Rebuilding brand USA: can U.S. companies restore America's good name?A single South African bill-board tells us everything we need to know about America's standing in the world. Daimler Chrysler's Smart Car, it boasts, features "German engineering, Swiss innovation and American nothing."
Forget that the company paying for the ad--DaimlerChrysler--is nominally German-American and the billboard belongs to Texas-based Clear Channel Communications. The campaign targets people fed up with America and all things American. That billboard could just as easily have been planted along the highways of Australia, where to say something is "so American" translates to "really stupid." Or in South Korea, where some restaurants post hand-lettered signs warning, "Americans not welcome." Or in Mexico, where the U.S. entrant in the Miss Universe pageant was booed for making it to the finals. Or in Europe, where two-thirds of people told the BBC that America "stands primarily for money and sex."
For those who prefer hard data, there's plenty. According to Zogby International, three out of four likely voters are concerned about America's global reputation. And nearly half say U.S. multinational corporations should play a "major role" in doing something about it.
The CEOs of most U.S. multinationals, however, demur. "We're not an American company," they proclaim. "We're global." Unfortunately, their American roots show and carry enough publicity value to make them a target for protesters--or worse.
The Cost of Anti-Americanism
Anti-Americanism matters to our economy, health and safety. The impact on U.S. companies' foreign sales may be masked by the declining dollar for now. According to Richard Edelman, CEO of the eponymous public relations firm, other costs include "the ability of U.S. companies to recruit and retain local talent, engage with regional governments, secure regulatory approval and establish goodwill that they can draw on in a crisis." Meanwhile, the U.S.'s share of the international tourism market, which should benefit from a weak dollar, has fallen by a third from 1992 to 2006. These figures are striking--and expensive. By one estimate, that market share drop represents $93 billion in lost spending, $16 billion in lost taxes and 194,000 lost jobs.
More worrisome, anti-Americanism also costs the U.S. the cooperation of other nations in dealing with such global problems as terrorism, climate change, HIV/AIDS, avian flu or the next security crisis. A world shaken by conflict makes for a lousy market.
What Can Business Do?
U.S. companies cannot single-handedly make their country of origin more lovable and trustworthy. But the U.S. government won't get very far on its own either.
Despite recent accounting scandals, American companies have more credibility than the U.S. government in most corners of the world. They also have more feet on the street--feet that aren't clad in combat boots. More than six million people work for U.S. companies abroad. They're all potential ambassadors for American values of individual freedom, equal opportunity and fair play.
U.S. companies need to become as obsessed about America's reputation around the world as they are about free trade. The Bush administration's 2008 State Department budget request includes increases for proven programs such as language training, people-to-people exchanges and targeted economic development. But it will be a long time before the State Department catches up with the massive spending cuts that followed the end of the Cold War. U.S. business groups need to push those budget increases through a skeptical Congress, as if they were curbs on trial lawyers.
U.S. companies operating abroad can also help more directly as living exemplars of American ideals in the way they treat their employees and their customers. Many people around the world have the impression that, if they are not buying something we sell, we don't care about them. When we have acted to the contrary, attitudes have changed quickly. America's response to the Asian tsunami of 2004 dramatically increased favorable attitudes toward the U.S. worldwide. Significantly, it also decreased support for Osama Bin Laden in the world's most populous Muslim country, Indonesia. And more than two years later, it's still the biggest factor underlying favorable opinion towards America there.
American global companies should demonstrate that they share their customers' cares through employee volunteerism, by engaging constructively with responsible nongovernmental organizations and by investing in strategic philanthropy. This isn't "dogoodism," knee-jerk political correctness or buying favors. Successful corporations have learned that philanthropy has business benefits when it operates at the intersection of both the donors' and the recipients' interests.
Coca-Cola responded to criticism that it contributes to water shortages in developing countries by announcing plans to boost water recycling so it ultimately uses no more water than it bottles. While that could save money, Coke's CEO says the primary goal is to win "the social license to continue to operate."
Cisco established network-training academies in technical schools, colleges and community-based organizations across more than 150 countries. To date, Cisco has prepared more than 1.5 million students for careers in the information technology industries, including several thousand women in Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Successful global companies make themselves part of the local community wherever they do business, sharing their customers' cares and dreams. They don't just open branches overseas; they sink roots. In fact, one of China's vice-premiers recently told a State Department official that his government loves it when an American company opens local facilities "because one of the first things they do is put up a basketball court for the local kids." Basketball backboards, and the like, may be the most telling billboards of all for American values.
Dick Martin is the author of Rebuilding Brand America. He retired from AT & T as executive vice president of public relations and brand management in 2003.
RELATED ARTICLE: Five Things You Can Do Right Now
1. Educate employees in working across cultures. For example, Business for Diplomatic Action's World Citizens Guide pinpoints American mannerisms, such as a loud voice and hurried gestures, that can be perceived as boastful or arrogant. See www.worldcitizensguide.org/index2.html.
2. Encourage your employees to get involved with organizations that promote international understanding, such as a local World Affairs Council (www.worldaffairscouncils.org) or a Rotary International club (www.rotary.org).
3. Support organizations that facilitate cultural and educational exchanges, such as Meridian (www.meridian.org) and AYUSA (www.ayusa.org).
4. Charge the heads of your foreign operations to become active members of local chambers of commerce and to build stronger relationships with local journalists and business leaders. See www.foreigntrade.com/chambers.htm.
5. Offer English-language training and local internships in your overseas locations. The State Department can help. See exchanges.state.gov/education/engteaching/.
World View of U.S. Influence (all figures in percentages) Mainly Positive Mainly Negative 2005 40 45 2006 36 47 2007 29 52 Source: Globescan Poll of 18,000 adults in 18 countries. Released Jan. 23, 2007 Note: Table made from line graph. U.S. Share of International Travel Market 1992 9.4 1993 8.9 1994 8.4 1995 7.9 1996 8.0 1997 8.0 1998 7.5 1999 7.5 2000 7.4 2001 6.8 2002 6.2 2003 5.9 2004 6.0 2005 6.1 2006 6.1 Source: Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. October 2006 Note: Table made from line graph.