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.

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.

Presidents, too, have shown an awareness about branding wars. Abraham Lincoln, for example, shifted debate about the Civil War from one of constitutional interpretation into one about the meaning and purpose of the nation.

The Bush administration also hoped to broaden global support for its own war. But according to several marketing executives, it never came forward with a new, more expansive pitch.

"Our branding failed to display any concern for people around the world," says Ms. Riese. "Instead of placing it in the context of everyone wanting to feel safe, it was still about our desire to feel safe."

Some of the problems Bush faced in building unconditional support from key nations, she says, can be credited to his having failed to take that inclusive approach.

The US also lacked the necessary "ear" for cultural sensitivities, some observers claim. One early example was Brand America's first string of commercials produced for television in Arab countries. Some nations refused to run the ads because they were seen as preaching and propaganda.

Cultural nuances may have clouded Bush's message in Europe, as well.

In creating advertisements for British consumers, marketers say they rely less on emotion and more on information. That could help explain why Bush's repeated invocation of Sept. 11 and Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons did not sway a majority of Britons.

"In England, the last thing in the world you can do is tell the consumer how to think and what to do," says Mike Moser, author of "United We Brand." "In the case of war, I think they would have had to make much more of an intellectual pitch."

Also, many marketers say the pitch itself was ambiguous, waffling between regime change and ridding Iraq of WMD. "His strategy was a moving target," says Trout. "In the world of marketing, you pick one idea and that's what you do."

Several marketers say Bush's use of symbolism has worked well. In the US, his invocation of Sept. 11 worked to his advantage, as did his comparison of inaction in Iraq with Europe's appeasement of Adolf Hitler.

But marketers have faulted many of Bush's choices of words.

The term "regime change," according to Trout, was too arcane to resonate with most people, even if they had a basic understanding of what it means. And labeling Hussein "evil" rather than "dangerous" cast the Iraqi leader in moral terms, which generally are less compelling than language appealing to individuals' sense of security.

"In the world of marketing, you always want lots of negatives pinned on your challengers," says Trout, whose firm's federal contract recently expired. "We call it repositioning the competitor."

It was the administration's own spokespeople, rather than its chief competitor, however, who may have most hindered its branding effort.

Bush himself has been praised for his ability to appeal to the emotions of the American people.

"Bush comes across as very sincere on TV and that's helped him enormously," says Laura Ries, head of the marketing consulting firm Ries & Ries.

But the comments and demeanor of top officials Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld contrasted so severely that their combined effect was confusion.

Mr. Moser says the net effect is similar to what might happen if Michael Dell of Dell Computers and Steve Jobs of Apple - two companies he has worked for - were to shape a branding campaign for the same product. "When the personality types differ, the end result is a mixed message," says Moser.

Nevertheless, more Americans seemed to support the war as it increasingly was cast as inevitable. By voicing conviction, Bush was able to overcome the inertia that accompanied the status quo: a containment policy that had outwardly kept Iraq in check for more than a decade.

"When one product or idea is already loaded in memory," says Moser, "it takes time to remap people's perceptions."

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