The American Dream

It is only appropriate to revisit the status of the American Dream on Martin Luther King Jr. day. There is some surprisingly good market research on this subject. I want to present top line findings from a couple studies. From my vantage point, how Americans feel about the American Dream is one reasonable look at the authenticity of Brand America’s promise. I am fascinated by the work being done in this area.


Northwestern Mutual’s American Reality Study 2009

This was an online market research study conducted for Northwestern Mutual by the research firm Matthew Greenwald & Associates. The respondents were 1,000 Americans age 25 or older. The results of the study suggest most Americans still believe the American Dream is achievable. Here are some highlights of the study results that I found particularly interesting.

  • Four in five Americans surveyed (82%) agree at least somewhat that people can accomplish anything they put their minds to.
  • Nearly six in ten (58%) at least somewhat agree that the “American Dream” is still attainable for most Americans.
  • Alarmingly, only 27% somewhat to strongly agreed, “The United States is generally headed in the right direction”.
  • The majority of respondents define success as: spending quality time with family (88%), having a good relationship with your spouse or partner (86%), being healthy (81%), and having a good work/life balance (80%).
  • Two-thirds of respondents (65%) agree with the idea that someday they will get to where they want to be in life.

The Summary Report has a lot of data beyond what I have shared and I think it is worth the time to review it in its entirety. My hope is that Northwestern Mutual decides to sponsor an annual execution of the study so we can track changes in perception over time. It would be a great longitudinal data set to help evaluate the on-going authenticity of the Brand America Promise.

American Dream Composite Index

I highlighted this work previously in my Odds and Ends post. This is some fascinating research being conducted by the Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Center’s focus is to study the history of the American Dream, identify emerging trends and predict meaningful shifts on how the definition is changing. The second annual State of the American Dream Survey was conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates (FM3). The respondents were 1,003 adults age 18 or older. Here are some interesting highlights from the Center’s 2011 study results.

Bad News:

  • 65% of Americans believe that America is in decline, only 39% believe America “represents the future”.
  • 52% of respondents named China as the nation the world now looks to in terms of the future.
  • 63% believe the Chinese economy is more powerful than the US economy.

Good News:

  • 63% of Americans say they are “extremely” or “fairly” confident that they have already reached or will reach the American Dream in their lifetime.
  • The four most prominent elements of the American Dream are “a good life for my family”, “opportunity”, “freedom” and “financial security”.
  • 60% of Americans believe immigration is important to keeping the American Dream alive.

I have reached out to the professors in the Center to do an interview. That work is in process, and I hope it will provide some important insights into their work and the future direction of the study.


The underlying premise of the Strengthening Brand America Project is there is room for our nation to improve the authenticity of the Brand America Promise. The hypothesis is that by looking at our nation through the lens of branding we will identify ways to become more authentic and as a result more competitive. Better delivery of the Promise at the local level will, in aggregate, lead to a Strengthened Brand America.

The studies above only reinforce my personal conviction to both the need for change and the opportunity of the Strengthening Brand America Project to help catalyze that change. But, as a grassroots solution, nothing happens without your active involvement. My feeling is that, while acknowledging and respecting the impact of outside constraints, the future for Brand America is whatever we choose to envision it to be. The probability of achieving that vision is a function of enrolling, energizing and enabling Americans to pursue it. I hope you decide to be an ambassador for Strengthening Brand America.

What are Your Thoughts?

Does any of the above market research data strike you as surprising? Do either (or both) of the studies feel like a good way to measure the authenticity of Brand America’s Promise? What role can the economic development profession play in helping improve the realization of the American Dream for even more citizens? How can we get even more colleagues to be part of the Strengthening Brand America Project so we can make even more progress faster?

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10 Comments so far

  1. Ed Roach

    January 17, 2012

    Startling results Ed.

    Brand America has long road to navigate if a little over half of Americans don’t see themselves as the leaders anymore. Outside looking in – I think America needs a vision again. It needs that carrot to reach for. It seems content just to break even these days.

    Maybe the motivator should be someone other than politicians who frankly don’t have the moxy any more. They are too self-centered. Brand America is a great start – the US of A needs more of that.

  2. Ed Burghard

    January 17, 2012

    @Ed – Hopefully sobering results as well. These data should serve as a call to action for the US economic development community to make a positive difference through their local leadership. The Strengthening Brand America Project is an attempt to catalyze that grassroots movement in the economic development profession to make a real shift change in the global competitiveness of America. But it is going to require real engagement. Thank you for all the support you have provided to the Project. It consistently inspires me. I believe Brand America is at a juncture where your company mantra provides guidance – “Lead don’t Follow”. I hope everybody visits your blog and becomes as big a fan as I am –

  3. Linda H. DiMario

    January 18, 2012

    These results just as likely reflect a yearning for things to be easier, less stressful, more certain. That is human nature. But it is from the challenging times that we gain our greatest insight into who and what we are as human beings and a country. It will be interesting to see how we each respond to the days and months ahead. Do we have the heart and character to re-invent ourselves like generations before us after the American Revolution, Civil War, the Great Depression, two World Wars and 9/11? Or are we actually going to be intimidated by China (already showing signs of impending trouble) and surrender to mediocrity? My money is on Americans who still see one of America’s core values as faith in the human sprit to overcome and emerge stronger and hopefully, wiser. And the belief that opportunity is all we really need to take that first step toward the American Dream.

  4. Chuck Lohre

    January 22, 2012


    We work with Xavier promoting their Index. Please contact Scott Hasson about an interview,, 513-961-1174.

    The American Dream Composite Index™ (ADCI) is a unique and robust measure of American sentiment that quantifies the American Dream on a monthly basis. The instrument is the culmination of over three years of research at Xavier University on the American Dream and remains the only statistically validated measure of the American Dream.
    The American Dream Composite Index™ in January 2012 is 63.96, an increase of 1.46% compared the previous month reading of 63.04 in December 2011. For the month of January, the five components of the ADCI performed as follows: the American Dream Economic Index™ was 62.00 (+1.86% from December), the American Dream Well-Being Index™ was 69.48 (+1.74% from December), the American Dream Societal Index™ was 52.84 (+1.77% from December), the American Dream Diversity Index™ was 73.53 (+0.29% from December), and the American Dream Environment Index™ (ADEVI) was 67.94 (-2.33% from December).

    There will be a webinar Friday, 1/27/12 at 1:00 P.M. Go to the site and click the link.

  5. […] “The New American Divide”. As I read it, I thought it was a great follow-up to my post on the American Dream. Recall, in that post I shared an overview of a very interesting market research study conducted by […]

  6. Marta Vallejo Arenaz

    February 22, 2012

    I agree that the brand of the country must be built from a local level. This is the only way to build it strong and solid.

  7. […] The American Dream […]

  8. […] I believe strongly that every community should have an as its written aspiration to “Enable all residents to more fully achieve the American Dream.” […]

  9. […] “The Burghard Group | Strengthening Brand America:”;  […]

  10. […] believe having a valid understanding the American Dream is key to figuring out how to make it easier to achieve.  The fact is the American Dream can be […]

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