Substance versus Style in Selling Brand USA

For the last year the United States has been preoccupied with its image. One result of this introspection emerged in July when the White House announced it was misunderstood and it would, consequently, take direct and immediate actions to address gaps in the world’s perception of brand USA.

The job of presenting what America is all about now resides with the newly created Office of Global Communications, and it is mounting what Columbia professor Victoria De Grazia (“The Selling of America, Bush Style,” New York Times, August 25, 2002 ) calls “the largest public relations campaign in the history of foreign policy.” Its intention is to expose Muslims living abroad to traditional in-your-face advertising that portrays America as a diverse and tolerant society. Another tactic, with a similar goal, is a 24-hour Arabic-language satellite news network that has already started broadcasting an American interpretation of current events.

It is worth recalling that one immediate outcome of 9-11 was the public’s eschewing of superficiality in favour of things that give life greater depth and meaning. How ironic that the post-9-11 plan to communicate America’s brand would continue relying on shallow advertising messages.

These tactics are the wrong way to influence behavior. It is unlikely that old-style democratic interventions similar to the Voice of America will help win this particular war. People in Baghdad, Bahrain, or Beruit do not need more advertising. Instead of clarifying matters and persuading people, propagandizing only perpetuates the world’s view of the United States – described by the Council on Foreign Relations – as “arrogant, hypocritical, self-absorbed, and contemptuous.” Pro-American messaging will either be ignored or, as De Grazia writes, “cited as another example of America’s overwhelming media presence abroad, for which the nation is already criticized.”

To successfully communicate America’s brand messages, the White House should follow the Council’s advice and “listen to the world.” Doing this requires a different tactic. Rather than advertising, an exchange of substantial information and ideas should be used to promote deeper understanding. Where is the leadership for this approach going to come from? Which American organization has the mission to promote listening and discussion? The government might look to the Fulbright Foundation for help.

Since 1946 Fulbright has been a fund-granting body whose mission is to broadly promote global social, political, and cultural understanding. This mission is highly relevant to the world’s current problem: helping the United States listen to the world has long been a key part of its brand promise. It makes a valued intellectual contribution by seeking out a multidimensional exchange of views so that – in theory – the United States may explain itself to the world, and visa versa. Fulbright’s fund-granting work results in the development of significant intellectual capital; the problem is, who knows it? Unfortunately for Fulbright’s brand, others ultimately take credit for producing the work it funds: lacking a book imprint, a journal, or even a web site of its own, the money the program invests to create this work has negligible impact on generating public awareness.

To be truly effectively, Fulbright needs greater visibility. Fulbrighters must think creatively about how their broad-minded brand becomes broadly accessible, how their unique knowledge is promoted ways that keeps people informed, and how they can encourage popular debate. Fulbright can be a brand of influence. But it must have a strategic plan that allows it to promote its own interpretation of global issues and a budget to promote the knowledge it creates. Without this plan, Fulbright cannot adequately advance its noble mission.

Fulbright’s work is necessary abroad and at home. Just as the world needs to see a balanced view of America, Americans themselves are desperately in need of education about changes to the world. Three books published during the last five years (all were released, or at least completed, prior to 9-11) have identified this need and, without saying so explicitly, clearly illustrate the opportunity Fulbright has to meet this need and, in the process, to become an influential brand in public affairs.

In Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World (Knopf/A Century Foundation Book, 2002), Walter Russell Mead describes the widespread lack of American interest in the history of its own foreign policy, a situation which must be reversed if the American public is able to evaluate its options. Of the four prominent schools of thought in American foreign policy – Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, Jeffersonians, and Jacksonians – it was the Wilsonians who sought to expose Americans to the world and erode popular American prejudices and hatreds. Their emphasis, Mead writes, demonstrated that “a wide and free debate is the best means to assure the prosperity, the destiny, the liberty, and the safety of the American people.” An organization like Fulbright sits squarely in the Wilsonian missionary tradition of helping make “the American public more respectful and tolerant of, and more informed about, non-Western traditions [and] enormously increased the ability of the American people to play a constructive part in the development of a global civilization.” Fulbright scholars might help resolve the profound differences in outlook and interests in American society and encourage compromise if they permit a redefined Fulbright brand to explain American engagement with the world.

Second is Robert Kaplan’s book, An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future (Vintage, 1998), which describes the emerging America as multi-racial and heterogeneous. There is, he claims, nothing unnatural about this change, “America is just growing into what it was always meant to be: not a single national community at all but an international mosaic of nations, where all peoples, not only Europeans, can take root.” But Kaplan’s America is desperately in need of education. In fact, its lack of awareness about the world, and lack of mental preparation for political transformation (such as continental integration) is America’s greatest hurdle: most Americans, Kaplan recognizes, have not thought about the psychological effect of the peaceful disintegration of an entire Atlantic-to-Pacific middle-class nation on their northern border. Enter Fulbright as the muse and disseminator of this period of change.

Finally, Anthony DePalma, in his book Here: A Biography of the New American Continent (Public Affairs, 2001), reflects on his experience as correspondent with the New York Times in both Canada and Mexico, a time when he learned to see “not others but us, not ‘there’ but ‘here.’ Our borders became reflections of who we are and, more important, of what we are becoming. If we look at the places where America ends, we can see what the future holds for the United States: admiration and jealousy, as in the north, or an uncertain confrontation with the developing world, as on our southern flank.” DePalma, too, has realized that “for all Americans, understanding this is to know better the essence of the sublime and perilous world we are entering.”

If Fulbright can overcome the disconnect between its mission – helping educate Americans and the rest of the world about political and cultural change – and its operational ability to extend awareness of its brand beyond the intellectual elite, it can address the concerns these authors have about education. North Americans need to communicate with tools that are more effective than traditional push-style advertising. Without organizations like Fulbright that can provide an accessible source of substantive knowledge and a forum for discussion, Americans will have a hard time improving perceptions of their brand or, themselves, of understanding the broader world.

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, October 2002)

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