I was talking to some marketing guys the other day who told me that we should market America like a brand. We should listen to our customers and make sure we create products the market wants. I understand this, but there are a few problems with this formulation, not least of which is that America is greater than any brand. We are something special and we should not prim and trim ourselves to win ephemeral popularity. But that aside, government, especially the U.S. government has fewer “marketing” options.
Marketers used to talk about the Four Ps: product, price, promotion and place. Executives supposedly control those four things and can deploy them and rearrange them to maximize the attractiveness and sales of their products. As a government “executive” I control none of those things.
Our “product” the U.S. and its policies, is determined by forces way beyond our small ability to add or detract. I don’t have the ability to alter it to suit changing or local conditions and probably would not want to. Our product will not always be popular and sometimes very unpopular. People engaged in actual armed conflict against us or our interests are probably signaling that they are not happy with the “product” on offer, which illustrates the other important difference in the product category. A marketer never has to appeal to everybody while government is stuck with everybody in the marketing universe. The private sector supports many options and people can choose. If you don’t like Coke Zero, don’t drink it. Opting out of government is not so easy.
How about price? We don’t have one. We usually think of price as something that limits or stimulates demand, but its most important function is the information it conveys about relative scarcity and attractiveness of the product and its components. People can easily lie to pollster and often deceive themselves, but when they have to put down the cash, they tend to reveal their true preferences. Price is a better indicator than polling but we just don’t have that information and have to look to proxies and polls, which are always imperfect and usually behind the curve.
Place is determined by policies (above) and geography. Conditions and adversaries often determine where we have to engage. But we do have some flexibility in location. We can choose to emphasize particular things in particular places. Of course, we suffer significant leakage. Information markets are not separate and we rarely have the luxury of being ignored by those not in the target audience. We also have the problem of having actual enemies who refuse to stay in the places we would prefer of them. In fact, a significant amount of overall governmental energy involves fixing some of these guys in place (often followed by neutralizing them, but that is not my department).
Promotion is what is left most for us and that is closest to what we do. Of course, we are not unconstrained even here, but this is the area of greatest freedom of action. Public diplomacy could be included as a subset of national promotion.
So we are essentially left with two of the four Ps (place & promotion) and not even in firm control of either of them. Next time you hear somebody talk about the the American image as something that can be branded or marketed as a product, remind them of how real marketing works and the real marketing constraints. Despite it all, we still manage to produce some successes. It reminds me of the Samuel Johnson saying about a dog walking on two legs. “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”