At a recent marketing conference in Manhattan, attended by delegates from some of the biggest brands in the US, a stark warning was issued. Global market research organisation NOP World reported that for the first time since 1998, when its survey of perceptions of US brands outside America began, it had recorded a significant decline in the number of people who like and use, or desire to use, American brands overseas. McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Nike were among the brands that were found to have suffered a decline in popularity and international consumer trust.
NOP World surveyed 30,000 consumers in 30 countries outside North America and found that the total number of consumers worldwide who “use” US brands fell from 30 per cent to 27 per cent, while non-American brands remained stable at 24 per cent. With most US brands looking to foreign markets for growth, US marketers and those in charge of marketing their brands in other countries are understandably worried about these findings.
Concepts of internationalism, equality and other altruistic values were found to be less associated with American culture in 2004 than they were five years ago. It seems that the American brand has been suffering from a gradual image decline for some time. The brand heritage of the country that used to represent ideals of freedom and consumer choice no longer matches up to the modern reality of the America we all know today.
While US actions in Iraq and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib are not the sole cause of this brand image problem, they have certainly exacerbated it in recent months. The growing disaffection with US culture and policies, such as not signing up to the Kyoto agreement, has not led to a massive boycott of its products – yet – but US-originating brands are definitely less enthusiastically embraced overseas than they once were. And US corporations cannot entirely lay the blame for the decline of the American brand image around the world at the doorstep of their politicians. High-profile American corporate scandals such as Enron, Exxon and WorldCom have become synonymous with America and have undoubtedly contributed to the fact that in France, Italy, Germany and Spain, less than 50 per cent of consumers said they believed that honesty was an important attribute of American culture. In Saudi Arabia, only 23 per cent thought that honesty was a key part of US culture.
“The winds of consumer change were in motion well before the US entered Iraq,” explained NOP World managing director Tom Miller. “A confluence of factors including rising nationalism, economic uncertainty and corporate scandals have led to ‘global cooling’ and a weariness of American culture.”
The US media has been accused of stirring up dissatisfaction at home, which also does little to help things abroad. ABC News was seen by many as taking a strong anti-war stance when it spent 40 minutes reading out the names and showing the pictures of “The Fallen” – 700 servicemen and women who lost their lives in Iraq. The news station denied it was politically motivated and said it was an appropriate tribute. Michael Moore, creator of the anti-Bush film Fahrenheit 9/11 is still struggling to get a distributor for his politically charged movie, but almost everyone knows that it features powerful segments about losses on both sides of the Iraq war and shows the grief of American and Iraqi families. Miramax financed the movie, but its parent company Disney blocked the release in the US because of its “political overtones”. When millions of Americans are themselves disillusioned and disappointed with their country’s actions and image, there is little likelihood the rest of the world will continue to keep them on the pedestal they once occupied so confidently.
The survey found that the countries whose consumers felt least aligned with American culture are Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden and Turkey. The countries whose consumers feel the closest affinity with American culture are Australia, Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, South Africa, Taiwan and Venezuela. In all of these countries more than 75 per cent of respondents felt aligned with US culture, whereas in the UK only 65 per cent of people said that they felt their cultural values matched those of the US. It seems that the American dream is no longer something that the majority of other countries admire and aspire to.
Never ones to just sit around bemoaning their situation, the North American business community is now asking itself some tough questions about what can be done to arrest the decline in their country’s brand image. The NOP report suggested that US businesses should pool their resources and best practices in an effort to improve consumer perceptions outside the country. Keith Reinhard, chairman of DDB Worldwide, is now also president of a new organisation called Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA) that aims to do just that. The 150-strong group consists of marketing executives, agency heads and academics. It is hoped that their combined ability to analyse problems, think strategically and come up with solutions will help get America’s brand image back on track.
Reinhardt believes that one of their first tasks is to “sensitise the American population about how we are perceived”, as his research has shown that although businesses may have a growing concern about anti-Americanism, only ten per cent of Americans see it as a problem. “As a country, we’re not aware and we don’t care,” Reinhard says. “We have to.” No one in big business in the US really wants to appear overly political, especially in an election year, but most of them realise that they have to do something to improve their country’s image and many believe that it is far better coming from the business community than from Washington.
The BDA plans include a “World Citizen Guide” for American students travelling overseas, aiming to make them more aware of other cultures and therefore better ambassadors for the US. It is also creating a reality show called Exchange looking at the experience of Americans going on foreign exchanges and vice versa. In the meantime, the group is lobbying Congress on pending visa restrictions that would limit foreign travellers to the US, which the BDA believes would do damage to trade, tourism and, again, the country’s brand image.
While the American brand is definitely suffering at the moment, there is no doubt that it will sit up and listen to its critics and that it has the spirit and determination to arrest the decline in its fortunes. It may be taking a while to sink in, but most Americans will soon be aware, if they aren’t already, that to improve their nation’s brand strength both at home and abroad, they all need to do something and they need to do it now.
Polly Devaney is a former Unilever executive now working as a freelance business editor