Ill health was the reason given for Charlotte Beers’ resignation as ambassador at large for Brand America last week. While we have no reason to doubt her word, let’s say the task she was given has been plagued by its own malaise, and the timing of her departure is not inappropriate. A successor, of a kind, is being sought but it is difficult to see how he or she will succeed where Beers failed.
As it happened, Beers’ appointment as under-secretary at the State Department, with special responsibility for public diplomacy and public affairs, shortly predated the terrorist attacks on her country. But there is no doubt that her role gained real legitimacy and focus as part of the new ‘war on terrorism’. In fact, what had been fortuitous now seemed little less than inspired. Here, after all, was the doyenne of advertising – former head of J Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather – bringing all her communications skills, learned on packaged goods, to bear on the intractable problem of winning disaffected Muslims over to the wholesomeness of Brand America. And not only that: applying, as her ultimate boss Colin Powell more or less put it, the sleek sheen of Madison Avenue to the tongue-twisting world of Foggy Bottom (Washington DC).
Less than two years later, the scheme lies in ruins. For some time, Beers was belaboured for not doing very much. But no one could accuse her of inaction after the launch of the ‘shared values’ campaign last autumn. This involved high-profile, glossy TV commercials which tried to portray Muslims playing their happy, integrated role in the unfolding American dream.
To ‘old’ European eyes, this might have seemed a naive, indeed doomed, endeavour right from the start: brand sticking-plaster on a suppurating ulcer. Yet, it’s probably not the idea of a communications campaign itself which was flawed, but the way in which it was targeted. Reassurance at home was a well-judged priority after September 11. By contrast, selling the brand abroad was always going to be a much trickier task. Let’s start with the product. Brand experience in many local markets failed to match the same high specification prevalent back home. The promise of ‘Defending Freedom, Defeating Terror’ meshed poorly with what many Arabs saw as the grimmer reality of US foreign policy. But there was also a crippling distribution problem. Many of the target countries simply wouldn’t air the campaign.
No great surprise, then, that ‘shared values’ has failed to nudge the swingometer on the widespread perception of America abroad as ‘arrogant’, ‘self-absorbed’ and ‘hypocritical’. Or that the campaign was unceremoniously junked in January.
Arguably, global brands such as Coca-Cola, Nike, Ford, McDonald’s and Microsoft, with their clearly identifiable American heritage, are much better and more resilient Brand America ambassadors than any number of slick propagandists in the State Department. Their appeal, whatever reservations and reverses they may encounter, clearly transcends national and cultural boundaries. But that, perhaps, is another story: about the coming market state, rather than the unmarketable States.