Grist: The American Ambassador
One unintended casualty of the current geopolitical climate is very likely to be the beloved concept of the global brand. The forward edge of this phenomenon is a Tunisian-born entrepreneur named Tawfik Mathlouthi, who late last year introduced a soft drink that can only be called the anti-Coke. Its label is flag red, its ribbon logo looks vaguely familiar, and its name is Mecca Cola. The brand is a drinkable manifestation of hostility toward America, and it appears to be taking off. BBC News reports that it is moving from small shops in Muslim neighborhoods in France -- where it was launched -- to traditional supermarkets in France, Belgium, and Germany, including the hypermarket Auchan. That Coke is Mathlouthi's target is ironic, given that the company's business structure involves partnerships with local bottlers to provide insulation from international conflict. (The company is actually in business with Yasir Arafat.)
Anti-American sentiment isn't new, of course. But this is a different time. For one thing, the fear of America appears deeper and more global than it's ever been, even during the Vietnam War. In a recent online poll of Europeans, Time asked about the greatest threats to world peace. Almost 700,000 people voted as follows: the U.S., 88%; Iraq, 6.4%; North Korea, 5.6%. In such an environment, the possibility for commercial backlash can only grow. And that's new. In the past, you could be furious at American foreign or trade policy, say, and still crave a pair of Levi's and a Harley. Now Brand America is losing its marketing libido.
This is even true in entertainment, a critical domestic export. In January, The New York Times reported that many American television shows have been demoted from prime time to marginal viewing hours, replaced by locally produced broadcasts. A survey by Nielsen media discovered that "71% of the top 10 programs in 60 countries were locally produced." It wasn't long ago when media mavens had proclaimed precisely the opposite: the Americanization of media worldwide.
It's painfully logical that these reversals in consumer behavior could have a substantial impact on U.S. companies, many of whom have pointedly targeted developed and emerging foreign markets, believing they represent more substantial growth prospects than the mature home market. Foreign corporations, many of whom have resented American economic hegemony for years (remember the Boeing vs. Airbus struggles?), are also likely to rethink their support of American business.
Since we define ourselves by our brands, it was probably inevitable that products would become battlegrounds in their own right. This is a different future than the one envisioned by Thomas Friedman in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree. While recognizing the tensions implicit in globalization, he saw the overspreading of American influence as an anodyne, positing his Golden Arches theory, that no two nations with McDonald's would ever go to war. But Friedman failed to recognize that these brands are ambassadors, and ambassadors can get stoned.
It is ironic that this should emerge during the administration of George W. Bush, our first president with an M.B.A., who it was said would bring a CEO style to his job. Whether he is right or wrong from a geopolitical perspective, his stewardship of Brand America is in doubt. Today, every company that relies on exports needs to take a long and hard look at its global marketing and sales strategies. Even the end of Saddam may not save the global brand from becoming another one of those tarnished precepts confabulated by business school professors that gets tossed on the marketing scrapheap. The genie might already be out of the Mecca Cola bottle.
Contributor Adam Hanft is president of Hanft Byrne Raboy, a Manhattan-based advertising and marketing firm.
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