Fix the Image: U.S. needs to work on branding problem
Travel Weekly – April 12, 2005
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 McDonald’s “I’m 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 “I’m not an expert on tourism.” Nonetheless,
he’s been thinking about destinations in terms of corporate branding
and believes that a country’s complete brand image is more complex than
most people who work on destination tourism marketing campaigns
And he’s worried about America’s brand image in the world today.
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
Reinhard’s 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 it’s much more than that.
It’s about bringing multiple aspects of a country’s image into one
cohesive whole. I’m 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
In large part, South Africa’s effort was created to help overcome the
negative image left by the apartheid era and inherited problems like
AIDS. But it’s 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
country’s identity more broadly than only in terms of tourism. The
marketing of tourism flows logically from a country’s core “corporate”
Our company has discovered that the U.S. has a branding problem. Though
we don’t have a particular client in this instance, we’ve 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 country’s 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
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 can’t change perceptions unless there’s 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. They’re thought of as being technically sophisticated --
Japanese TVs and audio equipment can cost more.
But it’s 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 wouldn’t work to try to
change perceptions of American attributes without changing some of the
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
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. We’ve formed something called
Business for Diplomatic Action, an initiative for the U.S. business
community to undertake actions that’ll improve America’s image in the
We’re 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.
We’ve already created the World Citizen’s 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. It’s 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 country’s origins, its anchorage?
Note that all the questions use “I.” It’s 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
I’ll tell you what it’s not -- that your country is friendly to
tourists. They all are (or so they say). But what will be the real
differences between your country’s 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
The idea of “shorts” was translated to short stories (“Brief notes
about our island”) in print and to short films in television that
reflected Bermuda’s 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
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 what’s 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
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 I’ve 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 don’t forget the magic. The creative process itself is all about
magic. And magic has power.
For an example of that, I’d 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 to www.travelweekly.com/movie/.