Spies, Drones and the NSA: America’s Branding Problem


This may be heretical.  It may be offensive.  However, I’m going to talk about America’s civil liberties from a marketing perspective—not whether it is right or wrong.

I once read an article where an incident which occurred in a foreign country was discussed in terms of being a PR problem for their leader—not whether it was just or unjust.  I strongly disagreed.  I felt that the core discussion shouldn’t be this foreign leader’s PR, but whether the parties involved had been treated according to human decency and justice.  I felt it wasn’t the correct focus.  And yet, here I am, about to commit that same sin.

I can’t help it.  It’s such an exquisite example of a branding crisis.  It makes a phenomenal point that everyone can apply.  I too am horrified by abuses of personal liberty but for now I’m writing from a different perspective.  Politics and ideology aside, I’m talking about branding.

Yes, branding.

America has a branding problem…no, a branding crisis.  If America were a company, I would be equally concerned with the branding crisis as I would its national debt.  Marketing and positioning are as important as finance to any organization.

Let’s cover some basics.

What is branding?   In Bruce Wiseman’s insightful article on branding, he refers to a great definition from BusinessDictionary.com.  Branding is defined as: “The process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the mind, mainly through advertising campaigns with a consistent theme. Branding aims to establish a significant and differentiated presence in the market that attracts and retains loyal customers.” 

Excellent definition.

If you look at any successful product line or company—from Disney to Apple, Chevy to BMW—they each have a unique identity that sets them apart from others.  They have a theme to everything they do.  It’s the “personality” of the company.  You know when you go to a Disney movie that it was made by Disney; it is totally NOT a Quentin Tarantino movie.

You know what to expect from BMW; they’ve got a niche or identity that has to do with quality and performance and German engineering.  However, as a consequence of this, if BMW came out with a workhorse pickup truck for the American farmer, this would probably fail.  The farmer would buy his pickup from Dodge or Chevy.

So what is America’s brand?  What is the “unique name or image?”  What is the “consistent theme?”  What is its “significant and differentiated presence” that “attracts and retains loyal customers?”

In order to answer this you’ve got to go back to the founders.  This is important in establishing any brand, really.  Disney is always Walt Disney’s brand because…well, it’s named after him.  Sam Walton will always define Wal-Mart’s philosophy.  Steve Jobs IS Apple.

This can tell you a lot about why companies begin to decline—they lose sight of the original vision and mission of their founders.  They forget who they are.  They lose their way.  Ford is never going to be Toyota—don’t bother to try.  Be Ford.  That’s cool.

America’s brand is freedom and personal liberty.  It’s the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.”  Just go to a baseball game—you’ve got 50,000 people standing proudly belting it out.  It’s a brand.

America is Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death.”  It’s brilliant works of just government like the Constitution.  It’s bold statements of freedom like the Declaration of Independence.  With sweeping hope of a better life for all, America has the best brand of any country in the history of Earth.  It’s clear.  It’s recognizable.  As nations go, America is the market leader and has a definite position different from everyone else.

If I say “Switzerland” you think chocolate and banking.  If I say “Italy” you think great food and legendary works of art…well, maybe also the Mafia.  These are strong “brands.”  What would happen if Switzerland suddenly couldn’t manage their money—or if Italy devolved into fast food and cheap knockoffs?  It wouldn’t work.  Would you set up a Swiss bank account?  What would happen to Italy’s tourist trade?

And that’s the problem with many of America’s policies today.  Questions of right or wrong aside, it’s a branding nightmare.  The country is violating the vision of the founders.  What would happen if Tim Cook threw out the Steve Jobs ethos?  Goodbye Apple.  That’s what built Apple.

Every country or company has problems.  However, they have to tackle them from the standpoint of their personal brand.  That’s how you keep the core essence of the company strong.  Incidentally, it DOES end up being more ethical because you stay true to the vision of the founders.  However that’s not the point here.  We’re just talking marketing.

Let’s look at some of the problems America is facing and talk about how they would be solved strictly according to the “American” brand (again, throwing out any political ideas for the moment—just talking branding).


Whew!  There’s the elephant in the room.  Here is a critical problem.  Remember the old poem?  The one that’s engraved in bronze and mounted inside the Statue of Liberty?  It goes something like this:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

I’m just saying….

Yeah, you’ve got a branding problem.

We’re a country of immigrants.  Everyone’s great-great-grandpa came from a different country.  America is all about accepting anyone.  Yet we don’t now.  This is a serious problem to the brand.

How is it solved?  I don’t know—I’m not a politician (thank God).  But a clever marketer would probably do something like give other countries the option to become American territories similar to Puerto Rico and then when they’d proven they have their stuff together they could be voted in as additional states.  It’s not like there isn’t precedent for that sort of thing.  It’s called Hawaii.  Oh yeah, and Alaska.  Everyone’s cool with those.  No controversy.

People want the American brand.  Cool.  Find a way to give it to them.  And profit off of it.  But whatever you do, don’t destroy your brand.


Ok, I’m throwing myself a softball here.  Not hard.  I hope I don’t have to paint a picture for anyone.

America is built on the concepts of freedom, personal liberty and self-governance.  The whole idea is that the people have rights.  Uhhh…it’s called the “Bill of Rights.”

So now you spy on the people without their consent.  Doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad—you’re destroying your brand, man!  How are you viewed to the rest of the world and your own citizens if you do something that violates “rights”?  You are eroding your own position.

Maybe if you were Russia or Germany you could pull it off (no offense—just talking branding).  Maybe even Spain or something.  But not America!  It just doesn’t fly.  It destroys the only platform you have to speak from…the only position of authority you have.  It destroys your brand.


Drones are fundamentally cool.  They are basically super-advanced remote control airplanes.  I would’ve killed to have a drone when I was 12.  As part of foreign policy though…meh.

You might be able to justify them if brave US soldiers used them to “defend oppressed people from evil dictators” (sort of the current spin).  However, this doesn’t work when you fly them over America.  You think that Thomas Jefferson and Sam Adams would’ve sat around discussing the merits of drones in law enforcement?  Probably not.  More like a militia would’ve formed in a town square to shoot them out of the sky amidst fiery speeches and passionate proclamations.  However you cut it, Thomas Paine wouldn’t have written a pamphlet in favor of them.

Any possible benefit a drone may provide is outweighed (from a marketing perspective) by the fact that they just don’t effectively communicate “The Land of The Free and the Home of The Brave.”


America’s slogan isn’t “give me safety or give me death.”  It isn’t “life, security and the pursuit of happiness.”  It isn’t called the “Bill of Regulations.”

From a branding viewpoint, the way to solve America’s problems is to be America.  Figure out what that means and roll with it.  Porsche isn’t Lexus.  America isn’t North Korea.  Forward the brand, man.

Look, I know we’re talking about a lot of complex problems.  I realize that there is a lot more to life than marketing.  But from a branding perspective this provides a valuable lesson anyone can apply.

You aren’t Steve Jobs.  You aren’t running Apple.  But you are doing something.  Everyone has a mission statement.  Everyone has a vision.

Don’t just write it down.  Live it.