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What is the war's 'brand strategy'?

By LOU MARANO   |   March 13, 2003 at 8:24 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, March 13 (UPI) -- Every war needs a compelling brand proposition, and the Bush administration's default proposition is: "This is about American prerogatives," a Manhattan consultant said.

"The consumer holds the brand, not you," said Tracey Riese, an amateur military historian who is president of brand strategy firm T.G. Riese and Associates. For a war against Iraq, many people are not buying the brand, she said.

"It's not a question of what you call it. Thinking of something snappy to call the War of 1812 would not have rallied people to the cause." The problem for the administration of James Madison was that it was unable to create a sufficiently meaningful purpose for the war in the minds of many Americans.

She advises clients that slogans, logos, and even company names -- although important manifestations of the enterprise -- are not the brand.

The best and most successful "branding" establishes an emotional connection between the "product" and those who will pay for it, she said. In war, citizens must pay the highest possible price. The more directly and passionately the cause can engage them emotionally, the more loyally and ardently they will support it.

Using an example from the business world, Riese said the underlying brand principle at Disney is magic and happiness. Once the brand principle is understood, the organization must be structured to make it true. In Disney's case, this means delivering the happiness that people want to buy.

A government's ability to tap into the underlying emotional commitment of the public often determines the outcome of the war, Riese said. When a brand proposition has been strong and compelling, generally the outcome has been successful.

Riese said that in 1776 American colonists transformed the Revolution from a contest between powers to a struggle for "liberty" by enlightened citizens. The Civil War, which began as a struggle between two economic systems and constitutional interpretations, took on new meaning when Abraham Lincoln reframed it as a battle for the soul of a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

World War I, which Riese said was "the outsized result of a series of petty miscalculations," was "redeemed" when Woodrow Wilson, the leader of a late entrant, transformed it into the "War to End All War."

When national leadership has failed to marshal a sense of larger purpose for the war, its brand position never resonated with the public, Riese said, and the outcomes were more equivocal.

Riese said Korea was "fought to a stalemate." The interviewer said the original war aim -- preventing the communist conquest of South Korea -- was achieved. Surely the Chinese intervention, not the failure to make a compelling brand proposition, is the reason why the entire peninsula was not liberated.

Riese replied that if the United States had found a larger purpose in pushing the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel, it might have been able to confront the Chinese. "People will pay more for what they value more. There was a limit to the price we were prepared to pay in Korea."

Riese said the proposition for the war in Vietnam was so weak that it finally sapped the nation's will to fight.

What about the freedom of the South Vietnamese?

"The brand proposition that the Johnson administration really tried to make had more to do with the containment of communism than with preserving the liberty of the South Vietnamese," she answered.

"A brand has to be true in all its roots and aspects. Many Americans did not perceive the South Vietnamese as being as engaged in the struggle on their own behalf as the United States." (U.S. leaders did not do much to refute this perception, such as publishing South Vietnamese casualty figures.) So the price for Americans seemed to be very high. ... Certainly Americans rallied around the idea of protecting the liberty of Berlin at certain times in our history (1948 and 1961)."

The brand strategy, "This is about American prerogatives," although an "inherently isolating one" can nonetheless be pursued, she said.

"Lots of my clients have brand positions that are not necessarily compelling to a great number of people," Riese told UPI. "And they can make a business decision to operate in that way, or to engage more people around a willingness to pay higher prices for what they deliver.

"You want an assessment of the long-range and the short-rang costs and implications. Brands live a very long time. What are the costs and benefits of an American prerogatives strategy, say, 20 years hence?"

What about the proposition that the United States cannot allow itself to become subject to nuclear blackmail, particularly in the Middle East?

Riese replied that this confuses a rationale for taking action -- which is analogous to business operating strategy -- with branding problems. It does not create a compelling reason to "buy" for most Americans or the global community at large.

"First of all, it is too intellectual an argument," she said. "Most people cannot relate to an abstract outcome such as not succumbing to nuclear blackmail." She believes it is not emotionally powerful.

"The reason for choosing a toothpaste is so your teeth don't fall out, but no toothpaste on the market is 'branded' on that basis. They are branded on the basis of: 'You will be more attractive and confident.' "

Second, it embodies the "lonely marshal" model of the character played by Gary Cooper in the 1952 movie classic "High Noon." The lawman will do for the town what the town will not do for itself.

The basis for such a brand strategy would be to be feared and admired, even if not beloved, Riese said. "That strategy will appeal to a certain number of American 'customers.' "

But she asked if enough such "customers" will back the war with vigor and commitment. "I think that a great number of Americans actually don't fancy that role for themselves in the world and would not feel proud of themselves in that role."

Riese said some people see the "lonely marshal" position as principled and heroic. Others perceive it as arrogant and bullying. She believes that although a relatively small number of Americans will feel proud and affiliated with this model, a much larger number of "other constituents" will feel alienated, resentful, and pushed around.

Riese does not doubt a military victory. "The question is: Once we prevail, what are we going to do, and who are we going to need?"

"High Noon" ends with a fantasy, she said. "Gary Cooper gets to withdraw himself from the world. He gets to leave the town behind -- and we don't.

"He left only because the town was stable and governable, and that's not going to be the case in Iraq."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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