[I published this piece on Linkedin on January 15, 2018]
The most recognized and influential brand in the world isn’t Coca-Cola, Apple, Samsung, IBM or Nike. It’s the United States of America. The American brand is unmistakably built on transformative principles and ideals starting with our Constitution. The distribution of American values, and by extension its brand, began in earnest immediately after The United States abandoned its doctrine of neutrality by entry into World War I. As America’s brand and global influence gained speed in the years to come, its businesses rode the same wave to international expansion and global domination enjoyed by no nation in history. There isn’t a back corner of our earthly home where one cannot get a Pepsi or an iPhone. American movies and music are piped into most remote areas of the globe where Jay-Z, Tom Hanks, and Angelina Jolie are practically household names from Bulgaria to Bhutan, Argentina to Afghanistan, and Ireland to India.
Growing up Aleppo, Syria in the seventies, American products were everywhere, despite Syria’s alignment with the old Soviet Union. I can’t remember a single Soviet product, yet Batman, Superman, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys were my heroes. I watched The Virginian and played Cowboys and Indians on Aleppo’s ancient dusty streets with friends, and often indulged in a cold 7UP or Coke to cool off in stubborn summers. I learned about Cadillac and Jimmy Carter from the adults around me. With every sip of 7UP or an episode of The Virginian or Little House on the Prairie, I was experiencing, and to a certain extent living the American brand and everything it stood for as I cam to understand it; a welcoming and open culture, innovation, liberty, equality, justice. Yes, I made those very real connections watching Bugs Bunny with Arabic subtitles. My friends did too. I suspect that’s how most people around the world come to learn about, admire and experience America.
American business executives may have a hard time admitting this publicly, but they are fully aware that America’s brand and its moral authority has successfully worked in their favor for about 100 years. Every American business brand is in actuality a sub-brand to the major American brand. The strength of our multinational corporations is derived from our national values as the world sees them in action. Therefore, extending the American brand and influence, growing our businesses overseas requires consistent trust in American moral authority. Before anyone buys from us he or she has to trust us. Trust is the core of any brand attribute, from Boeing to Amazon. Trust in the American brand is naturally extended to IBM, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and every American corporation doing business overseas.
For businesses and the markets, there are perilous consequences to a troubled and declining American brand. American multinational corporations are caught in the middle, and ought to be alarmed. Right before our eyes, we’re seeing America move away from longstanding international agreements, shun enduring American traditions such as open borders, and give credence to domestic voices contrary to its values. Since the 2016 elections, some business deals with international buyers have already been delayed or gone awry. The world is wondering out loud whether America is abandoning its values, and with that whether it can trust the United States.
While comparisons of the fall the US with the fall of Rome are a mere Google search away, we are truly in uncharted waters because in no other time have economies and individuals from around the world have been this interconnected. Social media and 24-hour news channels have effectively placed the American brand on every smartphone on Earth giving more people than ever the opportunity to see America in action and form opinions based on the day’s news. Today, the prospects for American businesses continuing their global dominance on a weak American brand are slim. Here are three scenarios where a diminishing American brand can have devastating consequences for businesses and the American people alike:
1. The Dollar: Diminishing trust in the United States can have a direct impact on the dollar standards used for trade around the world. This makes it harder for American companies to do business abroad and thereby making them less competitive while making many products more expensive to American consumers. China’s ambitions to dethrone the dollar are well known, while Russia and others are reported to support such a move. Simple and incremental movements away from the dollar will substantially weaken our international business prospects.
2. Choice of business partners: The American share of the global GDP is currently about 22% down nearly 50% at its height in 1960. Though unlike the period between the 1950s and late 1990s where there was a clear divide between global economic haves and have-nots, countries today have more options for business partners. Nations who have considered “third-world” only a short 30 years ago are economic powerhouses. Think South Korea, The United Arab Emirates, Ireland, India and so on. As those economies and trade partnerships develop, countries can choose to buy from someone other than American companies.
3. The rise of China: President Xi Jinping just outlined his plans for China to lead the world in his most recent address to the ruling Chinese Community Party. The international public opinion of the Chinese is on the rise. China’s influence in Africa is unsurpassed, with some African nations holding great promise as emerging markets; China appears to be in on the ground floor. Debased American brand equity and mistrust of the United States will not do American business competing in Africa, or anywhere around the world any favors. That coupled with China’s stated intention of moving away from the dollar, could have devastating costs to American business aboard.
A trusted brand does the pre-sale for you; it creates a built-in emotional connection to your products and increases the likelihood of selling more and different products. Yet, The Pew Research Center’s survey of 37 nations, including our top five trading partners, shows an alarming drop in favorability ratings for the United States is widespread. Our diplomatic corps, The State Department, Congress, and The President of the United States are the ultimate brand ambassadors. They are supposed to be able to navigate complicated domestic and international issues, while closely guarding the American brand by publicly upholding its ideals at home and abroad. I know What’s good for the American brand is good for business. If international buyers don’t trust America, why would they trust American companies?
So, how do we revitalized the American brand?
1. Brands work best when they grow from the inside out; meaning successful brands actually live their values. It’s a hyperbole to say that every citizen is in charge of the American brand, but it’s true. How can we expect to hold our elected officials accountable for policies gone awry if the citizenry doesn’t understand or live its American values? History and civics literacy matter, in this case, they provide the context of the American values to every citizen. Both subjects are just as important as STEM and need to be emphasized in schools and universities.
2. Blue and Red must go. I’m not talking about Democrats and Republicans; I’m talking about tribal divides. I know, you’re thinking it’s a fantasy, the stuff of unicorns and rainbows; yet the American Flag is Red, White, and Blue. All colors have to be included and rowing in the same direction for our nation to be successful. Two out three colors won’t do. We shrink the power of the American brand when we live as tribes, rather as a nation. Furthermore, we publicly decry other countries that operate this way, don’t we? Remember, the real beneficiaries of a divided nation and ambiguous American brand are our international competitors, and interlopers seeking to take advantage of America’s longstanding benevolence.
3. A Welcoming America is an on-brand America. What is it about this core American value and tradition that politicians and people don’t understand? Nothing tells the world more about where America stands on its own values than its border policies. The Statue of Liberty is a global symbol of America’s openness. The foundation of the American spirit was built on the back of immigrants from Carnegie to Chobani’s Hamdi Ulukaya not to mention HB1 guest workers who have contributed to the good fortunes of Intel, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson and others; and still, the millions who have set up shops and small businesses across the land. Previous chapters of American History clearly show attempts at nativism have failed politically while souring our brand overseas. Living in a seemingly post-fact world today is no excuse for recognizing that overwhelmingly, immigration has indeed enriched us beyond expectations, thereby strengthening and diversifying our society. Immigrants working in sales in multinationals give us a tremendous advantage because they serve as bridges between their companies and the local business culture, in many ways making it easier for American companies to do business. Lastly and more importantly, the immigrant experience is unquestionably the American experience.
Growing up in Aleppo, my friends and I adopted the American brand because it seemed like a greater ideal than our reality at the time; we were inspired by America. Later, I came to better understand that America’s real contribution to the world is its values put in practice. Though not perfect, American values as expressed in the Constitution and embodied by icons like the Statue of Liberty are certainly uniquely American, but they belong to humanity; to the world. That is America’s greatest strength and its gift to humankind. Which is precisely why people have admired and connected with the American brand for so long. Americans must own their brand because a strong American brand is good for diplomacy and even better for business. Some readers may scoff at my linking today’s American politics to its brand. In fact, they are inseparable. To put it simply, people don’t buy stuff, ideas or services from people they don’t trust.