Selling war: a review of the campaign
Darts at Hussein as an exercise in 'repositioning the competitor'? Marketers weigh in.
When Jack Trout began working for the State Department last fall, most political commentators were arguing that war with Iraq was inevitable. So, too, was an ultimate US victory, they said.Skip to next paragraph
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But Mr. Trout was an advertising man, a longtime creature of Madison Avenue set down beside the Potomac.
His outsider's perspective: Washington was losing what, over the long term, might turn out to be just as significant a conflict: the battle for public opinion both in the United States and abroad.
Trout had been hired to train new diplomats in the art of projecting a positive image of America overseas. His task was part of the Brand America program, launched by the government after Sept. 11. When he arrived, Trout felt the image being projected by the Bush administration was dismal.
"America had one idea attached to its brand. We presented ourselves as the world's last superpower," says Trout. "And that was the world's worst branding idea."
Over the next four months, Trout and his marketing colleagues cringed as President Bush began to argue the case for war against Iraq. In their view, the problem was not policy but presentation. The themes on which the administration focused, the vocabulary it used, and the spokespeople it employed all failed to accomplish its most important task: presenting a clear reason for war that would resonate worldwide.
The need to successfully "brand" the war, say experts, was particularly significant in this case, because of the long buildup before military action would be taken. No aggression or specific act of terrorism prompted action in Iraq, but rather a prolonged failure to play by the rules set forth by the United Nations.
Such marketing campaigns may become standard procedure if the US continues to pursue a policy of preemption.
Reducing the decision on whether and when to go to war to a kind of focus-group function may be patently absurd. But with war in Iraq under way, some observers now cite a growing need for makers of foreign policy to embrace the image issue just as politicians have done for decades - and to hone their skill at selling war.
"What we are really laying out here is that all the world has become a press conference," says Trout. "This is a battle for perception."
The pillar of all branding, say marketers, is communicating a clear message that evokes specific emotions. After Sept. 11, the administration's message was simple and resonant: Punish those behind the attacks, and protect America from future acts of terror.
As early as November 2001, the Bush administration was making an effort to link Iraq to terror. By spring of last year, the administration was aggressively stating that, if necessary, it would unilaterally rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
That determination to go it alone if necessary irrevocably shaped the tone of America's branding of the war.
"Their brand position from the beginning was that this war would be one of American prerogative," says Tracey Riese, president of T.G. Riese & Associates, a brand consultancy in New York.
Then the administration changed its course. Bush's decision last fall to bring his case to the United Nations was an aggressive effort to sell his product to an audience broadened to include leaders of foreign states. From a marketing perspective, the shift was significant and difficult to pull off.
But marketing executives can point to dozens of companies that have significantly reshaped their message to suit a new audience. The key to their success: an aggressive and focused shift in advertising and public relations.
One example: the United Parcel Service, which recently changed its slogan "Moving at the speed of business" - largely an appeal to small firms - to "Think brown," a message meant to reach everyday consumers by leveraging the company's most everyday face: its chocolate-colored trucks and uniforms.