A new brand in the White House

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As Brand USA reached its thrilling series finale, Creative Director Michael Hart cast a huge sigh of relief.

This is the preamble to the Constitution, just in case you had forgotten:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The 2020 election was like the conclusion of a four-season box-set. The nation had fallen under the spell of an orange Svengali and stood on the brink of perpetual darkness. Meanwhile, our weary protagonist had been rendered powerless by a combination of Kryptonite, arthritis and nation-wide compassion fatigue. Despite his aging limbs, could he emerge from his basement and topple his nemesis one last time? Or will the fanatical hordes, hypnotised by MAGA cries and truth-avoiding exhortations, give us what no audience wants: an unhappy ending. It was gripping stuff, with the outcome constantly in doubt. The antagonist tried every nefarious ploy to cling to power, unleashing Orcs from the bowels of hell on 6th January, while black treacle oozed from the temples of henchman Giuliani.

Perched on the edge of seats, gnawing at fingernails, we wondered which political brand would prevail, and whether the USA would restart its duties as white knight. Not that we should be describing any potential redeemer as white after four years of Trump.

Fundamentally, this was an election about brand and values, not politics. A classic struggle for American hearts and minds. Trump rode to victory in 2016 on honesty and transparency but also misogyny and insularity – a curious collection of values that seemed to momentarily dupe the electorate. Brands, as we all know, are built on trust, consistency and respect, and can be undone in a whisker. We certainly can’t accuse Trump of being inconsistent, but surely that alone wouldn’t be enough to secure a second term?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re Brand Trump, Brand Biden or Brand USA, the same rules apply to you as they do to vacuum cleaners. At the heart of every brand is a promise you make and keep. The more people you can make that promise to, the more success you will have. But under Trump, customer complaints resulted in aggressive rebuttals not apologies. Under Trump, the customer was never right, unless they agreed with Donald. Under Trump, death row inmates were shown no compassion or mercy despite suffering horrific childhoods or the unreliability of the evidence against them. Yet Trump is a man who knows all about brands and behaviour, at least you would assume he does. His name is emblazoned across everything he owns, from casinos to golf courses. Those five letters are shorthand for wealth and success. Were. His chaotic four years in the White House will be the spine of his obituary.

Adhering to Trump’s values came at a price for the USA. Its nation brand grew just 2% in 2017, while China’s rocketed by 44%. Travel bans and belligerent rhetoric had an impact on reputation too, dropping the USA down to 38th in the league table. Tourism has largely stalled since 2017, with USA losing second place to Spain during Trump’s administration – a drop in visitor numbers that will have a sizeable impact on the economy.*

They used to say that politicians, like Thatcher and Gorbachev, were for ‘export only’ – lauded overseas but polarising at home. Trump is the opposite, only interested in his narrow, domestic fanbase: a brand blindly focused on retention not acquisition. Over the course of Trump’s reign the United States’ standing in the world shrunk whenever his under-sized hands gripped the lectern; his every ill-considered uttering causing an unwanted re-positioning for Brand USA. It’s disturbing to think how easy it is for a nation to lose its way. History is littered with sobering examples. The ease with which the dishonesty spread from Trump to top Republican Party officials like McConnell, Pompeo and Cruz was deeply alarming. Each one nodding like a lapdog to the falsehoods emanating from the White House. Each one perpetuating the misinformation that you thought and hoped was down to one rogue, not a parcel of them.

Why did the American election matter so much to the rest of us? We watched because we were worried. We watched because the most powerful country in the world had lent authority to macho posturing disguised as leadership. Isolationist policies and toxic masculinity as perpetrated by authoritarian leaders like Erdogan, Putin, Bolsonaro and Orban are not what the world needs. Even the UK, by deciding to turn its back on Europe (for good or ill) is displaying those same unwelcoming traits.

We watched because we need the USA to help bring the world together. To agree as one on how tackle pandemics, global warming, and eventually alien invasions.

We watched to see what would happen in the final reel.

The United States awoke from its slumbers just in time. Joe Biden, the masked avenger, smote the tangerine overlord and secured the Oval Office. He’s too old, they said. True but so are the values that his brand holds dear: honesty, integrity, fairness, inclusivity. As old as the Constitution.

A sweep of Joe’s pen had the USA re-joining the Paris Agreement. Another sweep and he reversed Trump’s directive to inflict punitive measures on agencies who wish to improve the diversity of their workforce, and put in place training to combat racism. An initiative Trump described as divisive.

“Character matters. Telling the truth matters. Being a good person matters.”

Van Jones, CNN

The ring has been returned to Mount Doom, the Empire defeated, and the spell broken. On Inauguration Day, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman gripped the lectern and ushered in the new dawn.

We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be:
A country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.
We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change, our children’s birthright.

 Looking forward to seeing how Joe gets on in season five.

* https://brandfinance.com/wp-content/uploads/1/bf_nation_brands_2017.pdf

If you’d like to chat about how The Union could help you map out what to do next, get in touch – michael.hart@union.co.uk