Interview with Ben Wright – CEO Atlas Advertising
I met Ben Wright, CEO Atlas Advertising, when my Sales Manager at the Ohio Business Development Coalition selected his company to provide us GIS solution to support our economic development efforts. Since then, Ben and I have had some great conversations. Ben has an amazing depth of knowledge on how people use communication tools to look at places – places they visit, places they are considering buying real estate in, places they are thinking about locating a business in, and places they want to work in. Ben and I have had a number of discussions about a range of topics in economic development. Ben consistently challenges my thinking. That is why I wanted to get Ben’s perspective on Brand America. I knew he would have something interesting to say. I am confident Ben’s review of Brand America will make you think.
When I think about Brand America, the approach I am most qualified to talk about is “What Brand America means to Americans.” Having spent most of my life living Stateside it would be logical (and safer) for me to take that approach, particularly in a professional setting such as the Strengthening Brand America blog. However, that approach would not stretch me, and would likely echo what most Americans already think about their home country.
So, it is with that caveat that I take a different course. After having traveled to 20+ countries, and worked professionally in 7, I would like to talk about what Brand America means to people who are not American natives or current residents.
- Question: How would you articulate Brand America’s promise?
To the outside world, I believe Brand America’s promise is first and foremost that of a superpower, with all of the good and bad that comes with that. As the world’s largest economy (for now), when things are good in America things are good in the world. And, when things are bad in America, things are bad elsewhere. Though the recent recession has shown that America can fall further faster than the rest of the world, it has also proven that a strong American economy is essential to the world’s economic success.
I believe that America still holds the brand position as the world’s land of opportunity, though it is losing its leadership position in this area to the rapidly developing economies of China, India, Brazil, and others. America is still the land of opportunity to find an outstanding university education, to get new ventures funded, and to enjoy racial, religious, and social freedoms.
- Question: What are the challenges that Brand America must address to consistently be seen as “walking the talk”?
As Wikileaks and some recent activities of the US military in Afghanistan and the Middle East have shown, America must balance its position as the land of opportunity with what some perceive to be the empire building bias that the country has shown since World War II. Though some of the stories of new types of relationships US troops have had with Iraqi and Afghan public have been encouraging (see General Petraeus walking the streets of Baghdad without so much as a bulletproof vest), I am not sure they go far enough to dispel the distrust that many countries and their populations have of American leaders, and therefore of America’s promise.
- Question: What are the traits of Brand America that people around the world are likely to find appealing?
It starts and ends with freedom, and as my high school history teacher Doug Burke used to say, this includes “freedom to” and “freedom from.” Freedom to practice religion, start a business, get an education, get a job, have a family, and much of anything else that individuals may aspire to. Freedom from the overt (or covert) persecution by government, from unfair treatment by other ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic groups, and from other challenges that face citizens in other countries.
- Question: What are the different ways Brand America can keep its promise?
I believed that the election of an African-American president with a Muslim-sounding name an incredible message for the American people to send to the rest of the world. Politics aside, I was proud of American voters for voting Barack Obama into office. President Obama has the potential to represent what I believe is the best attribute of Brand America – that even someone not born into material, racial, or geographic privilege can rise to the highest ranks of power, acceptance, and prosperity in this country.
Three years into his Presidency however, I wonder if the potential of this storyline has been realized. Despite the some evidence to the contrary, my fear is that the US presence in the world, and the forces that drive such decisions will continue unchanged, and damage – Brand America long term – no matter who the American president is.
To keep the promise of Brand America, of freedom, American citizens and leaders must begin to embrace that America is a nation that has lost its economic dominance in the world economy, admit that the once uniquely American promise that “the future is what you make it” has been diluted, and admit that the country as a whole feels less of a sense of opportunity than in past decades.
America and its leaders must lose the sense of entitlement that comes with being a superpower and be open to new ideas, and to new influences. As a country we have historically incorporated the best of other cultures, and made them part of our fabric. As a superpower over the past 60 years however, we have overvalued ourselves and our mindset. America must take the lead from enterprising American entrepreneurs, who have learned new ways to trade, new ways to create, and who have forged new relationships with emerging economies. This has meant humility, flexibility, and has meant leaving behind the sense of entitlement that comes from being the world’s superpower.
Americans and our leaders must embrace the rest of the world with wonder and humility, and become a more level playing partner with the emerging superpowers in China, Brazil, and India. To date (according to articles posted on the Brand America blog), 27% percent of the American population has a current passport, and the average American likely believes that China is still populated exclusively by rice farmers, believes that India is simply the land of ashrams, and believes that Brazil is just pretty sand beaches, soccer, and poverty.
- Question: What is the importance of Brand America in the world?
Brand America will only be as important as its promise is relevant. America can continue to be relevant in the world as a beacon of freedom. Sure, capitalism won. But now the debate needs to be not about what political system is better, but about transparency, public participation, and democracy. America can teach the world how to work through the messiness of building democratic systems without soldiers in the streets.
- Question: Who benefits from a strengthened Brand America?
Citizens, companies and governments the world over benefit by the increased foreign direct investment inflows and outflows (America is and must remain first in both) that will come from a stronger, more open America. And, our emerging world partners in China, India, Brazil, and elsewhere can benefit from our expertise, institutions, and knowledge, if we share it.
- Question: Do you believe Brand America has a relevant, competitive and authentic promise?
For the majority of the world, I believe that America has the relevant and authentic promise as the land of opportunity. Because it is the world’s largest market, with one of the most sophisticated higher education systems in the world, this promise is authentic and competitive. However, America’s promise as the more America becomes about protecting an empire, consumerism, Hollywood, or worse, protecting a military-industrial complex, the more Brand America is eroded.