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Preserving and Protecting “Brand America”

How can U.S. business cope with a changing global economy?

November 3, 2004

How can U.S. business cope with a changing global economy?

In retrospect, the post-World War II years look golden for American businesses. There is no guarantee that U.S. cultural goods and services will continue to be “cool,” admired or envied.

Culture is, after all, strictly discretionary and often just a matter of taste. As other countries develop economically, more of their purchases are based on tastes, not on necessities or gross commodities.

Think about U.S. history. During the 1920s, Americans spent half their incomes on food, a necessity. They did not have a choice of 100 different cereals, from Honey Nut Cheerios to Count Chocula. For all but the wealthiest, shoes were shoes, until Keds came along in 1930, introducing a whole new category.

Recall Gertrude Stein’s “A rose is a rose.’ Not anymore. The American rose industry now gives you a choice of more than 800 varieties of roses. The point here is that as people have more choices — and make those choices based on changing tastes — U.S. exporters become more vulnerable.

Henry Ford famously offered the Model T in every color you could ask for, “as long as it is black.” Have you looked at the Competition Orange Mustang that Ford sells today? Consumers the world over are free to choose — and free to just say no.

During the Eisenhower years in particular, U.S. automobile and manufacturing firms flattened competitors in Europe and Japan. Why did they succeed so mightily? Because Generals Patton and MacArthur had flattened these nations’ factories.

When I served in the White House in the early 1990s, doom and gloomers were always harping that the United States had lost our lead — and that blue-collar wages were not holding up compared with the gains of the 1950s and l960s.

Well, it’s no great economic performance trick to look impressive when the rest of the industrialized world is essentially rolling in rubble. No wonder U.S. unions could win huge wage gains without always delivering higher productivity.

As the decades wore on, though, international competition picked up. Now Americans must fight for every job, every slice of market share — and every dime of wage gain.

What if U.S. economic dominance and product appeal turn out to have been just a 50-year fad? Tastes do change, after all. “Hey, hey, my, my, rock ‘n’ roll can never die,” wailed Neil Young in his 1980 song “Out of the Blue and Into the Black.” Rocker Kurt Cobain quoted the lyric in his suicide note in 1994.

But ask today’s hip-hopper about rock — and he pictures Mick Jagger and Neil Young in the same old-age home as Perry Como wearing a cardigan sweater.

Barbie dolls had a nice 40-year worldwide run, along with GI Joes. Have we already lived through and closed the door on the Barbie doll economy? Did the post-World War II pax Americana carry with it product Americana?

Remember, when the United States conquered Germany, German kids could not wait to swing to Glenn Miller and the big bands. U.S. goods were like gold — and Germans would literally walk a mile for a Camel cigarette. Is the thrill gone? Has the admiration turned to resentment?

Since ancient times, national admiration has often turned to envy and resentment. Ancient texts warn people not to be seduced by foreigners, who are typically characterized by immorality and a lack of cleanliness.

The French and the Brits have admired — and despised — each other for centuries. Intriguingly, the Brits would refer to syphilis as the French disease and the French would call it the British disease.

But what have we done to the American image in the past few decades? The cowboy no longer looks like the savior and redeemer. Today, Europeans typically insult President Bush by calling him a “cowboy” — wild, barbaric and interested only in his own piece of the pie.

Their accusation may be reckless, but we must worry about the status of our symbols. And the news on that front is not good. Rather than fighting for liberty and justice, Hollywood has treated us to cynical vigilantes.

But the despair and malaise of the 1970s brought us Charles Bronson in Death Wish — and Robert DeNiro as the unforgettable, maniacal Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. For every uplifting Stephen Spielberg or Tom Hanks film celebrating noble soldiers, astronaut explorers or extraterrestrials, we now get a dozen senseless rape and murder stories.

Looked at in that view, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. The United States still has an amazing amount of global economic power — and creativity.

But, we have been careless with regard to how we are perceived around the world. Any manager of a global brand who would let that happen would be fired. U.S. top brands may have a hard time recovering from the fallout.

Reprinted from “Bringing The Jobs Home” by Todd Buchholz by arrangement with Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2004 by Todd G. Buchholz