Expert View: Uncle Sam's icons meet local resistance

Consumers are 'pissed off at having brand America rammed down their throats'
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The Independent Online

Last Tuesday was St Andrew's Day and somehow I found myself assembling a piper, haggis and bagpipes in the Grand Hotel, Milan. All this during an Italian general strike and with the haggis causing a dispute over health regulations. But the Italians' enthusiasm made it all worth while, even if the current whisky advert in Italy, which has the Scottish rugby team scaring off their opponents by lifting their kilts, led to my young piper being chased across the Piazza del Duomo. Such is the power of national brands.

Last Tuesday was St Andrew's Day and somehow I found myself assembling a piper, haggis and bagpipes in the Grand Hotel, Milan. All this during an Italian general strike and with the haggis causing a dispute over health regulations. But the Italians' enthusiasm made it all worth while, even if the current whisky advert in Italy, which has the Scottish rugby team scaring off their opponents by lifting their kilts, led to my young piper being chased across the Piazza del Duomo. Such is the power of national brands.

Scotland does very well out of this, selling everything from whisky to financial services, but a book published last month - The Mother of All Brands by Simon Anholt and Jeremy Hildreth - suggests it is the US that is the real past master. Since 1945, the globalisation of US brands has been prolific: 65 of the world's top 100 brands are American. They have been seen as both inspirational and aspirational.

Or at least, they were, for there are now strong suggestions of slippage, particularly in Europe. In October, McDonald's reported a sudden stalling of German sales growth, while Coca-Cola talked of sales there being down 16 per cent on last year and made a write-off of nearly $400m (around £210m) to reflect the decline in brand assets. Marlboro is also suffering a sales drop of nearly 19 per cent in Germany, and 25 per cent in France.

Companies have made reference to poor weather and dull economies, but the scale of these falls suggests something else. Kevin Roberts of Saatchi & Saatchi says consumers are "pissed off at having brand America rammed down their throats". Are they perhaps reacting to the aggressive and militarised America under George Bush?

Certainly, the plethora of consumer surveys conducted in recent months to try to explain this phenomenon make alarming reading. One study asked consumers the crucial question "Do you trust ..." the big US brands and found a noticeable downward shift compared to findings two years ago. For example, Coca-Cola was down from 55 to 52 per cent, and McDonald's from 36 to 33 per cent. Another study in the Harvard Business Review found 10 per cent of global consumers now try anything to avoid global brands.

Whether this is a reaction to events in Iraq is very hard to determine. It may well be bound up with a more general rise in anti-globalisation, though it is noticeable that the anti-capitalist demonstrators single out the likes of Starbucks and McDonald's for particular attention. You don't see, say, attacks on BMW sales rooms.

The US realised immediately after 9/11 that it had an image problem in some parts of the world. Charlotte Beers, the former chief of Ogilvy & Mather, was appointed to run public diplomacy. Sadly, her first initiative - to try running a $15m ad campaign in Muslim countries about how happy Muslims were in the US - showed the kind of insensitivity which is at the heart of the problem.

Much more hopeful are some companies' individual adjustments. Many of the largest American multinationals are subtly playing down their US credentials and switching to building more localised brands. Others are making genuine efforts to score on the ethical front. For example, Coca-Cola recently won praise from Greenpeace for phasing out cooling equipment that caused greenhouse gases.

The brand experts say some products do everything they can to hide their origins. The old-fashioned Christmas tree candles I bought last week are a good example of this. Despite Dickensian packaging, they were made in China. I wonder how long before they swap places with America.

christopher.walker@tiscali.co.uk

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