NEW YORK, United States — America exists as a branded entity in a way that few other countries do. Strength, freedom, independence, inclusion, opportunity—these are a few of the political and social ideals that define ‘Brand America’ and perceptions of the country at home and abroad.
Success stories like Barack Obama—a black man from a middle class family—being elected president, and companies like Google, which grew from a start-up in a garage to a global powerhouse, are the backbone of ‘Brand America’. The belief in America as a land of opportunity where success is self-determined has kept global consumers in awe of—and keen to buy into—American culture.
For these reasons, many American retailers and fashion designers such as Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Gant have channelled aspects of Americana into their brands, using US insignia and colours (red, white and blue) in their designs and marketing efforts as they have expanded into global markets.
However, factors including the dramatic election race that is currently unfolding, and changes to the country’s economy over the last few decades, have contributed to increasingly negative perceptions of the United States abroad. For fashion and retail brands whose marketing is rooted in classic notions of Americana, this spells trouble. The image of a nostalgic, “apple pie” America is no longer believable to global consumers.
At the same time that consumers have become disillusioned with overly-polished images of America, new cultural movements have emerged in the country, related to diversity, family norms, body acceptance and female empowerment to name a few. As these norms evolve, we’re beginning to see a bifurcation in the brand of America—one branch rooted in nostalgia, and another rooted in progression. The American dream can still be used as a marketing vehicle, but while brands leaning on traditional notions of the American Dream may struggle to convey believable images, companies that focus on the grittiness and self-determination of the journey—rather than the polished destination at its end—will succeed.
Some brands are taking on the challenge. American heritage brand LL Bean is leveraging the values of craft and quality it has always stood for, while also drawing attention to downsides of American consumer culture, such as an increasing reliance on disposable goods. The brand’s latest advertisements ask “When did we stop valuing things that got better over time?” and presents its long-lasting products as the solution.
At the same time, born-in-the-USA brand Shinola has aligned itself with the sense of struggle in modern American culture, by leveraging its work-in-progress mentality and brand story of rebirth: before it was revived as a watchmaker, Shinola was a long-defunct US shoe polish brand. The company has also invested in manufacturing in Detroit, where the erosion of its once-booming automobile industry has seen the city face tough economic times, entering bankruptcy in 2013.
As we move towards the November elections, a battle is building between candidates trying to protect the same shiny image of America that was popular in the 1950s, and others who are championing a more progressive, realistic version.
So what should brands do? As they try to differentiate themselves in crowded foreign markets, American brands would be wise to pivot away from marketing overly-polished, outdated American symbolism, and instead dig into a more realistic story about what makes America great today. Brands should define their own ideals first and then apply that lens to the brand of America, to find their own unique, contemporary expression of the values that have defined this country.
Ruth Bernstein is the co-founder and chief strategic officer of YARD.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.