THE United States is losing friends around the world at an alarming rate, and US businesses fear that unless this trend of anti-Americanism is reversed, it will have a negative impact on US brands.
According to Business for Diplomatic Action Inc president Keith Reinhard, US brands marketed abroad are being seriously threatened by widespread anti-American sentiment for the first time in history.
He said that while this resentment was related to perceptions of US foreign policy, research points to three other root causes that relate more to business expansion that could be effectively addressed by US corporations.
They were the effects of globalisation, especially in emerging countries; the pervasiveness of American pop culture; and their perceived collective personality.
Business for Diplomatic Action Inc, with its tagline of “a new brand of American diplomacy”, was established by businesses to identify and help implement public initiatives by US corporations working together to enhance the prospects for business expansion and the reputation of the US and its citizens.
Reinhard is the chairman of DDB Worldwide Communications Group Inc that ranks among the largest global advertising agency networks in the world with 206 offices in 96 countries, including Malaysia.
Under his leadership, DDB has won more awards in the 50-year-old history of the International Advertising Festival in Cannes than any other agency.
For the past two years, a number of US companies in the marketing and media community have been collecting information, conducting discussions and meeting with experts to create a way for US corporations, especially multinationals, to address the growing problem of anti-Americanism.
“While business cannot directly influence foreign policy, multinational companies are uniquely qualified to initiate a new brand of public diplomacy. They touch more lives than any other government, they are not tied to a government bureaucracy, they operate in every region of the world and they have an urgent business motive for turning anti-Americans into friends,” said Reinhard.
On Friday, he met with a group of journalists at the Foreign Press Center in New York to speak of his plans and to pick the brains of the foreign writers on rising anti-Americanism that had become more apparent since George W. Bush became President.
Anti-Americanism had even spread in Europe. Studies carried out by the Pew Research Center showed that the favourable rating in Britain, France and Germany dropped tremendously from the summer of 2002 to March 2004.
Reinhard cited signs of this anti-Americanism sentiment.
He said British author Margaret Drabble was quoted by a British newspaper as saying: “My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me like a disease. I can’t keep it down any longer. I detest ‘Disneyfication’. I detest Coca-Cola. I detest burgers. I detest sentimental and violent Hollywood movies that tell lies about history. I detest American imperialism, American infantilism, and American triumphalism about victories it didn’t even win.”
Ten restaurants in Hamburg, Germany, have banned Coke and Marlboro cigarettes and won’t let customers pay with American Express, while German bicycle-maker Riese und Mueller has cancelled all business deals with American suppliers. The company buys about US$3mil worth of parts. (USA Today, April 6).
A Leo Burnett Survey in April showed almost one in four people in the Asia-Pacific region said they avoided buying American brands, and almost 36,000 people have signed a “Boycott Brand America” petition on the website (adbusters. org) of an advertising magazine based in Vancouver.
While some business people say “policy is policy and business is business”, many people perceive the icon brands of US corporations to be symbols of what America is and what it stands for.
Reinhard said one young planner in (DDB) Cairo put it nicely: “Even if Americans were to lose their arrogance, we are looking for a partner not a parent.
“In investment, America must be presented as the facilitator, not the patron, in the realm of charity as a partner and not the philanthropist, and in business endeavours as the courier progress and not the preachers of westernisation.”
He said he used the line “arrogant, ignorant and loud” to describe Americans in a briefing of a 17-member task force in 17 countries in late 2001 after President Bush expressed dismay as to “why anyone would not like us because we are so good”.
Reinhard said that in June last year, Nike and McDonald’s recorded a drop in consumer numbers. However, in the case of McDonald’s it did not affect the bottom line because of the favourable foreign exchange.
“There are people who say they have stopped buying these brands. It is a warning sign at least,” he said.
According to experts, reversing the trend of anti-Americanism would require a concerted effort from all businesses and even the government.
Reinhard said that companies like McDonald’s, Johnson & Johnson and Coca-Cola had managed to become a good local citizen as opposed to a bad visitor in other countries.
“We want them to share their best practices so that we can establish a public diplomacy portal.”
He noted that people in developing countries could not benefit from globalisation because of the language barrier. “We should do more to teach English in these countries.”
Another way was to have intern programmes where young people could be brought into US companies, he said in highlighting a suggestion to form an MBA Peace Corps.
“We are in the process of producing and distributing two world citizens guide. The first was based on a concept I got from our worldwide network.
“I used the analogy of the arrogant, ignorant and loud American, and asked for 10 suggestions for Americans working or travelling abroad.
“I turned this content over to a group of advertising students at Southern Methodist University and they produced a world citizens guide that will be given to all the 200,000 students who leave the US for studies abroad each year.
“Among other things, the passport-sized guidebook lets them know that if the world had 100 people, only one would be an American citizen; and the US is not the centre of the universe.”
He said they were now thinking of a general audience version that would be distributed with airline tickets for Americans travelling outside the US. “It’s a small step that could be effective over a long period of time.”
Reinhard knows the task ahead is immense but he feels strongly that something must be done now, “otherwise we can only hope the problem will go away”.
Johan Fernandez is Editor, North America Bureau, based in New York (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)