12/23/2009 05:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Brand America

Each year, a number of previously well known commercial brands simply disappear, and as I gaze into the rear view mirror of 2009, it seems that the dead brand list has swelled. We need to make the point that signs and slogans do not make a brand as many young marketing students think. A brand's true meaning is established by whatever your experience with the product or service has been over a period of time. Steadfast consistency and time are big factors in successful brand building. For example, category leading Coca Cola has been in the marketplace since 1886, and they still successfully offer the same core product: a carbonated beverage in containers that were designed in 1915. Their logo has become the most famous in the world and is among the oldest. Businesses both large and small, and even our country itself, need to apply smart lessons in brand building. Some brands survive by appearing to remain the same while others drive over the cliff by seeming to be static, but it is clear that for significant success, you must stand for something.

We can take some lessons from brands that signed off in 2009. Kodachrome film from Kodak made a final colorful story as it died by the digital camera sword and was buried in the vault of memories. Several of the electronic devices in my office came from Circuit City where they were burned out by a tough market and iffy management. Pontiac cars were a muscular brand from my youth when gasoline was under 50 cents per gallon, and in waving bye-bye to that brand, I have fond memories of experiences in my copper colored Firebird. Their niche shrank, but their vision for the brand didn't grow. And right now the death watch is on for Saab, the Swedish auto maker. They were another niche brand, but they got lost in the bureaucracy when General Motors purchased the company. Without a clearly delineated brand identity and strategy, any brand's time in the sun will be limited.

Just what is America's brand? Switzerland stands for mountain scenery, a discreet banking system, and a conservative approach to all things. China has spent decades building an identity as the manufacturer to the world. Italy's brand is having created one of the world's favorite cuisines, making the wine to wash it down, and throwing out a welcome mat to come sample it all. America reached greatness because a century ago we stood for unbridled opportunity, upward mobility with hard work, and government with a light hand. Today, our national brand managers (politicians) don't seem to have a clear idea of what the country's shared brand is, and if they do know, they are keeping it a secret. I'm afraid that like those venerable dead and dying brands I mentioned previously, bad management and short term thinking can harm a country just as badly as it did General Motors. It is ironic that in 1952, Charles Wilson, long time General Motors president, was quoted as saying, "For years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa." GM made unrealistic long term promises based on short term strategies and spent itself into bankruptcy - watch out America!

When I look in on the ongoing media cyclone blowing around Tiger Woods, I find it to be an interesting example of how public perceptions drive a brand image. Woods has been whacked with a club (maybe even literally by wife Elin) for his admitted dalliances with a host of women while still being married. That appears to have sullied and perhaps even broken his brand. Over in the Holmby Hills, neighborhood here in Los Angeles, we have the contrasting brand of Hugh Hefner, founder, publisher, and the living mascot of Playboy Magazine. Married twice, Hefner has seemingly had intimate contact with enough women to populate a Victoria's Secret catalog! His brand is pretty clearly defined, and fifty years of success has depended on him being a playboy. Maybe Tiger will take a page from modern marketing 101 and shift his brand from being the #1 family man golfer to being the top playboy golfer. In addition to lowering the age profile among spectators on the PGA Tour, there might be some fresh and lucrative endorsements just waiting for that brand category to be created.

Let me get back to looking for similar clarity in a brand identity for our country. I liked it when America could claim the turf of being the world's leading manufacturing and educational system franchise. We were cranking out ideas, factories, and the people who designed and operated them like we now roll out fast food meals. However, there is one category of American superiority that I never hear U.S. Presidents and officials brag about. We are by a gaping margin the largest manufacturer of weapons on the planet, sort of a "Bombs 'R Us." Why won't we publicly and loudly claim that distinction and unique identity as our 21st century brand? It may not sound as nice as computer maker to the world, but the fact is that crown is ours alone. It is a strange and often corrupt business, but we have a long line of cash customers anxious to sign up for our products. According to Richard Grimmett and the CRS Report for Congress, we make 41% of the arms sales in the world while Russia is a very distant second at 17%. Do we want that to be our current brand identity? I think most Americans would say no.

The current wrestling match in Washington over the health care legislation and the fact that all levels of government have gone into the begging business, certainly lets us know that we've misplaced the American brand DNA. However, I am hopeful based on my faith in the irrepressible nature of the human spirit and the entrepreneurial thinkers in our midst. I do believe in capitalism and agree with Forbes Magazine's Steve Forbes that the principles of capitalism will save us. I like reading the history of America when our brand was built around opportunities and not entitlements. As I talk to people from previous generations, I'm impressed that no matter how poor they were, or how tough the circumstances, there was a genuine belief that they could move up by their own resourcefulness and focused hard work. They wanted government to build infrastructure, maintain the rule of law, defend our borders, and then get out of the way. Like all great brands who've built long term success, we have to honor the original brand and reject ideas that dissipate or break it.

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