Fix the Image: U.S. needs to work on branding problem

Keith Reinhard, chairman of New York-based advertising agency DDB Worldwide, is a man on a mission. Several missions.


He has spent much of his working life thinking about brands and how to shape them. His agency is behind the McDonalds Im Lovin It campaign and has worked on the public face of several well-known brands, including Dell, Bud Light, Johnson & Johnson and Volkswagen.


Although his company has handled successful tourism campaigns for Bermuda and Spain in the past and currently works for Malaysia and Canada, he flatly states Im not an expert on tourism. Nonetheless, hes been thinking about destinations in terms of corporate branding and believes that a countrys complete brand image is more complex than most people who work on destination tourism marketing campaigns imagine.


And hes worried about Americas brand image in the world today.


His mission?


If he has his way, Americans as a whole will help shape the brand image of the U.S., and destination marketers, whether they work for his agency or not, will begin seeing their countries as distinct corporate brands with unmistakable and distinct identities.


The following, exclusive to Travel Weekly, represents some of Reinhards thinking on the topic Countries as Brands.

So much advertising today -- certainly in the tourism category -- lacks differentiation. There are interchangeable photos of inviting, sandy beaches and interchangeable promises of friendly people. People seem to have forgotten the universal principle of great creative work: Find a relevant promise and present it in an unexpected way. Differentiation is key, but its much more than that.

Its about bringing multiple aspects of a countrys image into one cohesive whole. Im very impressed with what South Africa has done with its comprehensive branding campaign. Travel and tourism is part of it, but just part of it. The whole country was repositioned as being alive with possibility.

In large part, South Africas effort was created to help overcome the negative image left by the apartheid era and inherited problems like AIDS. But its happening because four years ago, President Thabo Mbeki put together a public-private partnership to create a positive and united image for South Africa.

The campaign they launched provides a good example of how to think of a countrys identity more broadly than only in terms of tourism. The marketing of tourism flows logically from a countrys core corporate identity.

Our company has discovered that the U.S. has a branding problem. Though we dont have a particular client in this instance, weve begun implementing a plan to overcome it, for the benefit of both tourism and diplomacy. The project has been nicknamed Brand America because we believe the classic tools of brand building are applicable to the management of a countrys image.

The first phase of the project was like any typical branding campaign -- the listening and learning phase. We went to 100 countries and interviewed people to find out how the U.S. is perceived by the rest of the world.

Among other things, we heard many references to our country as a land of freedom and opportunity.  There was appreciation for our ethnic and cultural diversity, our can do spirit, our creativity and our technology. Even our wealth. 

But some respondents also found Americans to be insensitive to other cultures. Others saw us as arrogant and self-centered, often preferring to talk rather than listen.

A branding campaign cant change perceptions unless theres reality behind it. Robert Heath (a British brand and communications consultant) says that in the U.K. people associate France with stylishness and sexiness. They believe it, and they will pay more for French clothes and perfume. They associate Germany with well-engineered products and are willing to pay a premium there, too.

The Japanese provide a good example of how perceptions can change when reality does. Theyre thought of as being technically sophisticated -- Japanese TVs and audio equipment can cost more.

But its important to remember that 30 years ago made in Japan certainly did not signal quality. And clearly, there are misperceptions about America that need to be addressed. But it wouldnt work to try to change perceptions of American attributes without changing some of the attributes themselves.  

In positioning Brand America for the 21st Century, the U.S. must re-emphasize its founding values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, even while Americans take on new, more world-sensitive attitudes.

To do that, we hope to enlist U.S. businesses in a collective effort to build on the historic positive perceptions about America. Any negatives must be replaced with new, positive perceptions, such as honesty, fairness, empathy, inclusiveness and humility as well as a willingness to be a partner, a good listener and multilingual.

An ad campaign is not the answer. Weve formed something called Business for Diplomatic Action, an initiative for the U.S. business community to undertake actions thatll improve Americas image in the world.

Were looking at facilitating massive exchange programs, including internships in U.S. companies, and initiating a number of specific actions aimed at promoting better world citizenship on the part of Americans and American companies.

Weve already created the World Citizens Guide for American students studying abroad. A version of this guide is on our Web site at

I realize that destination marketers are more interested in travel and tourism than public diplomacy. But in thinking of a country as a brand, most people isolate tourism without recognizing that other considerations can also be important to selling travel.

Of course, you can certainly brand a country without having to rework society. But you still need to go through the same steps you would take in building any brand, beginning with the most important step -- listening carefully to how your country is perceived, both positively and negatively. This is the first phase of the process.

We have a proprietary tool called Brand Foundations that guides us through the five-step process of the second phase, establishing a brand platform. Its a process of discovery and distillation.

We gather representatives of key stakeholders and go through long, intense discussions -- facilitated by a professional -- to arrive at answers to a series of questions.

The first of these questions is: Where do I come from? In other words, what are the countrys origins, its anchorage?

Note that all the questions use I. Its helpful to think of the country as a person.

The second question is: What do I do? Or, another way to put it is, what are my special fields of competence? What makes me different? And Ill tell you what its not -- that your country is friendly to tourists. They all are (or so they say). But what will be the real differences between your countrys brand and all the others?

The next question is: Who am I for? How can I define the target user or need that the brand addresses? Ask what you know about yourself. What is my country like as a person?

Americans identify with a youthful lifestyle and might see the country as a youthful, fun-loving person. Australians might see their country as more masculine, humorous and outdoorsy.

The final question is: What do I value? What do I stand for? In the case of America, we like to believe we stand for freedom.

After the question phase, the next step is to create a strong umbrella concept. This can often be expressed in a single sentence.

When we did a campaign for Bermuda, we borrowed a distinctive feature of the place, Bermuda shorts, which, for the U.S.-targeted campaign, inspired a theme line connected to A short trip to the perfect holiday.

The idea of shorts was translated to short stories (Brief notes about our island) in print and to short films in television that reflected Bermudas unique colors -- pink and turquoise.

Let me add a couple of points about the umbrella concept. First, you must ensure that it can be broadly applied, not only to tourism, but for political branding, business branding, even social and religious branding.

A second point to remember about the umbrella concept is that brands must be true to themselves.

While brands can, and should, represent aspiration (in order to act as agents for change), they should be an amplification of what is already there, not a fabrication. A Cool Britannia campaign failed because Britons did not regard themselves as being all that cool.

Then comes the application of the umbrella concept.

We would recommend the development of a multi-audience marketing and communications plan that takes the umbrella concept and translates it to specific audiences.

We use a multi-audience grid, across the top of which we state a specific objective -- increasing tourism by 20%, for example.

Then we specify whats required on the part of each constituent group to achieve the overall objective.

We list what barriers exist -- why the various audience segments might resist taking the desired action, followed by what incentives or motivation might overcome those barriers and what marketing and communications tactics would be most effective in reaching out to each audience.

Finally, we set the priorities and allocate funds to each branding activity deemed to have the greatest impact on reaching the objective. Putting someone in charge is important.

Behind every strong brand is a strong brand manager, a leader who can keep all the brand voices singing in harmony to create a rich and appealing brand presence.

The process Ive described is not science. The tools are for the purpose of organizing those things that can be organized, so that that which cannot be organized -- the creative process -- can proceed from solid brand understandings.

So dont forget the magic. The creative process itself is all about magic. And magic has power.

For an example of that, Id like you to see a commercial for an airline.  This was not done by our agency, but by J. Walter Thompson.  To me, it is pure magic.

To see the commercial, go

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Look for additional details on this article in the April 11 issue of Travel Weekly.

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