Issue: How should the Obama administration improve the perception of Brand America?
Commentary by: David Vinjamuri
As President-elect Obama has often noted, the international perception of the United States of America has a huge influence on our ability to accomplish our foreign policy goals.Â Terrorism is more likely to be thwarted by the cooperation of the local police in Munich, a school teacher in a madrassa in London or a minor warlord in Somalia than by the direct efforts of the U.S. intelligence services.Â Similarly, friendly governments cannot support U.S. policy goals without the support of their electorates, something that has been in short supply in recent years.
Electing an African-American, bi-racial President and one of the most charismatic and internationally popular politicians in a generation to our highest office will do much to change world opinion of Brand America.Â It is only the first step, however.
Under the Bush administration, these duties were concentrated in the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.Â The post was taken by key bush communications advisor Karen Hughes.Â Ms. Hughes travelled and spoke widely in an attempt to improve America’s image abroad, and the budget for advertising the United States was $685 million as recently as 2004.Â This (as Forbes notes) is not as much as Coca-Cola spent on advertising in the same year.Â However, considering that it had little or no impact on the actual brand perception of the U.S. (which declined), it is a huge amount of money.
Heretical as it seems for an advertising blog, I would suggest a completely different orientation for America’s next brand manager – one which does not involve advertising.
Instead of limiting U.S. brand efforts to the State Department and the Office for Public Diplomacy, President Obama should put a real, live brand manager in the West Wing.Â The incoming administration understands that the largest part of perception of the U.S. will be shaped by the President and by foreign policy.Â These issues are obviously out of the reach of any brand manager.Â Therefore, the U.S. brand manager should focus on becoming the “God of Small Things.”Â These small things can have an enormous impact on the way that the United States is viewed internationally and they are routinely ignored.
What do I mean by this?Â The new U.S. brand manager should focus on small improvements in the way that the U.S. government interacts with its own citizens and foreign nationals.Â These improvements can fundamentally alter the perception of the brand overall (this is one of the things I learned from Roxanne Quimby from Burt’s Bees, Craig Newark from craigslist, Gary Erickson from Clif Bar and wrote about in Accidental Branding: How Ordinary People Build Extraordinary Brands last year).
A good example of this focus can be found in the Bloomberg Administration in New York.Â Mayor Bloomberg stepped into office at a historically difficult time in New York City’s history.Â It was just weeks after the September 11th attacks, he was succeeding a suddenly enormously popular mayor, Rudy Guiliani and the city was in the midst of an epic financial crisis compounded by the attacks on the financial district.
One of the seemingly small things that Mayor Bloomber did (although it involved a huge amount of effort) was to create a single number – 3-1-1 – where New Yorkers or visitors could call to get information from all of the agencies of the city.Â Calling 3-1-1 could do anything from checking on local tax laws, reporting noise complaint or open fire hydrants, checking the status of parking tickets or voting registration.Â The city of Baltimore was the first U.S. city to implement a 3-1-1 number in 1996, but the New York implementation was vastly larger.Â And the surprising thing was that it improved both the perception and the reality of city government.Â Before 3-1-1, New York City had a wealth of resources and programs that could be of help to citizens but most of them were buried in layers of bureacracy.Â By training individuals to navigate the system, 3-1-1 added transparency and also gave local government a way to check redundancies and track actual citizen needs.Â 3-1-1 became an interactive tool, allowing city managers to concentrate resources on the areas of greatest demand.
A new U.S. Brand Manager could focus on a number of small improvements to the manner in which the U.S. government touches U.S. citizens and foreign nationals including:
- 3-1-1 – Implementation of a national 3-1-1 number (1-1-1?) which would consolidate all U.S. government functions from the IRS to National Passport Service to Homeland Security
- Online Immigration Access – Creation of online application and tracking system for H1B and other visas which would include stage-by-stage tracking, similar to the UPS or Fedex scanning system
- Customer Service Training – Comprehensive and standardized training of U.S. government workers in contact with the public in private sector customer service techniques.
- U.S. Brand Environment – translating our values (democracy, fairness, ingenuity) into a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. public spaces abroad.Â Ensuring that waiting areas and lines in U.S. embassies and overseas offices are efficient and unexpectedly pleasant experiences.Â Good analogues exist in the overhaul of Department of Motor Vehicle offices in a number of U.S. States (including New York) as well as the marriage bureau in New York City to be faster and more pleasant experiences.
- Disaster and Relief Services – Giving a common “look and feel” to U.S. disaster relief and giving first responders – from the U.S. military to the Coast Guard and others comprehensive training and tools in disaster relief.Â Coordinating with private companies like Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart and others to create a standard “U.S. Care Package” for post-emergency relief which reflects the U.S. brand.
- Customs and Immigration -Â Use the “dead spaces” in the customs process to help create a U.S. brand experience with video and visuals which are informative (meaning that they contain constantly updating information) and represent our values.
By comprehensively studying the individual interactions between U.S. government employees and foreign nationals, a new U.S. brand manager could improve the tone and quality of these interactions.Â This would make a real contribution to U.S. Public Diplomacy.