Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
By Al Lewis, The Denver Post Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 25– If you were Muslim, what would you drink: Coca-Cola or Mecca-Cola?
French entrepreneur Tawfik Mathlouthi founded Mecca-Cola in 2002 to cash in on growing anti-American sentiment in France and the Islamic world. Mecca-Cola’s bottle looks a lot like The Real Thing. And the soft drink is now selling in more than 50 countries.
“No more drinking stupid, drink with commitment!” goes the jingle.
Mecca-Cola is a well-aimed shot at an icon of American capitalism. And it won’t be the last, according to a group of top advertising and PR executives who say American brands are increasingly under fire in the war against terrorism.
Whether it’s a German restaurant that won’t take American Express or a bomb blast in a McDonald’s parking lot in Istanbul, the warning signs are everywhere, said Keith Reinhard, chairman of DDB Worldwide, one of the world’s largest advertising firms.
“If we saw these warning signs on a company brand that we represented, we’d have a quick series of meetings before the agency got fired,” Reinhard said in a telephone interview Monday.
Reinhard has a keen grasp of the mass psyche. His firm once produced jingles, such as McDonald’s “You Deserve a Break Today” and State Farm’s “Like a Good Neighbor.” Now Reinhard has a new message: Rising anti-Americanism is eroding U.S. brands.
In January, he founded a nonprofit group to combat this trend, Business for Diplomatic Action. He’s now recruiting Fortune 500 executives to BDA — although he says many of them would just as soon not be named since even acknowledging the issue can be politically sensitive.
Anti-Americanism is older than “The Ugly American,” a 1958 best-seller about American blunders abroad. But this anger has hit a zenith during our murky war on terror.
Photos of tortured Iraqi prisoners are only a catalyst. Our Cold War victory made us the lone superpower, and nobody roots for Goliath. Add to that our perceived disregard for the environment, our corporate corruption, the ubiquity of American culture, globalism and a widely chided Texas cowboy named George Bush — and foreigners just might start curbing their Starbucks habit.
Reinhard comes armed with research by pollster Roper and marketing research consultant NOP World showing declines in U.S. brands since the war in Iraq.
Companies cited in the research — such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nike, Ford — say their international sales are just fine, thank you very much. But Reinhard’s group says the sharper edges of the trend are just beginning to manifest.
“CEOs are in denial,” said Cari Eggspuehler, executive director of BDA. “Changes in attitudes eventually change behavior.”
Maybe. But, as any Marlboro man will tell you, habits die hard.
“People are willing to pay a lot of lip service, but people don’t like to change behavior,” said Michael Rice of The Sterling-Rice Group, an international brand- development firm in Boulder. He often travels and confirms that Europeans hate U.S. influences and loyally use U.S. products anyway.
Other nations have had similar PR problems in the past. But did Hirohito’s bombing of Pearl Harbor stop American consumers from turning Japanese? Did Mussolini dull our taste for Italian leather shoes? Did Hitler ruin it for Volkswagen?
The answer is that businesses in the former Axis nations had to overcome harsh sentiments, said Russell Berman, a Stanford professor and author of “Anti- Americanism in Europe: A Cultural Product.” In the end, though, quality, pricing and clever advertising will prevail. In the 1960s, advertisers positioned the Volkswagen “Bug” as a tool of nonconformity, and the VW microbus became the very symbol of hippie peace.
Today, the United States is much like its largest company, Wal-Mart. Everyone has a complaint about Wal-Mart. Everyone shops there anyway. Love it or not, it’s the world’s biggest company.
“Even if that is a good metaphor,” Reinhard says, “why wouldn’t we want to win back friends that we lost?”
Al Lewis’ column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at 303-820-1967 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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