Branding America just got a bit harder.
A government shutdown is not the ideal way to convey U.S. values and interests overseas. Closing the federal government—especially our national parks, America's signature attractions—undercuts the basic narrative that America is an open society, a tolerant nation, and a good partner in the world.
Now some might argue that a government shutdown, because it is a nonviolent act, reinforces U.S. values such as diversity of opinion, checks and balances, governing by a majority, and the right of individuals to disagree.
I don't buy it. In the branding business, whether you are a country or a corporation, you have to be visible and active to maintain your image and to advance, economically and politically.
That's because citizens are consumers—and citizen-consumers, increasingly, exercise power in today's economy.
Congress might study corporate America for a few lessons.
Take the recent news that Apple has topped Coca-Cola as the world's best-known brand. Apple just ended Coca-Cola's 13-year run at the top of a highly regarded annual list put out by Interbrand, a corporate identity and brand consulting company owned by the Omnicom Group, that has been compiling what it calls the Best Global Brands report since 2000. Others on the "top 10" list include Google, IBM, Microsoft, Samsung, and Intel.
Apple ranked high this year because its products are well liked, its services are considered good, and people have come to value the company as practically a cultural icon of America—particularly with young people. Those characteristics are good for a company and good for a country.
But it is hard to deliver high-quality services and a good experience if you are not open for business—whether it is the National Zoo or the Grand Canyon. Both convey American values.
Citizens know good brands. And even when citizens express disdain for some U.S. policies, they often simultaneously praise our people, our values, and our brands, not to mention our colleges and universities. America consistently gets high marks in the world for its technology, culture, and power.
According to polling by the Pew Research Center, people in countries across the globe continue to embrace American culture, technology, and science, as well as the way we do business. And they like our innovation and our products.
Over five years, between 2007 and 2012, the number of people who said they admire American technological advances grew, as did support for American ideas and customs spreading to other countries—although the notion of a positive value placed on importing American culture is still a minority viewpoint in the world. And, yes, popularity varies with regions. (We still remain more popular in places like Europe than in the Middle East.)
A government shutdown is unlikely to make us a more popular place to do business or to borrow ideas from. It certain won't boost our tourism numbers.
A government shutdown could have negative consequences for both our image and our economy. Indeed, it could lead to a perception that we are an economy that is globally falling, not rising.
Recent Pew findings suggest that other nations like China are rising in the perception game. According to public opinion, China's economic power is on the rise, and many think it will eventually supplant the United States as the world's dominant superpower. Overall, the U.S. has enjoyed a stronger global image than China—before this shutdown. Across the nations surveyed, a median of 63 percent expressed a favorable opinion of the U.S., compared with 50 percent for China, but could that change?
One key constituency to watch over the next few months are young people and how they respond to this week's events. My own informal survey—asking my own high school and college-aged children—is that they are pretty turned off by Washington, and pretty turned on by their iPhones.
We all know about the "youth bulge" in the world today—there are more people under 25, many of whom are using technology and learning about the world through technology. (People under the age of 25 constitute 43 percent of the world's population. There are one billion 12- to 18-year-olds.)
Companies have figured out how to market to youth. Nations could learn a few things from corporate America about how to shape the ideas of young citizens across cultures.
Interestingly, that Pew study found that young people in both the U.S. and China express more positive attitudes about the other, a finding that is a part of a broad pattern in many countries where people under the age of 30 tend to rate other countries more favorably than other age groups do.
Mobile technology and digital diplomacy are excellent ways to educate people around the world. There are currently over six billion active cell phones in the world, and there will potentially be as many cell phones in use next year as people on the planet. Many of those users are young people. The newly released iPhone 5S sold a record nine million units during its first weekend, many of them to people under 30. And much of Apple's boost can probably be attributed to its growing presence in, guess where? China, where iPhones and other Apple devices are increasingly popular.
At the end of the day, the only possible positive impact of a shutdown on public perceptions of the U.S. could be that it proves that individuals triumph over systems. Some might say that if the majority of the House prevailed that might mean, in this case, more representative democracy—something we Americans often preach and a value that citizens abroad say they like about us. Not likely.
Public diplomacy should never be equated with corporate PR. One is a public good; the other is a bottom-line sell. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from both about the importance of being understood in a crowded global market. Apple, as a company and a symbol, is, well, as American as apple pie.
I'd vote for re-hanging a sign soon: "America: Open for Business."
Tara D. Sonenshine is former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. She is currently a Distinguished Fellow at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.