Foreign Policy Blogs

Madison Avenue Teaches Citizen Diplomats a Thing or Two

Yesterday I attended the National Summit on Citizen Diplomacy in Washington, DC, put on by the US Center for Citizen Diplomacy and the Coalition for Citizen Diplomacy. For those new to the concept, citizen diplomats are unofficial ambassadors who either participate in exchange programs overseas or host and interact with international exchange program participants in the United States. You can view the Coalition's annual report here.

The opening plenary session included a presentation by Dick Martin, former executive vice president of public relations, employee communications and brand management for AT&T and author of "Rebuilding Brand America." Click here to visit a page of the American Marketing Association website that hosts a podcast of an interview with the author.


Martin began his presentation by admitting he is not a foreign policy expert‚ and in fact it is his outsider perspective that is so valuable. In a nutshell, he applies his 30 years of experience in the advertising world to the problem of America's recent credibility issue.

The use of branding and marketiung techniques in public diplomacy is controversial [see this Boston Globe article for a synthesis of some criticism for the practice]. I must admit I have also been skeptical about the marketing world's potential for facilitating and informing US public diplomacy efforts. But to my surprise Martin showed his audience that, in fact, Madison Avenue can teach us a thing or two about public diplomacy.

His presentation began with an “Introduction to Branding 101.” He explained that a brand offers consumers a promise about a given product. As people come to trust the brand to deliver on its promise, publics connect with the brand on a deep, emotional level. They begin to trust that the product's performance will match the promises made by the brand.

He used the example of Osama Bin Laden's highly successful brand. Bin Laden connects with his followers on a deep emotional level and he keeps his promises consistently, delivering resistance against the United States and acts of terror directed at its public and its allies.


America, the nation, is also a brand. It represents the promise that it pledges to its citizens: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This promise is also embodied in US foreign policies and communicated to publics around the world verbally through government statements and through our actions (i.e.military action,  foreign aid, democracy promotion, global health programs, cultural exchanges, etc.). The promise that “Brand America” represents, says Martin, exists in hearts and minds around the world.

But America the brand is suffering in the eyes of the global public. Positive views of the US government are steadily plummeting as well as views of the US public‚ attitudes that were, until recently,  compartmentalized separate from views of the government.

Martin says the failure of brand America lies in the fact that so because America is not delivering on its promise: our deeds are not matching our values. Even though the US spends comparatively little on public diplomacy activities Martin emphasized that an increase in the US public diplomacy budget will not fix America's brand problem. He said “it's like increasing your ad budget without ensuring that your product delivers on its promise. “

On a more hopeful note, Martin explained that when the US government demonstrates that it cares about our global compatriots, it connects with others emotionally, and builds a more positive brand image. He cited polling data in Indonesia that showed a bump in positive attitudes toward the US immediately after the US reaction to the Tsunami in December 2003 (charitable donations, food and medical aid). But the positive effect of these donations has worn off lumping as American aid to the country has decreased.

Martin suggested that the way to rebuild "brand America" is to reconnect foreign audiences with the values we promise to global audiences. But he cautioned that changes in reputation happens incrementally. Restoring trust is difficult because it is not an entirely rational process; people see and understand others through what he called "the lenses of their emotions." He warned that America's reputation “cannot be rebuilt slowly on donated bags of rice.” He highlighted the work of citizen diplomacy and international exchange programs as doing the "hand-to-hand" work essential to the task of restoring the global public's trust in the United States.

But in his book Martin invests more confidence in the American business community than citizen diplomats to help restore American's image. He turns America's brand problem into a problem for multinationals–not just for our government–by focusing on what the international business community can do to help restore American's image around the world. He even contends that US business can be more effective than government in rebuilding Brand America. I wouldn't go that far, but Martin does establish an important link between public diplomacy and the American multinational business community.

Overall Martin's presentation showed that the marketing approach to public diplomacy offers a simplistic yet illustrative equation for evaluating the effectiveness of US public diplomacy efforts. If the product is broken, no amount of advertising dollars can make it sell. The foundation of Martin's argument, although he only eluded to it in his presentation, is that US foreign policy is not performing, and therefore the American brand is suffering as a consequence. This argument is quite similar to that originally published by British “nation-branding” gurus Simon Anholt and Jeremy Hildreth in “Brand America: The Mother of All Brands” [Cyan, 2004]).

I don't expect the silver bullet for America's credibility gap to come from the business world. But we should keep these lessons mind as we the pundits, journalists, policy makers and taxpayers scratch our heads and wonder why our investments in public diplomacy haven't delivered the returns we expected.



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.