beers seemed low on radical ideas: some tweaking of the State Department's website and a beefed-up exchange programme for foreign journalists were among her suggestions.

Mr Olins says people's preconceptions of the US are so deeply entrenched that they will be hard to budge. "It will be a 10- or 15- year programme and that's a very hard thing for politicians to understand."

The way to do it, he says, is to influence the influencers. "You have to talk to all the people who are making an impression of America in the outside world and attempt to persuade them that the impressions they make have to be in some way coherent and cogent and favourable."

Even the brand-owners and film-makers? Especially them, says Prof Quelch. "The marketing weight behind these brands is so great that it would be very difficult to counteract it. Instead, they need to be co-opted."

If the idea of conveying American values in brand messages sounds improbable, it is worth remembering that 30 years ago Coca-Cola came up with one of the most popular commercials ever made when it put a multi- ethnic crowd of 200 youngsters on a hilltop in Italy and conducted them in a rendition of "I'd like to teach the world to sing". As Prof Quelch points out, that advertisement had as much to do with notions of world unity and the acceptance of diversity as it did with selling Coke.

Also, the US has been some way down this road before. In 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the US advertising industry founded a body called the War Advertising Council, which made commercials reminding people that "Loose Lips Sink Ships" and recruiting women into the workforce with the powerful "Rosie the Riveter" symbol.

That organisation, now called the Ad Council, still exists. Ms Beers told the Senate committee she had spoken to it about sponsoring commercials in the US and overseas that would "distil the values and virtues of American democracy". One such commercial, called "I Am An American", is already showing in the US.

Ultimately, advertising executives and brand experts agree that nations are judged by what they are and what they do, not by how they would like to be seen. People's perceptions of Spain changed because the country changed, not because of a glitzy advertising campaign.

But propaganda can be a powerful weapon in times of war and if advertisers are to be help the campaign Ms Beers may be the person to do it. "As ex-chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather, perhaps this is the opportunity she has to bridge the divide that exists between the noble ideals and the crass commercialisation in America's communications mix," Prof Quelch says.