The Almighty Dollar

For many of us, America’s new brand champion is President Barack Obama, who we hope will improve our reputation at home and abroad, as well as deal with the economy, national security, education and a whole host of other issues on the verge of crises.

Not to be overly lugubrious about the state of things, but it’s a tall order; rebuilding confidence won’t be easy. The approach to these monumental challenges is not black and white, either: It’s green. That’s because the outcomes will bear down upon the very symbol of our great economic hope and doubt-the almighty dollar.

Brand America needs more work abroad than at home. So while it’s essential to prevent a deepening recession with (temporary) increased government spending, some of the campaign promises must be put on the wait list while full attention is paid to the critical condition of the economy and the brand health of the legal tender that makes it run.

The mighty dollar is an American icon whose value comes in part from the fact it’s one of the most recognized brands in the world. Since WWII, the dollar has fueled growth, allowed countries to do business and enabled globalization on an unprecedented scale while simultaneously playing an unwitting ambassador for America around the world. People have not just loved the dollar; they have loved what it has enabled them to do.

For a brand to be strong (like a national leader), it relies not just on emotional levers, clever messaging and iconography. It also must have a unique functionality. Apply that to the majority of the world’s currencies (and leaders) and they are, by in large, prosaic. They lack presence, style, intrigue, desire and charisma. In contrast, the dollar has a profound global function and unique elegance combined with myth, legend, adventure and mystique.

The U.S. dollar accounts for 68 percent of global currency reserves and the world’s central banks must acquire and hold dollar reserves in corresponding amounts to their currencies in circulation. So for example, if there’s pressure to devalue a particular currency, the more dollars the central bank must hold, thus the dominance of the dollar.

But over the last year, demands have been made from around the world that the greenback’s hegemony must make way for others. An informal survey of an array of media reveals hip-hop impresario Jay Z clutching a handful of euros and supermodel Gisele Bündchen refusing payment in dollars.

On a more serious note, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin has demanded a wider use of national currencies, saying recently, “We all know this well — the whole world, based on the dollar, is experiencing serious problems.” China has piled on too, accusing the U.S. of plundering global wealth by exploiting the dollar’s dominance. And this was all before the financial tsunami roared across the globe.

So while we must acknowledge that the dollar, as a brand, has afforded the world unique opportunities as the international (reserve) currency and made America the most prosperous country on earth, we’re not just facing a financial problem, but a marketing problem as well: We have a battered reputation and line of credit that need redefining and realigning.

The solution is not solely an economic one; there is a clear need for remessaging. Enter Obama. Certainly the stakes are high all around, but as Winston Churchill, certainly no slouch when it came to brand stewardship, once said, “It’s only when you risk losing what you can least afford to lose that you learn to play the game.”

With Obama at the helm, we show to the world our unrivaled ability to renew ourselves and be great — brand revitalization if you like. But can it be the same for the dollar? Clearly, trust is an essential ingredient of all brands and their reputations, including currency.

And while the notion of trust (in the commercial world) has been mainly centered on the transaction itself, that’s really not the case anymore. The notion of trust around the world has dramatically moved from faith in the product, to faith in the people behind the product. The fate of brand Obama and brand greenback are tightly linked.

So with that in mind, will Obama seek to obviate the dollar’s fall from grace and its global role as the world’s reserve currency? Or does he acquiesce (too much) to domestic pressure and persist in bailing out everything from failing banks to credit-crunched Americans standing in growing unemployment lines?

His choice places the nation at a crossroads with far-reaching consequences. As President and Brand America champion-in-chief, Obama needs to calm fears and somehow capitalize on the tension between the great faith we have in the brand DNA of the dollars in our pockets and our great doubt about their future value.

Dean Crutchfield is a N.Y.-based independent brand consultant. He can be reached at deancrutchfield@gmail.com.