In the Age of Trump, Top Executives Think Brands Need to Take a Stand

America's reputation has suffered on the world stage

Brands have been left wondering whether they should get involved in politics in the Trump era. Brendan Smialowski, AFP/Getty Images
Headshot of A.J. Katz

A recent Pew Research Center study published in June concluded that the United States’ image has suffered under Donald Trump’s presidency. But should Americans be worried about the country’s reputation on the global stage?

Today, a global median of 49 percent hold a favorable view of the U.S, a notable drop from the median of 64 percent recorded across the same countries during the final years of the Obama administration.

Additionally, America’s standing in the world’s eyes has changed significantly in a short period of time. According to the study, in more than half of the 37 nations surveyed, positive views of the U.S. experienced double-digit drops in 2017.

Madison Avenue is a relatively liberal bunch, so when CNN Early Start co-anchor and chief business correspondent Christine Romans asked the Red, White, And…Blue? Advertising Week panel if one person now represents the American brand, it wasn’t shocking to hear one image expert give a rather impassioned response.

“The numbers are frightening and the hit that we have taken globally is about Trump and the underbelly of America where race, homophobia and sexism are things the U.S. continues to struggle with,” said Sunshine Sachs founder and president Ken Sunshine, an admitted Democrat and Hillary Clinton supporter. “It was a quirk what happened in terms of voter turnout in certain states. Anyone who is outraged domestically, they gotta vote! People didn’t turn out, especially millennials. Our brand is destroyed abroad. We need to vote!”

Other panelists took a slightly more measured tone in this instance, expressing the sentiment that while the nation’s image may be struggling, it didn’t start with President Trump.

“I take the numbers against Trump with a bit of a grain of salt,” said McCann global creative chairman Rob Reilly. “We’ve been here before. Our reputation took a hit leading up to World War II and the Vietnam War. This is not the first time that America’s brand has been messy, boisterous, rude and boorish.”

Edelman president and CEO Richard Edelman took a similar stance.

“It’s interesting, before Trump, ‘Brand America’ was actually middle-of-the-road, along with France and Spain. Our brand was in the mid-to-high 50s in terms of international favorability,” said Edelman. “Brand America is not all Donald Trump. We’re not so great to start with. With have a reliance on free markets and we don’t pay as much attention to sustainability.”

Edelman also noted the world sees the country’s dynamic economy as another negative, but did mention some of America’s strongest points, “our tech brands are the best, our entertainment sector and our consumer brands are entrepreneur-led.”

“Trust takes place through understanding,” said Reputation Doctor president Mike Paul. “We need to understand our own history. Brands are people and we don’t focus enough on them. Do we really understand the average Trump voter? We haven’t taken enough time to understand who they are.”

“That said, we have to talk about our values and ethics in our business,” proclaimed Paul, an African-American. “Who will be the Branch Rickey of our industry?” Paul emulated actions of many NFL players this weekend by taking a knee on stage, a move which elicited applause from the audience.

Romans later asked the panelists what an organization should do if they are criticized by Trump, citing the NFL as an example. Each member of the panel expressed the importance of taking a stand. They all praised the NFL and team owners for responding to the president’s comments.

“One person’s apology and empathy becomes another person’s trigger,” said Golin’s president of global corporate communications Scott Farrell. “You need to take a stand these days. Millennials want companies to take a stand. A measured risk needs to be taken, and whichever way you want to go, you can’t sit in the middle anymore.”

“Can brands cater to all Americans in this divided time?” Romans asked. “Are CEOs that adaptable?” The responses varied.

“No, you can’t sell your product to everyone,” Sunshine said. “It’s just so divided right now.”

Edelman was more optimistic: “You can sell to everyone if you have enough diversity in the programs you endorse. For instance, Starbucks has been actively engaged in issues involved urban communities, but they’re also active in getting veterans into the workforce. Brave companies can thread the needle.”

When speaking about what brands could do to reach a larger audience, Edelman brought up an example of an commercial by Gillette and P&G.

“I like that they used the employee in the spot to speak on behalf of the brand,” said Edelman. “I found it deeply effective. 1,000 pictures of employees. Humanize it. Make it relatable to the average person. Take CEOs out of commercials, because trust in them is at low levels.”


@ajkatztv A.J. Katz is the senior editor of Adweek's TVNewser.