Crossing Borders

Business for Diplomatic Action

May 22, 2006

This is the first in a series of podcasts with Keith Reinhard about how the world sees America, and what the U.S. business community can do to improve America's image in the world.

Download the MP3 (11 min, 3.7 MB)

The following is a transcript of Mr. Reinhard's remarks in the podcast.

Mr. Reinhard, Tell us what you do, and why you founded Business for Diplomatic Action.

Well, as you say, I am the Chairman of DDB Worldwide, which is one of the largest advertising and marketing firms in the world, and we have 206 offices now in 96 countries and we serve a lot of multi-national clients: Johnson & Johnson, Exxon Mobile, McDonalds, Phillips Electronics and others. And traveling around the world over the past years I became increasingly aware of a growing anti-American sentiment.

It seemed to me that after 9/11, in fact, just after 9/11, it was a good time to take a sampling of how people felt around the world — what they liked about America and what they didn't like about America. And even though so soon after 9/11 there was a great deal of sympathy towards us. We put together a task force in 17 countries, sent our researchers into the street — random sampling, nothing quantitative about it, nothing scientific about it. [Asked people:] "What do you like about America? What don't you like about America?"

And as you would expect so soon after 9/11, the positives were, "It is a land of opportunity, of wealth and success." Diversity was much admired, cultural and ethnic diversity; a land of creativity and innovation; youthful enthusiasm sometimes bordering on naivete; optimism and sort of the can-do spirit; business acumen and a lot of those things.

But even so soon after 9/11 the negatives were very consistent across regions of the world, and very strident. We were seen as bullies. We were seen as totally self-absorbed: a man in Chile said Americans are like a disease; they infect the body and they don't care about the body. They only care about the disease. And a woman in Germany said, "How can they possibly pretend to lead the world? They know nothing about the world. They are ignorant of other cultures." The one single word that was most used was respect: " They [Americans] don't respect us."

So I asked our researchers to cluster the negative impressions and perceptions into most meaningful categories and they were, in order of offensiveness: First of all, the perception that Americans exploit, that we move into countries and we take what is to our advantage and we do not give back, the whole idea of American-led globalization leaving some people out.

The second was the corrupting influence that American brands, American Entertainment products promote values that are inconsistent with social morays and local cultures--sometimes even in conflict with religions.

The third was the ugly American. Our collective personality as a people was described as arrogant, ignorant, loud, totally self-absorbed. One man from New Zealand said, "If you Americans can't stop talking and listen, could you at least dial-down the volume." I asked one respondent, "Give me an example of arrogance. What is the ultimate arrogance?" He said, "The perception you have that we all want to be exactly like you, and we don't. We admire much about America, but we cherish our own cultures and it would be nice if you had some appreciation for those things that are important to us."

And the fourth was materiality, hyper consumerism — that perception that all Americans care about is the accumulation of goods.

And so this was the beginning of 2002. It struck me that really none of these negative perceptions were about foreign policy, per say. That all of them could be directly or indirectly linked to American led globalization. And if that were true, then why couldn't business be mobilized to address some of these perceptions? And that was the inspiration for Business for Diplomatic Action.

So we began talking about it and getting some interest expressed. And finally, by the beginning of 2004 we organized as Business for Diplomatic Action. Now, of course, the key irritant in terms of anti-American sentiment is our foreign policy: disagreement with US Foreign policy. But American arrogance, behavior, the effects of globalization still figure prominently and these are things we can address.

There is also a perceptible global cooling towards American culture and we need to learn a little bit more about that, but it is certainly of concern to American businessmen as brands are now falling in favorability around the world. A young Chinese girl, 23 years old, said, "Starbucks maybe, aside from that I really prefer Asian and European brands."

A recent studies of teens in 13 countries showed the top 3 brands were not American: Sony, number one — Japanese; Nokia, number two — Finland; and Adidas, number three, from Germany. So there was a cooling towards American Culture. Maybe it is because of the pervasiveness over the past decades: enough already! Maybe it is because other cultures are moving ahead. A young man in Thailand said, "I really think that European music is moving further than American music, which is sort of stuck." So there are other sources of cool now.

Well, of course it depends on what business you're in. If you are representing one of the icon American brands, it is a little more difficult than if you are representing a multi-product, multi-brand, packaged goods company that maybe people aren't even sure is American. But let's say that you are representing an icon brand: Coca-Cola, McDonalds or whatever. What is different now is that one has to be much more sensitive to local cultures and try even harder than before to become local. As you know, McDonalds is introducing rice burgers in China. And that is a very good idea, providing that McDonald's rice burger is the best rice burger you can find.

Coca-Cola has been very active in local philanthropies and so forth, and trying to be local. And in India, one of the most popular commercials last year in India was a Coca-Cola commercial which played on a common Hindu greeting. And that greeting is, I'm told, when one enters the door of a house, the host says, "Hot or cold?," asking which beverage you'd like. And so Coca-Cola turned that to "Hot or Coke," and it wouldn't have meaning in the American marketplace, but in the Indian Marketplace it did. So trying to become local is one of the big thrusts now. Because in previous times, you wanted to be associated with America because in former times that was what people were buying — a slice of America — a slice of the American lifestyle. And now people are valuing their own cultures. And so to succeed, American businessmen have to be very, very much more sensitive than before.

Newer: The Myth of the Ugly American

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Sasha wrote on May 22, 2006 4:52 PM:

U.S. business are responsible for negative images of the U.S. because they're after the bottom line, and they have to keep exploiting people(workers) around the world in order to make the biggest profit possible. The interest of multi-national corporations are always going to be diametrically opposed to the interests of the global working class.

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