New Image for America Begins at Home

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

With nearly 50 years in marketing, Keith Reinhard knows when a brand is in trouble. Even before the war in Iraq bred new resentment of the United States abroad, the country had developed an image problem, says Reinhard, 71, chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide Communications Group Inc., an advertising agency with offices in 96 countries.

He says surveys taken in 17 countries in 2002 showed that people think that global U.S. businesses are exploitative, that Hollywood promotes messages that conflict with local cultural and religious values, and that Americans are materialistic, arrogant, loud and uninterested in other cultures. That is not just bad for the United States, Reinhard says, it is bad for business. So in 2004 he founded Business for Diplomatic Action, a New York-based nonprofit organization that enlists the help of U.S. corporations in bolstering the country's image abroad.

-- Christopher Lee

Q Why did you start this group?

A Looking at those [survey results] early in 2002, it seemed to me that you could attach, either directly or indirectly, all of these negative perceptions to business expansion. And that if that were the case, then why not mobilize the business community to start to address some of these perceptions? Now some of these root causes still remain. At the moment, the disagreement with U.S. policy would be a primary root cause. But, still, all of these other things can be addressed by U.S. business.

How do you change opinions?

The first point is to try to sensitize certain U.S. key constituent groups to the problem. There is still not widespread knowledge or agreement that we really have a problem with our reputation and image around the world. So with the help of the media, giving presentations, our Web site [ ] . . . and our testimony in Congress, we're starting to sensitize people to this issue. If this were a brand in the commercial world, we would declare a crisis.

. . . The second part of our plan is to transform or change those parts of America and Americans that we can influence. . . . If the perception is that we are loud, arrogant, insensitive, ignorant -- we can change that. Americans make 60 million trips outside the United States every year. If we could make 60 million positive impressions, that would be a step in the right direction.

We have published two "World Citizens" guides. The first is for students who travel and study abroad. . . . And 300 colleges and universities have now put these in the hands of kids who are planning to study abroad. . . . That was so successful that the National Business Travel association said, "Okay, can you do an abridged version for business executives?" It's 16 reminders that are placed in the hands of executives from 800 companies who will get this as a part of their travel documents. . . .

We're trying to change the visa policies and the entry attitudes. . . . For example, we have offered Disney to help orient customs and immigration agents. Disney handles large crowds, long queues and still has a way of making people feel welcome. We're not suggesting the rules change, but that the attitude change. Word gets out, you know, "They don't want us there." The visa delays are six months in some cases.

In what ways does anti-Americanism hurt business?

Tourism is down substantially from pre-9/11 levels, and that is hurting the United States economy to the tune of billions of dollars. Our share of world international tourism is 6 percent. It was 7.4 percent. Travel from Brazil is down 43 percent, and that's primarily because of the visa problem.

We know that American brands are becoming less popular. . . . In G-8 countries, 18 percent of the general population say they try to avoid American brands. In marketing we know that behavior inevitably follows attitude. And so we think it is in the best interest of business to address this problem.

You mentioned that part of the reaction is to U.S. policy. That's not something your group can influence much. How do you deal with that?

If we can, as a business group, shift the discussion from policy to business to the private sector to civil society to culture to education to learning, we think there is a great deal that can be done outside of policy.

But isn't there a ceiling on the impact you can have as long as people are reacting to policy?

I suppose so, but then the alternative would be to do nothing, and that doesn't seem like a good idea. I also believe that Washington listens to business. I think maybe eventually the business community can influence policy.

What else can you do?

Try to amplify the good qualities about America that are still admired around the world. Research is very clear that if visitors, whether they are students or tourists or workers, can actually get into the United States and spend time here, their opinion of America and Americans is dramatically changed. . . . It's incumbent upon the government to promote tourism.

What's your opinion of the Bush administration's efforts to improve America's image?

In the second term, there was recognition given to the need, which was a positive. During the first term there was not even acknowledgment that there was a problem.

Do you think the administration is succeeding?

Not yet. I think this is a long, long-term problem.

Is it possible that some of the problems you've identified are not just misperceptions about the United States, but are true?

Sure. In marketing, what you do if a brand is in trouble is you get all of the perceptions and you put all of the positive perceptions over here and you say, "How can we amplify those?" Then you divide the negatives into two piles: Negative perceptions that are true -- you have to change the product. Negative perceptions that are not true -- you have to clarify the communication.

So our strategy is change the product. Make Americans less arrogant, better world citizens. Maybe more than 17 percent of us should have passports. Maybe we should get out and see the world. So that's the part we're trying to change. And then the visa and the entry policies. That's changing the product. The market will decide.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company