“The Future of Brand America: Lessons from the Super Bowl and Beyond”

Where are we going? When it comes to Brand America, the United States stands at an inflection point. It can be argued that what makes America great is our values.  These values are now being challenged by President Trump and his policies. Businesses are being targeted via Twitter blitzes – from a tweet-happy vengeful President. Our institutions are also being attacked. We are witnessing an unprecedented assault on the press and intelligence community, two entities in American society that traditionally provide the verified facts that are the basis for policy decisions, writes Jon Finer, a seasoned diplomat formerly in the State Department.

What does this challenge to our American values mean for business and for the future of Brand America?

What does Brand America stand for?

Here are statements made by CMOs in 2016:

  • Ellen Junger, CMO, senior VP corporate brand development, Hallmark
    “Despite all the political rhetoric, ‘Brand America’ has always stood for optimism, possibility and inclusiveness. Like many brands, the day-to-day reality of ‘Brand America’ doesn’t always live up to its potential, but continuing to aspire to the origins of the founding of the country are still the root of ‘Brand America’ and why it’s a great country today. While ‘Brand America’ hasn’t overtly influenced what we do on a day-to-day basis, many of the tenets that make America great are what Hallmark thinks about as the DNA of our brand, our core beliefs and values that come from our founder JC Hall and in the continued family leadership of our company. Our vision of making a genuine difference in every life, every day, is very similar to that same sense of possibility, optimism and inclusiveness of ‘Brand America.'”
  • Deborah Wahl, CMO, McDonald’s USA
    “‘Brand America’ [stands for] inclusiveness, hope and opportunity. McDonald’s, as an iconic American brand, shares these values and aspirations. It’s how we view our relationship with our crew and what a job at McDonald’s offers to anyone. Inclusiveness creates strength and a better future. It leverages the talents and qualities of many and brings them together to create opportunity. This is what makes America unique, this is what makes McDonald’s an enduring brand.”
  • Emily Culp, CMO, Keds
    “‘Brand America’ stands for empowerment, freedom and self-expression. It’s all about embracing entrepreneurial spirit and celebrating multifaceted people. Keds was built on the idea of ‘Brand America.’ Founded in 1916 by the U.S. Rubber Company, the Keds brand was created to empower women by enabling them to go where they want to go and be who they want to be. Keds is an iconic brand, with notable women of both the past and present wearing our shoes including Jackie O, Yoko Ono, Marilyn Monroe, Ciara and Allison Williams. We continue to champion the values that Keds was founded upon—female empowerment [and] the celebration of multifaceted entrepreneurs and trailblazers.”
  • Timothy Mahoney, CMO, global Chevrolet and global GM marketing operations leader
    “I like to think that no matter what is happening in the world at any given moment, there is an enduring belief in the optimism and determination that are at the core of what has made America great for centuries. And for Chevrolet, we use that same optimism and determination to fuel our ingenuity and ultimately deliver engaging products with technologies to help keep drivers safe and connected, and services that will reshape the future of transportation—here in the U.S. and around the world.”
  • Deirdre Bigley, CMO, Bloomberg
    “At the very core of the American brand is a belief that we are a nation of immigrants capable of building a better life through hard work. We believe in opportunity. We believe in freedom. We believe in being good neighbors globally. We believe we are the greatest nation in the world. I hope I’m not alone when I say I am committed to that brand, and believe in the core brand essence of America. By directly connecting our work at Bloomberg LP to Bloomberg Philanthropies, we are rising above the hateful noise and focusing on what really matters. All the profits of Bloomberg LP work to ensure better, longer lives for the greatest number of people. There is amazing work being done for the environment, the arts, education, public health and government innovation, including helping the world’s mayors improve city life. I’m proud of our brand, what it means to America and globally, and the stand it takes every day without fail.”

(h/t Margaret Molloy, global CMO, Siegel+Gale)

With these brand values in mind, we should consider the first post-Trump Super Bowl advertisements that took a “political” stance. They are not out of line. Rather, they are affirmations of Brand America.

The Super Bowl of Values

The 51st Super Bowl had an exciting finish, but more importantly, there were a significant number of brand activist messages in the advertisements:

  • “The Journey” – 84 Lumber

The winner in terms of attention is Lumber 84’s story of a mother and daughter’s symbolic migrant journey towards becoming legal American citizens.  The uncut versionis trending#1 on YouTube right now.  The message is a clear defense of our national ethos, the American Dream.  Criticism of the ad misses the point.  We are not living in “normal” times anymore.

  • “America The Beautiful” – Coca Cola

This is cultural branding at its best. It reminds viewers of “who we are” as a nation and as a world united by our humanity. #AmericaisBeautiful.

  • “Daughter” – by Audi

The carmaker sets the tone for women’s equality by asking for equal pay for equal work. Critics are quick to point out that the message is negative, but that is the first step in solving a problem – facing it squarely.  #DriveProgress

  • “Born the Hard Way” – Budweiser

The Adolphus Busch story is part truth, part fiction. The “message” was an accident it seems, rather than activist by design. The immigrant Busch is confronted by “Americans” who tell him: “You’re not wanted here!” and “Go back home!”

Ian Crouch‘s take on the ad is insightful:

Budweiser might have let the commercial speak for itself, as it racked up views on YouTube, recognizing that it is nearly impossible to police interpretation. Instead, the vice-president of marketing at Anheuser-Busch, Marcel Marcondes, issued statement after statement, telling anyone who would listen that the commercial isn’t about what everyone thinks it is. “We believe beer should be bipartisan, and did not set out to create a piece of political commentary,” he told the Times. “Our focus this week is on our Super Bowl ads and our brands,” he told the Washington Post, begging, essentially, for everyone to stop talking about this thing that his company spent millions of dollars on in the hope, one assumes, of getting noticed. The frantic damage control has not only diminished the potential power of the ad but it left Anheuser-Busch looking feckless and craven—frightened of what is mostly a tepid and scattered call from some Trump supporters on social media to boycott the beer.

A protest against the ad – #BoycottBudwiser – seems to have fizzled.

  • “We Accept” – Airbnb

A clear message: “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.” Airbnb also pledges to provide short-term housing to 100,000 refugees and disaster survivors over the next 5 years.  #weaccept

Freedom Under Attack

In a more direct challenge to the Trump administration’s Travel Ban, we see just under 100 companies (including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Paypal) unite to file an amici curiae:

Screen Shot 2017-02-06 at 7.47.43 PM

Are these companies banding together because they are wide-eyed liberals?  Hardly.

“The White House has politicized business and society. The degrees of freedom for US-domiciled business are under attack just as the degrees of freedom for an American citizen are under attack,” explains Elsie Maio, an expert on business values. “The silver lining is that the limitation that these attacks present to the ability to operate a US domiciled business successfully today is forcing companies to get political. Just as they are forcing people to take political action. Citizenship of all flavors is blossoming. It’s a matter of survival for people and businesses. The US citizen has awoken. And she is waking up US business.”

Maio’s view is that just as was apparent among businesses in the UK and the Nordic countries 15 to 20 years ago, businesses became more “citizenlike” when their degrees of freedom came under pressure by civil society. They interpreted those pressures into best business practices that have slowly been seeping into the mainstream of business practice. Today, those pressures are coming more sharply, and in reaction to pressure from the new US administration. And perhaps, from rising tides of national populism.

Screen Shot 2017-02-06 at 9.46.45 PM

Her paper on this approach – Managing Brand in the New Stakeholder Environment– is highly relevant at this stage of our history.

Examine Your Brand Values

We have forgotten that America is an idea, not simply a country.  

The basic principles of democracy are social equality, majority rule, minority rights, freedom and integrity. All of these have a common basis in the fundamental ethical principle of mutual respect for diversity.

Ask your employees where they stand.  Ask your customers.  Ask yourself.

We learn that Shashi Tharoor (former U.N. under-secretary general, current Indian MP) fears that Trump’s presidency could herald “the end of U.S. soft power” by exposing “tendencies the world never used to associate with the U.S.: xenophobia, misogyny, pessimism and selfishness.”

Is that the Brand America we, the people want?

Is this what businesses want?

How do we, a nation of immigrants, ban immigration – particularly if the exclusion is based on religion?

Unstable foreign and domestic policy is not good for America or business. It is dangerous. What does your business believe about Brand America?

This is not merely about politics, it may well be an existential question for your business.

Can it be that Adam Gopnik is right to say “civilization is immeasurably fragile, and is easily turned to brutality and barbarism”?

Every question now is a political question.

To ignore this is to ignore history.

NOTE: A version of this article appeared in The Marketing Journal on February 7, 2017

READ: Brand Activism: From Purpose to Action by Christian Sarkar and Philip Kotler 

Christian Sarkar is the editor of this site, an entrepreneur, consultant, artist, and activist. See the $300 House project and FixCapitalism.com.

Philip Kotler is the “father of modern marketing.”  He is the S.C. Johnson & Son Distinguished Professor of International Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He was voted the first Leader in Marketing Thought by the American Marketing Association and named The Founder of Modern Marketing Management in the Handbook of Management Thinking. Professor Kotler holds major awards including the American Marketing Association’s (AMA) Distinguished Marketing Educator Award and Distinguished Educator Award from The Academy of Marketing Science. The Sales and Marketing Executives International (SMEI) named him Marketer of the Year and the American Marketing Association described him as “the most influential marketer of all time.” He is in the Thinkers50 Hall of Fame, and is featured as a “guru” in the Economist. Sign up for his newsletter>>