The Bush administration's foreign policy may be
costing U.S. corporations business overseas, according to a new survey of 8,000
international consumers released this week by the Seattle-based Global
Market Insite (GMI) Inc.
Brands closely identified with the U.S., such as Marlboro cigarettes, America
Online (AOL), McDonald's, American Airlines, and Exxon-Mobil, are particularly
at risk. GMI, an independent market research company, conducted the survey in
eight countries Dec. 10-12 with consumers over the Internet.
One-third of all consumers in Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia,
and the United Kingdom said that U.S. foreign policy, particularly the "war
on terror" and the occupation of Iraq, constituted their strongest impression
of the United States.
Twenty percent of respondents in Europe and Canada said they consciously avoided
buying U.S. products as a protest against those policies. That finding was consistent
with a similar poll carried out by GMI three weeks after Bush's November election
"Unfortunately, current American foreign policy is viewed by international
consumers as a significant negative, when it used to be a positive," according
to Dr. Mitchell Eggers, GMI's chief operating officer and chief pollster.
"Some American brands become closely connected to their country of origin
and are quintessentially American," he added. "They represent the
American lifestyle, innovation, power, leadership, and foreign policy."
Whether the U.S. foreign policy under Bush is affecting the sales of U.S.
corporations overseas is being hotly debated by advertising and public relations
firms, as well as the companies themselves. Last month, Kevin Roberts, chief
executive of advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi, told the Financial
Times that he believed consumers in Europe and Asia are becoming increasingly
resistant to having "brand America rammed down their throats."
Simon Anholt, author of Brand
America, has also predicted a consumer backlash against U.S. foreign
policy. He recently told the British trade magazine Marketing Week that
four more years of Bush's foreign policy could have grave consequences for U.S.
companies' international market share.
"There have already been casual protest brands, such as Mecca Cola, which
are primarily political," he told the weekly. "But things are now
moving beyond that. For instances, German restaurants are beginning to refuse
American Express cards. This is new territory."
Other analysts have been skeptical, arguing that recent declines in sales in
France and Germany by McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Marlboro were due far more
to other factors, including flagging economies in both countries or a simple
failure by companies to adapt rapidly enough to consumer tastes.
But the new survey, as well as the one taken by GMI last month, suggests that
the unpopularity of U.S. foreign policy may indeed be playing a role, at least
for companies that are either strongly identified with the United States or
are perceived as having similar characteristics as its foreign policy.
"American companies are accused of aggressiveness and arrogance because
they insist on imposing the American way of doing things on their international
markets; they are inflexible," according to Allyson Stewart-Allen, co-author
With Americans, a business bestseller published by Prentice Hall in
She argued that the more U.S. companies distance themselves from their U.S.
identity, the better they will survive in the international marketplace. "U.S.
companies abroad now need to focus on adding yet more value and repositioning
their brands to consumers in the intensely competitive global village in which
"The more aligned they are with those customers – regardless of their U.S.-created
DNA – they'll win." American companies need to focus on alignment with international
markets and embrace their market differences and idiosyncrasies.
The survey cited 40 U.S.-based companies and asked consumers who said they were
trying to avoid buying U.S. brands to rate each one of them by how closely they
were identified with being "American," and whether or not they deliberately
avoided buying their products.
The survey then plotted each company's position on a quadrant divided into "safe"
and "insulated" squares at the bottom and "at risk" and
"problem squares" at the top.
Those deemed "safe" or "insulated" generally were either
not seen as particularly "American" (Visa, Kodak, Kleenex, or Gillette),
or they apparently lacked real competition (Microsoft, Heinz, and Disney).
Visa was the single best performer: only 17 percent of consumers identified
as intending to avoid U.S. brands thought that it was "extremely American,"
and only 15 percent said they intended to boycott it. Fifty-four percent said
they had used Visa at least once in the previous month.
"Problem" companies, on the other hand, included those that more
than a third of boycotting consumers said they intended to avoid, and more than
40 percent of consumers said they considered to be "extremely American."
On that scale, Marlboro was found to be the most problematic. Sixty percent
of respondents said they avoided the product, while two-thirds said they considered
it to be "extremely American." Only McDonald's had a higher "American"
score, at 73 percent, but only 42 percent of respondents said they avoided the
In contrast to Visa's performance, 48 percent of boycotting consumers said
they would definitely avoid using American Express; 64 percent said they thought
the company was "extremely American," and only two percent reported
using it during the previous month.
Other problem brands included Exxon-Mobil, AOL, American, Chevron Texaco, United
Airlines, Budweiser, Chrysler, Barbie Doll, Starbucks, and General Motors.
The latest poll found that more than two-thirds of European and Canadian consumers
have had a negative change in their view of the United States as a result of
U.S. foreign policy over the last three years. Nearly half believed that the
war in Iraq was motivated by a desire to control oil supplies, while only 15
percent believed it was related to terrorism.
Nearly two-thirds of European and Canadian consumers also said they believed
U.S. foreign policy is guided primarily by self-interest and empire-building,
while only 17 percent believed that the defense of freedom and democracy is
its guiding principle.
Half of the entire sample said they distrusted U.S. companies, at least in
part because of U.S. foreign policy. Seventy-nine percent said they distrusted
the U.S. government for the same reason, while 39 percent said they distrusted
the American public.
Fully 87 percent of German, 84 percent of French, and 71 percent of British
respondents had negative feelings toward Bush himself. Moreover, British, French,
and German consumers all felt that the cultural values of the other two countries
were closer to their own than "American values."