Brand U.S.A

It’s Election Day in the United States, yet still too soon to say for sure what the outcome will be. (Lemme give a shout-out to my friends in Florida.)

While it seems hard to imagine any aspect of this campaign cycle that hasn’t been hashed and re-hashed – $150,000 wardrobe! Lipstick and pigs! Joe the Plumber-who-isn’t! – it may be worth considering this vote from the perspective of global branding. Yes, I said branding.

Now, when we talk about national brands, we often are referring to products and services that are promoted on the national level. When you’re talking about the way a sovereign nation is branded and perceived around the world, it’s worth asking to what degree the same rules apply. What factors influence “brand U.S.A.” – and how do those influences change over time?  

Of course, leaders help shape the brand identity, and as Ed Moed points out, there is a certain degree of wizardry in crafting a politician’s image. I’d suggest that the more successful align their brand attributes with the mother brand of national identity.

In what is perhaps the largest and longest-running experiment in participatory branding, nations boast a range of other brand ambassadors, from average citizens (think Michael Fay) to Peace Corps workers. Corporate brands also influence perception – whether Union Carbide or GE

What does all of this mean for the U.S.? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the “shot heard round the world” may have ushered in the first real national cause brand. Think about it: there was an issue, an architecture for engagement, an authentic, lofty goal....

Today, of course, some say that the brand is defined only by the so-called “real America,” an issue Sam Ford explores a recent blog post. If we buy into that dualistic thinking and that narrow definition of the cause, we may run the risk of creating what Frank Shaw calls a brittle brand - a self-definition that lacks nuance – and perhaps true global relevance in the years ahead.

The votes cast today may decide the future not only of the brand, but of the cause behind it. Perhaps that is one reason why people around the world are following this campaign so closely. My mother is running a national campaign field office in New Hampshire, and has had visitors from Germany, Australia and South Africa stop in to see the process in action. The outcome will have a dramatic impact on vital issues in the U.S. and around the world. In a recent BBC poll, all countries surveyed prefer Obama to McCain in what Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times said could amount to a rebranding of America in the eyes of the world.

Of course, world opinion doesn’t always predict the outcome in U.S. elections. After all, a similar BBC World Service poll in advance of the 2004 U.S. presidential election found 30 out of 35 countries polled preferred Democratic nominee John Kerry over George Bush, who won re-election. Four years ago, the Philippines, Nigeria and Poland were among the few countries to prefer the Republican incumbent. For what it’s worth, all three now prefer Barack Obama over John McCain.

The renewed interest in the process amounts to a cause in its own right. The non-partisan Election Protection Coalition is mounting an impressive effort to promote equal access to the polls – and asking people to sponsor their hotline. NPR is encouraging folks to submit live reports of voting problems, and has joined with a dizzying array of other groups as part of the Twitter Vote Report. Starbucks is offering free coffee to those who vote, while challenging people to care as much on November 5th as we do today. Now, there’s a cause to consider....

-Talya Bosch, Former Account Director, Cause Branding


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