As North Carolina continues to draw national attention for HB2, Charlotte can still cultivate a progressive image that stands independently of the state’s, according to a national branding expert.
“I think North Carolina has...perhaps a Southern image, but Charlotte within it has, in many ways, a stronger image than the state itself,” says David Reibstein, professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
He was in Charlotte on Wednesday to speak to the Wharton Charlotte Alumni Club about his national branding project, unveiled in January at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Done in partnership with U.S. News and World Report, BAV Consulting and Wharton, the project ranks 60 countries on such factors as education, tourism, entrepreneurship, environment and raising families. (Germany topped the list, while the United States came in fourth.)
Cities and states going through image challenges can turn things around by looking at “what the behavior is and what the actual actions are,” Reibstein says.
In an interview with the Observer, he shared his ideas on branding, how his global data influenced the remarks President Obama made in Charlotte while campaigning for Hillary Clinton, and why critics of Donald Trump still wind up helping the candidate by repeating his catchy campaign slogan. Comments have been edited:
Q: How can nations develop brands?
A: One of those things that companies have as an asset that doesn't show up on their books is a brand. As you invest in your brand, you get more customers. People have perceptions about countries, too, and those countries, in and of themselves, are brands. How does that translate for a country economically, or does it? I took these measures, and I tried correlating it with gross domestic product, and components of GDP, like tourism, foreign trade, and foreign direct investment.
Q: How do these ideas transfer to leadership, politics and the U.S. presidential campaign?
A: I have data on perceptions of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and how that correlates with perceptions of our country. Trump is viewed as a leader. Clinton, by both Democrats and Republicans, is viewed as very intelligent. The perception of the United States is affected by who will be the next leader. There’s a big mystery outside the U.S. about Trump. And I think it will clearly change the perception of the U.S. if Trump is elected. I think the fact that he’s the nominee of a major party has had some impact on Brand U.S.
Q: What do you think of both branding slogans, “Make America Great Again” and “I’m with Her”?
A: Trump has had a great deal of success on having a message and repeating it and repeating it, and wearing that red hat. It’s a theme that people could rally around. It’s a positive theme. Hillary’s theme is less visible. And it actually, if you ask me what’s her theme, she’s got policy here and policy here and policy here, but I don’t think she has a rallying cry theme. She wants to say, America is already great, and Obama (in remarks in Charlotte on July 5) refers to my data in the Best Countries report, saying “look at how we’re rated.” It almost reinforces what Trump is saying. It still stays with his theme of making America great. I think he’s been more effective with coming up with a slogan.
Q: Let’s talk about Charlotte’s and North Carolina’s image with House Bill 2, which has drawn national attention and resulted in the loss of business in the state. (HB2 limits municipalities’ ability to pass anti-discrimination ordinances protecting LGBT individuals, and requires transgender people in government-run facilities to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate.) What are some of the branding issues associated with this?
A: It’s been national news everywhere. I’m sure for some people, the reaction has been, “Finally. A state that’s going to stand up for principles,” whereas others are going to view the state as not as open, not as progressive.
Q: Charlotte tourism and business leaders launched an “Always Welcome” inclusion campaign on billboards, emphasizing how the city embraces diversity. Is that enough?
A: I think part of the way you shape your brand is not just what you say in advertising, or a billboard that you might put up. But I think it’s also by what the behavior is and what the actual actions are. And so I think that how open the city is, how it has invested in business development, all will have some impact on the image of Charlotte as a city.
The upcoming elections will also be closely watched, and will have some influence on the perception of the state. And yet most people will not continue to linger on with a focus on what happened in the state of North Carolina, unless it comes down to it being the 50th state determining the overall election.