Just because I was one of the ﬁrst people to write about nation brands does not mean I am the best informed. That honour probably falls on a few people, and among that group is Simon Anholt.
I’ve known Simon for a wee while and was very happy to see that the index of nation brands is named for him—since he has had more to do in a high-proﬁle sense with the subject than anyone else on the planet. And on this index, for those who haven’t followed it, the United States comes dead last in the cultural heritage stakes.
Simon believes that the goodwill the US has had over the last few decades has worn off. It’s people like me who still have a fairly romantic notion of what American business stands for, but anyone younger outside the United States might view it very differently. If we do not watch out, the next generation might grow up watching Al Jazeera International and not CNN.
Those at my ofﬁce have heard me lament for the good old days of the great American corporation. Ten or ﬁfteen years ago, my experience was that the American business person could not be surpassed for professionalism or honour. There were obviously exceptions to this, but you saw that on TV. Everyday businessmen like me didn’t encounter them.
Maybe it is the involvement of Lucire in the fashion sector that has seen a few more ratbags come our way. Like my Hollywood friends who note that their town attracts its share of ego-hungry, empty people (the truly successful work their asses off), fashion attracts plenty of those who see it as glamorous and easy—when those of us on the coal face know it is anything but. Looking glamorous is gritty, hard work.
In 2005 alone we confronted about four parties in the United States who tried to con us out of thousands, and in one case, actually made off with $7,000. I don’t mind admitting we were a little too trusting, and that is the price one pays. And then one begins to realize just how some people can associate the behaviour of the few with the entire nation—like those who think Muslim fundamentalists are representative of all Islam. Because it is awfully tempting to slag off all Yanks after those experiences—even the good ones who, like me, bemoan the behaviour of a few who are letting their side down.
I am too involved, I have too much history, and I have too many family members who are proud Americans for me to ever step across that line. Defending American values—the good, universal ones that we all have, regardless of nationality—has almost become a secondary activity. And funnily enough, that has included, at work, reminding young Americans what draws people like me to deal with their nation—things they themselves are surprised to hear.
On a regular basis I see people forget what is written in their own Constitution, behaving in ways that are actually contrary to the values set down by their nation. Mistrust before trust; where a man’s word is worthless. And when Americans visit here, I hear this comment: ‘New Zealanders are so friendly. It’s like what we used to be.’
So how does one repair Brand America? Simon’s book, bearing just that name, has many clues, but I particularly enjoyed his answer to a question posed to him by a Financial Times reporter:
[I]n my experience of working with governments around the world, it seldom is possible for a country to actually change its brand. These are deep underlying prejudices that we’re talking about here.
As I say, nation brands are like starlight. Any astronomer will tell you that the stars you think you see in the sky died millions of years ago. It’s only the light that has reached you now. Today, the modern image of Scotland was single-handedly created by Sir Walter Scott two hundred years ago, that’s how slowly these images move. So it’s simply unrealistic to imagine that one can reverse a decline in a nation’s image overnight, to do it thoroughly and to do it properly, so that you can look back and you can say we ﬁxed that, it’s going to be 5, 10, 15, 20 years.
Now that doesn’t mean you can't do things straightaway and achieve some wind straightaway, and that’s very much were BDA [Business for Diplomatic Action] comes in. But the very ﬁrst step has got to be to understand it, to understand exactly how people see this country or any other country. And that itself is very difﬁcult because it’s about abandoning your own cultural ﬁlters.
One of the things that the Nation Brand’s Index shows incontrovertibly about America is that the criteria which Americans use to judge success are entirely different from the criteria that people in other cultures use. If you go by American criteria, America is top of every list. Clearly, the world does not share these perceptions because the criteria are different. You have to see yourself as others see you.
America’s primary problem in all of this is it has a ﬁxation of universality. It believes that the baseball World Series can be called the World Series, even though there are no foreign teams on it. There’s a cigar shop down the road here, which is called the World’s Greatest Cigar Shop because it’s the best in New York, so it must be the best in America, so it must be the best in the world.
Now, we joke about this, but the fact of the matter is, America’s primary problem is that it has this ﬁxation of universality. Only when it has abandoned that will it start to be able to begin the process of ﬁxing that problem, which is why I used those words “if you like” to understand that American has no God-given right to dictate terms on other thing to anybody. It has to be here, with all that massive power, at the service of other people if they want it.
Now that, you’re absolutely right in suggesting, is a very long process. It’s generational change. It’s educational change. And BDA, quite rightly, are going down to primary school level to talk about ﬁxing this. And in the strategies that I create for some of the countries I work for, it almost always starts with education.
Because to make a population more welcoming or whatever, you are talking about a generation’s worth of change. We can do some things in the short term but the process is a very long one.
I have been querying this after I read it. Yes, it is very convincing. To me, there is nothing wrong with core American values because, as the President said in his second inaugural address, many of them are universal values:
From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this Earth has rights, and dignity and matchless value because they bear the image of the maker of Heaven and Earth. …
Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen and defended by citizens and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation ﬁnally speaks, the institutions that arise may reﬂect customs and traditions very different from our own.
America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others ﬁnd their own voice, attain their own freedom and make their own way.
The fact different nations apply them at different times and in different ways is where we encounter problems with the ‘ﬁxation of universality’. That is where things slip up.
Simon is correct when he says it begins with education. The problem is not so much that new values need to be learned, but that old values need to be learned and applied. The four fast-talkers of 2005 that I refer to know the vocabulary—they know words like honour and responsibility—but they sure don’t know how to live them. And I can name a few more, even in my personal life, who exhibit cowardice when they talk about honour. The values are there, the words are there, but for some—and from what I can tell, an increasing number—the application is not.
The second change that needs to be made is an awareness of a global society. If a nation’s values are to survive, they need to be strong against others’. But there seems to be little comparison between American values and others’ values in the American classroom. Sure, that is second-hand information and I haven’t visited a US classroom for ﬁve years. But I have the ﬁrst-hand witnessing of how American business is being conducted—and it is not nearly as well as it was 10 years ago.
Why bother with other nations? The greater you want your inﬂuence to be, the more you must engage with others. Through that engagement, new understandings are made. Human society evolves. What we do not need is this to continue (quoting Keith Reinhard of the BDA, in the same session as Simon earlier):
In a National Geographic survey in 2002, four out of ﬁve Americans between 18 and 34 could not ﬁnd Israel on a map. A third could not pinpoint the Paciﬁc Ocean. So this is a job for education in the United States. [According to the survey, ‘About 11 percent of young citizens of the U.S. couldn't even locate the U.S. on a map.’]
I can say this through reading of my own people’s experimentation with isolationism in the middle of the last millennium. By the time China reopened itself to foreign powers, the Ching Dynasty was corrupt. It was all too easy for the colonial powers to enter, and for revolution—not to mention the events of 1949 which created a communist dictatorship.
I can also say this because the efforts of one man—Peter Jackson—changed perceptions about New Zealand. Because he applied his principles, in efforts that well surpassed all the (mostly ill judged) destination marketing done by the New Zealand Government. He insisted on creating a sort of Hollywood South and even drafted foreign talent here—engagement with other cultures. And when these lovely ﬁlms of his were released, people began becoming intrigued about New Zealand. If we are the “old America”, then I have to take that as a compliment.
Just last week I was invited to join the American Chamber of Commerce here. I had to ask the executive director what its political afﬁliation was—if it leaned toward one party or another. I need to know that the Chamber can do a better job than I have of dealing with the US over the last 18 years. It needs to tell me that it is here to promote values as they are applied to business, before it even begins to tell me how many dollars of trade it is responsible for. And in that, I think the executive director’s letter missed the point of how I can best be drafted in. Because in this age of doubt about Brand America, I need to know that I am going to ﬁnd fellow members who are the type of American that helped me get started in international business.
I have not made up my mind whether I should join. I believe I am engaging with enough nations, learning their cultures, ﬁnding new grounds and ways forward. I’ll keep up my contacts with the United States, because the overwhelming majority of Americans are righteous and decent. But I hope some of Simon’s words are heeded, to restore the image of the United States of America abroad, and to make those values not only sound good, but mean good and do good.
The greater the nation, the more it must have introspection, and the greater the good it must show the world it is capable of. America, it is your turn again to be great.
Del.icio.us tags: USA brand America brand branding nation branding destination marketing tourism marketing nation brands Simon Anholt national image competitive advantage values American values America American education culture dialogue Posted by Jack Yan, 10:30
Fantastic post Jack. Very thought provoking and, in my opinion, right on target. As one of the younger Americans, I've been more or less biting my nails watching the global opinion of the US go down the tubes over the past 10-15 years (not that the trend didn't start earlier – I simply was too naive to notice).
I hope you continue to see that there are at least a few American businessmen with principles and a global view of their actions. And hopefully, we'll see things start to change a bit over here...
Thank you, Peter. I know in all societies, the decent, good people form the backbone and are present. And it’s thanks to blogs that I’ve come into contact with people like you, and others who are like-minded about global business.Post a Comment
Like you, I’ve noticed a decline, though I always maintained a romantic view of the US—maybe it’s from having parents who grew up in the Eisenhower era, whereas most of my friends’ parents grew up with Kennedy and Johnson, or were hippies. Overseas, I think that was the beginning of a time when people thought, ‘America is not always right,’ and those are the values their kids got, too.
Simon’s research really woke me up as to how that reservoir of American goodwill has dried a lot, to the point where even American journalists question it. I hate to sound naïve, but I resisted accepting this until someone like Simon, whom I trust, presented them in “brand form”.
But Americans are great when their backs are against the wall, because I believe it’s in your national nature to ﬁght your way out—from the founding of your nation to World War II. So if the global public opinion is at an all-time low, I have faith that the US can come back on top, helped by decent folks such as yourself.
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