'Brand America' has gone toxic

Benjamin Barber

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: Pakistanis aren't going to let a state of emergency get in the way of corporate public relations. The Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry announced this weekend it'll honor 100 companies in Pakistan with its first-ever Brands of the Year Awards. The federation says the awards will pay specific attention to how well a Pakistani company's brand plays abroad.

When it comes to the image of American brands overseas, commentator Benjamin Barber says that there's a lot of work to be done.


BENJAMIN BARBER: Brand America isn't in very good shape. If you trot the globe like I do, be prepared to pretend you're from Canada or Australia, so they won't label you "made in America."

The sorry state of Brand America is a lesson in modern marketing and the meaning of brands. A brand is more than a trademark. It's a tribute to a company's reputation. This is why economists estimate that brand reputation may represent up to one half of the real value of a business. Companies like Google and EBay have stock values much higher than their assets and income warrant, because of the perceived value of the brand.

Now when it comes to Brand USA, the assets remain in place: world-beating economy, peerless military machine, global media culture and endless hard power potential. But the reputation has vanished down a black hole. Think Iraq; think global warming; think "dollar doldrums."

Like Tylenol, after it released a bad shipment, Brand America has gone toxic. Don't blame public diplomacy. When brands lose their panache it's not lousy advertising but lousy business practices that are to blame.

Perhaps the best proof comes from those classically "American" brands like McDonald's, Coca Cola, Nike and nowadays General Motors. These companies do their biggest business outside North America and have built their global name on the strength of Brand USA. But now they are running away from Brand USA to preserve their image abroad.

Take McDonald's. Once perhaps the preeminent American franchise, they are now trying to disguise themselves as something other than American. So in France they bought the rights to Asterix. These days, it's this famous Gallic comic book icon, and not Ronald McDonald, who is selling Big Macs in Paris.

Restoring Brand America means fixing what's wrong with America. Not jiggling with the ads, but fixing the product --- American foreign policy. We will know we've succeeded when McDonald's gives its French megaphone back to Ronald McDonald.

RYSSDAL: Benjamin Barber is a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, that's a New York-based think tank.

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