Thursday, June 29, 2017

World's Worst Brand Spokesperson. Ever.

Steve used a vacation as an opportunity to investigate the European view of our new President, and his impact on the image and reputation of the United States.

America is the best country in the world at believing it is the best country in the world. 

In 2014, a Pew study found that only twelve percent of Americans thought that there were other countries were actually better than the United States. Fifty-eight percent of Americans charitably acknowledge that other countries may possibly be in the same general category of greatness, but 28% are absolutely convinced that the U.S. of A. is it. A survey found on Reddit using a different methodology found that the United States is the only country where over 40% of the people believe that their country is the absolute best in the world.

We’re number one!  

Perhaps one of the reasons that so many Americans think theirs is the best country in the world is because so few have ever actually traveled to other countries to find out whether their blind faith has any basis in reality. An analysis by Williams Chalmers in the Huffington Post that concludes that after factoring in business travel, multiple trips by the same individuals, and eliminating junkets to Mexico or Canada, the percentage of Americans who travel “overseas” purely for pleasure, learning, and exploration is only around 3.5%. Only about one percent make it to Europe, where this post was authored. Europe also happens to be a place where you find many of the countries that might contest our claim of singular greatness.

Indeed, while gliding on an impossibly smooth train cruising at 200 kilometers-per-hour from Vienna to Salzburg, one realizes that neither the internet nor embarrassingly uninformed personal biases should serve as the basis for ranking the world’s nations. People here read texts off their FitBits, the hotels that now flourish in buildings built in the 15th century have excellent wi-fi, the public restrooms in airports have both Dyson Airblades and abundant supplies of paper towels, Uber drivers are always four minutes away… and their personnel do not appear to be disproportionately misogynistic. Perhaps Austria is number one!

This journey afforded an opportunity to do original research on a question that worries American progressives: do our European allies believe that the election of Donald Trump represents a fundamental and long-term alteration of the American character, or do they view him to be an aberration that will be soon rejected – by hook, or by his being a crook. Has he preempted and redefined American brand, or is he merely sushi left out overnight and mistakenly consumed by a populace that will return to normal after an inevitable horrendous bout of food poisoning and projectile vomiting?

An obvious but important disclosure: no one is pretending that a small number of conversations over nine days with a decidedly non-random sample should serve as a basis for conclusions on this or any topic. Rather, consider this piece a sort of verbal Instagram post… a quick dispatch while traveling intended only to convey a singular image that captures the meaning you’ve found in your journey.

At first blush, the view of the United States from over here is a bit like the Christmas dinner where that cute cousin you haven’t seen in a while shows up in leather and ink, multiple piercings, and spewing the f-bomb so frequently that she actually wedges it between syllables in a single word. What the hell happened to sweet little Cathy, and when can we have the old one back? But this is a far too superficial rendering of a complicated topic.

For starters: Europeans are not the least bit naïve about the serious root causes of the newly Trumped-up United States. The gutting of manufacturing centers and the loss of jobs to immigrants is old news in Europe, and there was no sense of shock that the United States proved vulnerable to the same viruses as well. Europeans are also more able to see the United States as a subset of the broader global trend toward rightest extremism, anti-immigration, and isolationism. These winds are shape-shifting every European country, with widely divergent outcomes, particularly in the recent electoral tale of two cities in London and Paris. A sudden increase in the frequency of terrorist attacks in England makes debates about borders, surveillance, and internet control more concrete in Europe than in the U.S., where it remains largely charged rhetoric about Muslims, walls, and fear.

Europeans also have more highly developed radar for a dangerous surge of virulent, sneering, angry nationalism.  The concept of an ambitious tyrant seizing political clout by playing to national insecurities (“Yes, we are the greatest nation!”) is a recurring motif in European history. A grossly ill-informed, propaganda-spewing demagogue who whips huge crowds into emotional frenzy about returning the country to greatness by rooting out those who are "alien" by country of origin or religious belief?  Europe went to that party. Been there, Verdun that.

So, if anything, Europeans have a broader context in which to understand the Trump phenomenon than we do. That said, the specific circumstances in every country are inevitably different, and the politician who is the incarnation of the underlying belief system (Nigel Farage, Marie Le Pen, Norbert Hofer, or Donald Trump) is the wild card variable that is perhaps most difficult to compute.  Europeans appear stumped by Trump. How did that country end up with that leader?

If there is a single word to summarize the impression that the new President of the United States made upon the locals during his recent visit, it is probably belligerence. Les Macron-esians en Paris no doubt found it, well, galling that Trump would lecture NATO partners about paying their fair share for defense spending at the very moment European nations spend millions to deal with immigration and terrorism issues resulting from people fleeing the anarchy in the Middle East that was triggered by the United States’ shock and error in Iraq. Monsieur Trump, peut-être Les États-Unis should help pay for the shit storm your country whipped up in Europe?

The decision regarding the Paris Climate Accord, when viewed from the Parisian side of the ocean, is perhaps the most frightening indication that Trump does signal a fundamental change in American character. Where once the United States was the global champion of science, it is now the primitive. More pointedly, the United States was historically the first to see and seize the economic opportunity in tectonic societal change. That the world’s foremost economic superpower would stand on the sidelines of the next great global gold rush is difficult to dismiss as an ebb and flow of political cycles. It appears to be a mutation of the core DNA.

But policy debates aside, it is the overwhelming power of visual imagery and symbolism that shapes popular opinion. We have written many times about how the gaffes of politicians are only truly damaging if they are perceived to be a dramatic illustration of a broader narrative, a moment of synecdoche when a specific incident is a concentrated symbol of a truth about the candidate that is his or her most damaging liability. When Governor Rick Perry of Texas forgot the name of the third government agency that he would close, the meta-message – that the Texas governor was an intellectual flyweight in way over his head – came through at jumbo jet decibels. He dropped out of the Presidential race within days.

So it was that to Europeans, the single most powerful visual metaphor for Donald Trump’s recent visit to the Continent was the moment he rudely shoved Duško Marković, the Prime Minister of Montenegro, in order to take center stage for a photo op. Mind you, Trump had no shortage of unforced errors during his trip to the Middle East and the NATO summit, but those other moments did not have the impact on our European friends quite like the crude, insecure vulgarity of a large, pompous man shoving aside a slight, elegant, non-threatening colleague.

To Europeans, the visual of Trump shoving Marković was one of those moments when a specific incident fully illuminates the broader narrative: the United States is now a selfish, clumsy, bully that is not comfortable in the role of leader of the free world.

Like Rick Perry’s amnesia, the Marković incident was extremely powerful precisely because it illustrated a truth. Today, Europeans often encounter Americans either in the form of (1) the business emissaries from distant headquarters whose linguistic limitations force everyone to speak English and who nonetheless carry themselves with implicit arrogance of being the top dog, or (2) the tourists who travel in the safety of large, ill-mannered packs that roam from photo op to photo op with loud voices and still louder outfits. Make no mistake: in its Jungian collective subconscious, Europeans still seem to carry the image of brave and resourceful G.I.s who stormed beaches, braved winters, and hurtled forward to help free the continent from a despicable dictatorship. But that was then, and Trump is now. Trump, shoving a slight, decorous European gentleman, is the ugly American.

People in the United States may want to believe that the admirable stereotypes – that Americans are smart, hard-working, resourceful, team-oriented, and creative – are the dominant perception. But there is a second, darker set of stereotypes that exists in parallel: that many Americans are self-important déclassé clods who think they own the universe and can’t understand why, as Steve Martin once noted, the French need to have a different word for everything.

Trump’s election, therefore, is not going to be viewed as an aberration or something inauthentic; it is simply that this alternate truth about Americans now appears to be ascendant. To Europeans who have recently been whipsawed by 180 degree shifts in the dominant American persona with each change in executive leadership, Trump may have been elected, but in many ways, confusion reigns.

As the 21st century began, we were liberal, informed, charismatic Bill Clinton, but then we morphed into the untraveled, slow-witted George W. Bush. He, then, was tarnished and discarded, and our Presidency re-emerged from the cocoon as the soaring butterfly of Barack Obama: elegant, idealistic, and cerebral. However, on a grey day in November, this glam image crashes back to earth, replaced by a crude, lurid, orange-haired, old, grumpy Donald Trump.

How can we expect Europe to figure out our new national identity? We are the United Sybil of America.
Think, for a moment, of Donald Trump as the “brand spokesman” for the United States of America. Like William Shatner for PriceLine. Micheal Jordan for Hanes. Or Peyton Manning for, uh, everything. Perhaps a more pointed comparison would be Tiger Woods for Nike, Jared Fogle for Subway, or Lance Armstrong for… well, you get the point.

Companies who hire a spokesman to embody their brand are always taking an enormous chance. If it works – think Michael Jordan – the brand is able to graft the power, popularity, and personality of the celebrity onto the personality of their brand. But when these celebrity contracts go bad, it can be very, very bad. That’s why no major company signs a celebrity endorsement contract that does not include a huge morals clause that enables the brand to dump the celebrity in a heartbeat. 
The President of the United States is the face, the voice, the very global embodiment of the nation. The president’s image is flashed on screens globally billions of times every day. The President of the United States is the most powerful brand spokesman in the history of marketing. He is us. We are him. Being the brand spokesman of the United States of America is one of the most critical aspects of the job.

Now for some bad news: the United States of America hired Donald Trump to be our brand spokesperson for a four year contract that is pretty darn impossible to break. Can you imagine if Subway was obligated to continue to use Jared Fogle for three and a half years after he copped to child pornography charges? Or that Nike was legally required to use the mug-shot of a drugged-out Tiger Woods to sell their new putters? 

If you are the brand manager of the product called “The United States of America,” and one day you decide to change your brand spokesman from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, you can shove all the politics to the side because the first point to be made is that you have thoroughly and comprehensively confused your audience about who you are. But that is just the start of the problem.

The real question any experienced brand marketer asks when evaluating potential brand spokespersons is whether the celebrity under consideration truly embodies that meaning and values of the brand.  Is the spokesperson relevant to the brand, evocative of the brand, and credible to the message about the brand? Karl Malden hawked traveler’s checks because he played a tough, gritty cop who was savvy about criminals. Jennifer Aniston promotes cosmetics. And yes, Tiger Woods was once an immensely popular and spectacular golfer, and a helluva powerful spokesman for Nike.

America does have recognized values and beliefs. Marketers would call them “brand values.” They are widely known, deeply etched, and closely associated with our brand. And the true “brand values” about the “United States of America” brand are not about whether America “is great,” or is “greatest,” or needs to be made “great again.” 

What are the true “brand values” of the United States?  That democracy is great. Freedom is great. The rule of law is great. The right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness is great. Freedom from religious persecution is great. The right to free speech and an independent press are great. We are willing to fight to protect, defend, and perpetuate those ideals. When the United States enjoys broad admiration – yes, perhaps even the perception of greatness – it is when we were most actively advocating and living our brand values.

But when a President refuses to investigate a tainted election, does not respect the rule of law or the judicial branch of government, and urges religious persecution, he is not aligned with the brand values of the United States of America. 

When a President refuses to honor the nation’s prior commitments, insults our allies, and attempts to curtail free speech and an independent press by slandering those who disagree with him as "fake news," he is not aligned with the brand values of the United States of America.

And, yes, when a crude thug shoves the leader of another nation, he is not aligned with the brand values of the United States of America.

Donald Trump is presenting the United States as a backward nation that is so clumsy, insecure, and lacking in grace that we have to shove aside a small, nonthreatening country to push our way to the center.

Does Europe think that we have truly changed and become that country? Or that we are merely an imperfect union that strives for progress, but inevitably suffers one step back for every two steps forward?
In one of those moments of serendipity, this writer arrived back in the United States the day that the Pew Research Center announced the findings of a major global poll designed to understand how attitudes towards the United States have shifted as a result of the election of Donald Trump.

Here is, verbatim, the lead paragraph from that report:

"Although he has only been in office a few months, Donald Trump’s presidency has had a major impact on how the world sees the United States. Trump and many of his key policies are broadly unpopular around the globe, and ratings for the U.S. have declined steeply in many nations. According to a new Pew Research Center survey spanning 37 nations, a median of just 22% has confidence in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to international affairs. This stands in contrast to the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency, when a median of 64% expressed confidence in Trump’s predecessor to direct America’s role in the world."  

As to our question about Europe?

"The sharp decline in how much global publics trust the U.S. president on the world stage is especially pronounced among some of America’s closest allies in Europe and Asia, as well as neighboring Mexico and Canada. Across the 37 nations polled, Trump gets higher marks than Obama in only two countries: Russia and Israel."

Finally, this paragraph speaks directly to the role that the U.S. President plays as the "brand spokesman" for the United States of America:

"In countries where confidence in the U.S. president fell most, America’s overall image has also tended to suffer more. In the closing years of the Obama presidency, a median of 64% had a positive view of the U.S. Today, just 49% are favorably inclined toward America." 
Here is the glimmer of hope.

The fact that the reputation of the United States does not fall in a direct, one-for-one relationship with the reputation of its President means that citizens of other nations are easily able to distinguish between and hold different views of the nation relative to those they hold of its President.

It seemed clear that Europeans see the disconnect between the brand values of the United States and of its current spokesperson, Donald Trump. The values of one do not add or help the values of the other. They compete, and each is weakened by the association: the United States looks bad to its audience, and Donald Trump is viewed as not being up to the standards of the United States. And yes, the longer is goes on, the more damage is done. But people do see a difference between the President of the United States and the nation, The United States of America.

The view from Europe?

Perhaps the question would be best answered on Instagram, where one could post a picture of a rotund, orange-haired jerk shoving a smaller, peaceful man so that he can take a more prominent place in a photo op. 

And the caption would read: “It is still a good and decent country, but they have the world’s worst brand spokesman... ever.”

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