Rebuilding Our American Brand
Updated: Jun 17, 2021
We’ve lost something.
And by “we” I mean Americans–all of us.
Some talk about a loss of unity. Others, a loss of standing in the world. Some describe the loss as a feeling–something intangible–the loss of certainty, the loss of hope, the loss of a shared identity.
We feel disconnected and diminished.
We look for things to make us feel less shitty. Tik Tok videos help for a while, but then that same feeling of loss overtakes us again.
Experts and pundits offer myriad explanations for the loss we’re feeling–it’s the isolation brought on by the pandemic, or the negativity of our divisive political climate, or the frustration about the inequity built into our systems, or the addictive outrage-hits our social media feeds serve up minute by minute.
These are all valid reasons to feel awful, but I believe the loss we’re struggling to describe is bigger–it’s the loss of our American brand.
That might sound simplistic or silly, but when you consider the role and the purpose of brands, it actually makes perfect sense.
Brands unify a group of people around a shared belief. They tell the story of the ‘why’ behind the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ of any organization. They provide a “north star” that motivates behavior and drives internal culture. They clarify competitive differences and guide decision making. They build trust over time.
Our American Brand
Google the term “brand” and you’ll get 18.4 trillion results. It’s a nebulous term that encapsulates many different things but by any of the accepted definitions, The United States of America is a brand:
An idea or a feeling which is often associated with symbols, aspirational ideals, a unique voice or personality
A promise supported by a set of beliefs, values, and behaviors
The story we want others to tell about us
An intangible asset—a non-physical advantage that imparts an extra premium and has enduring value
There’s no question our American brand is a powerful idea that holds…well the entire world, really…in its thrall. It’s an idea that’s both audaciously simple and wildly aspirational–that “we the people” will direct our own destiny. Rooted in the stated–but not yet realized–belief that “all men are created equal,” it sets forth a clear and universal set of collective values for our nation: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Our American brand promises both freedom and fairness–understanding there can be no liberty without justice for all.
It speaks in a voice that’s uniquely bold, confident, optimistic, and future forward.
It strives to be open, inclusive, welcoming, and courageous.
It weaves 328 million individual narratives into one epic and evolving American story.
The enduring value of our American brand has paved the way for the USA to assume a leadership position around the world.
Or at least that’s the American brand I grew up with.
We're Not In Kansas Anymore
But then something happened.
Not all at once, but over time.
On a recent “This American Life” podcast, a Black police offer who defended the Capitol from the homegrown terrorists on January 6th said what many of us have been thinking for some time now, “Is this fucking America? What is happening?”
I understand there have always been valid reasons to question our American brand–Lord knows we’ve never fully lived up to its founding principles–but it gave us something noble to believe in, something to strive for, something to bind us together.
What we’ve experienced over the past few years was an attempt to reframe our American brand into something altogether different–something small, mean, and selfish.
Its basic tenets, symbols, and language were co-opted and distorted.
“I” was prioritized over “we.” The glorification of ‘individual freedoms’ took a cudgel to our common bond (look no further than the ridiculous framing of mask-wearing during a once-in-a-century pandemic as an infringement on individual rights instead of a common cause to keep our fellow and most vulnerable Americans safe). “We” was for losers and suckers.
Words like “patriotism” became more and more associated with shows of American force rather than displays of American spirit. We stopped celebrating the everyday actions by everyday people that demonstrate our American brand ideals–welcoming the stranger, helping others in need, taking care of our communities.
It was shocking but not surprising when patriotism took a dangerous turn towards nationalism, leaving no room for ‘others’ in this version of the American brand. It was ‘us’ against ‘them’.
We watched as our American symbols were claimed by some as theirs alone–reserved only for ‘real’ Americans.
In their hands, we witnessed our most beloved symbol–our flag, our national symbol of unity–being wielded as a weapon against fellow Americans in an act of aggressive division.
What We've Lost
This reframing of our American brand has cost us dearly at home and abroad.
We’ve lost our shared narrative identity. A narrative identity is an evolving story that provides individuals with a sense of unity and purpose. Our shared American brand narrative has always been the story of the pursuit of a “more perfect union” and without this, we’ve lost our sense of what to believe in. We are a country divided–with one group telling an altogether different story about our American brand than what it was intended it to be. This divide has cost us relationships with family members and friends. We’ve lost trust in the American story and in one another.
We’ve lost our standing in the world. It isn’t just Americans losing trust in one another, U.S. News Best Countries 2020 Report revealed that the world’s trust in the United States has dropped by more than 50% since 2016, the sharpest drop of any country assessed in the report.
Rebuilding Trust In Our American Brand
There are two parts to any brand–promise and performance. To rebuild trust in our American brand, we will need to work together to address both. While it’s easy to feel powerless as individuals, affecting change actually comes down to each of us doing a certain set of things:
Hold Our Brand Stewards Accountable: There’s no substitute for good brand leadership. As stewards of our American brand, our elected leaders must consistently reinforce the true promise of our American brand and the values it represents through both their words AND their actions. Business leaders have a key role to play by supporting candidates and policies that lift up our American brand and move us closer to its promise. As citizens, we must continue to hold our elected leaders accountable for rebuilding trust in our American brand by staying civically involved and voting in every election, and hold our business leaders accountable by “voting” with our wallets.
Turn Words Into Action: People expect brands to live up to their promises and they’ll call out brands that say one thing and do the opposite. It’s past time for our American brand to take meaningful action on its promise. This summer, we witnessed a broad coalition of Americans come together to demand equal protection and equal justice. Our American brand requires that we continue to call for meaningful actions that ensure everyone is included in its promise.
Protect Our American Brand Symbols: Symbols are powerful expressions of a brand. That’s why brands invest heavily in assigning meaning to their brand symbols and protecting them from misuse. We must be as vigilant with our American brand symbols. We must embrace and protect the true meaning behind our brand symbols and not cede them to any group that would exploit them for their own narrow purposes.
Take Responsibility For Our Own Individual Actions: In today’s post-digital world, technology-empowered consumers have as much to say about what a brand stands for as an organization does. As Americans, we all have a stake in whether our American brand succeeds or fails. It’s up to “we the people” to reclaim our American brand through our own words and actions. This requires getting off the sidelines, stepping out of the curated communities we’ve built around ourselves and engaging with our fellow Americans. And, while it’s imperative that we be active participants and defenders of our American brand, we must do so in a way that respects what the brand stands for by being open, inclusive, welcoming, and courageous.
Brands require nurturing and attention to evolve and thrive over time.
The attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th should be a wake-up call to all of us to never take our American brand for granted. To stand up. To speak out. To know better and do better.
To never forget that WE are our American brand in action.