There has been a belief among some executives we've talked with that over the last two years that there is a slow but definite weakening of U.S. brands abroad as a result of what some might term an "arrogant" view of the world by the current White House and political power elite in Washington. Results of a survey by Global Market Insite seem to support the thesis.
The most recent survey of overseas consumers by Global Market Insite about attitudes toward American brands shows mounting distrust of things American. Almost 80% of consumers surveyed abroad, for example, say they distrust the U.S. government, while 50% distrust U.S. companies and 39% distrust the American people. Sixty-eight percent said they've formed a negative view as a result of the U.S. war on terror and the war in Iraq. The brands drawing negative feelings: McDonalds, American Express, Barbie, Starbucks, American Airlines. The brands insulated from U.S. foreign policy: Ralph Lauren, Kleenex, Calvin Klein among others.
What's been interesting to me is the reluctance of many CEOs to speak on the record about their concerns. It's as if they are either afraid of fueling the fire by admitting concern, or they don't want to be heard, perhaps, off-key from the Bush Administration’s steady song of optimism.
Shortly after I arrived at Businessweek last July, I sat and talked with DDB Needham chairman Keith Reinhard who had testified before Congress about his concerns over a loss of prestige abroad for American brands. Baked into Reinhard's presentation was an idea about using the arms and legs of the global advertising industry to monitor public opinion toward America and come up with responses and policy insights. This effort would differ from appointing former Ogilvy & Mather chairman Charlotte Beers to head the State Department's Office for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. In that job, Beers was completely enmeshed in the State Dept. bureaucracy, and was coming up with PR/media relations strategy/response. Reinhard's notion, which seems much more visionary, and therefore less likely, is to use ad industry people who are already deployed around the world, not as spies but as listening posts, thinkers and feeders. Feeding, that is, intelligence about how people in markets around the world are thinking, feeling, shopping and expressing themselves. Have people in the ad industry crunch the feeds into relevant intelligence on which government officials could form policy or at least draw informed perspective. It's about the smartest idea I have heard in the last three years related to bridging the gap between the Western and Muslim world. Listening. What a concept.