An American Brand the World Already Believes
The movement to repackage Brand USA — and all the mixed emotions and competing ideas it evokes — is intensifying. It’s a complicated undertaking. Yet, what we can and should harness in the gargantuan task of branding America’s global image is the campaign to brand one of the most visible expressions of that image: official U.S. foreign assistance.
One of the world’s great ironies is that America, the country that perfected the art of the brand, is often unable to channel its positive marketing power with foreign audiences. The country that birthed Madison Avenue has yet to find a unified, coherent branding strategy for its humanitarian and development assistance abroad. Despite good intentions, and a few promising starts, the United States — and its $21.8 billion in overseas assistance — remains one of the most poorly managed global brands. While President Barack Obama works to redefine America’s engagement with the world and capitalize on a new line of goodwill credit internationally, his team cannot afford to lose a minute in matching America’s good deeds with a savvy rebrand of its assistance efforts.
This is easier said than done. Washington — a town where good intentions often fall short of good implementation — sponsors an alphabet soup of 20 executive agencies that are managing currently more than 50 different development assistance programs abroad. As it should, America administers aid in more than just one way, with specific tools designed for specific needs. In other words, you can’t react to an earthquake the same way you help a country revise its public procurement system to make it more transparent and business-friendly. Each instrument in the assistance symphony has adopted an individual brand to stamp on everything from rice bags to bridges to health training. In a time of economic hardship, when every dollar counts, individual agencies naturally want to ensure that their programs reflect their unique brand and that they receive full credit for the good work they are doing with American tax dollars.
And, while it makes sound sense in Washington to get credit for the hard work of your programs to foreign recipients, it all looks like Uncle Sam’s generosity abroad. The farmer in Latin America or the HIV/AIDs patient in Africa is aware that the money helping him or her to a better life comes from America and, in many cases, this is all it takes to get the point across to foreign audiences that America cares.
For how effective the United States can be in sowing goodwill through its assistance, the problem lingers. How do we differentiate programs with distinct mandates and approaches while harnessing the best-known — albeit poorly-managed — brand in the world? Any student of marketing recognizes brand confusion as the kiss of death for a branding strategy. If you want to make sure that people understand who is behind a product, activity, or campaign, you cannot bombard them with multiple names, looks, and logos.
The first step in getting to the question of how to create a singular brand for U.S. foreign assistance is to recognize from the outset that one is needed. As Congress takes on the important work now of better coordinating various assistance initiatives, it’s an opportune moment to create Brand USA: the story of America’s generosity. Whether it turns out to be a totally new innovation or a smart hybrid of what already works well in the field, the brand needs to capture and transcend development assistance and convey its powerful role as a lifeline to hope, change, and opportunity for the world’s poorest. This reinvigorated branding should have the expert input of those who do it best: America’s globally-engaged businesses, entrepreneurs, and private sector.
Foreign assistance is a superb product, and it doesn’t take a marketing genius to know that a branding strategy is only as good as the product itself. It’s been said that people will not hate you when you save their children. As Professor Francis Fukuyama of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies wrote in The Times in October 2008, “Good branding is…about having the right product to sell in the first place.” American generosity is the right product, and branding U.S. foreign assistance is a significant right step toward rebranding America’s global image.