Culture strength is US weakness

American popular culture rules the world. This offers unique advantages for US companies, but they must beware of European antagonism to cultural dominance, says John Shannon. John Shannon is president of Grey International.

With more multinational corporations than any other country in the world, America is at the forefront of international brand marketing. So it is not surprising that names like Disney, Coca Cola, McDonald’s, IBM, Levi’s, Lee and many others have become familiar across Europe, and indeed the world.

But a new survey conducted in the US by Roper Starch Worldwide, suggests that if US products and brands are to enjoy contin uing success in Europe, they may have to take more account of local sensitivities.

In general, the survey reports that consumers around the world rank the US on a par with Japan and Germany. In response to the question do you feel “fairly” to “very” positive about attributes of the following countries, the US scored 67 per cent compared with Germany 68 per cent and Japan 69 per cent. Attitudes towards the US are even more favourable in Central Europe with a score of 84 per cent. Western Europeans are less enthusiastic.

The survey also confirms that consumers worldwide tend to view certain countries as leaders in specific areas – Europe is known for luxury cars, refinement and gastronomy, while Japan leads in computer electronics and mid-priced cars.

America, however, is known for exporting popular culture. Its reputation in Europe rests upon blue jeans and hamburgers, movies and TV programmes.

Given this perception, US companies are faced with a unique mixture of advantages and obstacles to progress in Europe.

On one hand, images of American popular culture, from the Wild West, through to the rebelliousness of James Dean and the rock ‘n’ roll scene of the Fifties, and on to today’s urban youth street culture, have a unique emotional resonance throughout the world.

To people who live in cultures that have become over-dependent upon legislation or have suffered severe restrictions to their freedom of speech, American imagery suggests a combination of rebellion and aspiration.

On the other hand, it is clear that Europeans are increasingly concerned about the dominance of US culture.

Americanness is often an integral part of a brand’s positioning when products are aimed at the youth or entertainment market. But to succeed in other sectors, the challenge will be to prove that products mix the goodwill that the survey shows to the US, with a relevance to consumers.

US brands must combine world class service and product quality, with acute sensitivity to local culture.

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