It’s hard to imagine that a brand as strong as Netflix once had a P.R. nightmare on its hands. In 2011 the company made a big corporate blunder. Officials ignored customer preferences and proposed to split their DVD service and streaming service into two businesses. The result: a 40 percent increase in price and an exodus of 800,000 subscribers. But in time, Netflix admitted its mistakes and atoned for the hit to its brand. Subscribership grew again, sustaining new heights to this day.
Nowadays, of course, you don’t need a Netflix subscription to watch some stranger things, particularly when it comes to our politics. Recently, the American experiment in democracy took a troubling turn never before seen: the intentional dilution of the “American” brand by a sitting U.S. president.
The idea of “America” is global, even if her borders are national. Ronald Reagan, on the eve of his election as president, eloquently proclaimed to the world that America was the “shining city on a hill,” the latest iteration of President Lincoln’s words a century earlier, describing America as the “last best hope of earth.” Unknown senatorial candidate Barack Obama rose to prominence by lyrically echoing this same idea of America as a “magical place” that welcomed his story with open arms. The imagery extended by these men, revered at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and in between, too, had the common thread of portraying to the world that America’s brand is open to all, despite its land being closed to most.
That imagery is intentional. Every modern president has understood that duality of American strength as tangible “hard” power and amorphous “soft” power. The tangible strength comprises the things we can see and feel: our goods and services, monies and weapons. The soft power invokes the ideals for which we purport to stand. Human rights and equal rights, democracy and open markets. The benefits of hard power and soft power are real. Anyone who carries U.S. currency, for example, gains the implicit and global competitive advantage of the strong and safe U.S. Treasury bond market, which hedges against crisis because the world believes America alone has the combination of hard power products and soft power branding to be the most reliable investment on earth.
Two weeks ago, with his “shithole” comment regarding Haiti and African countries, President Donald Trump effectively closed that vision of America to the world. In an attempt to bifurcate the customers of American exceptionalism into “shithole” dwellers and “non shithole” dwellers, President Trump is figuratively separating the DVD subscribers from the streaming subscribers. And he is placing a big bet that his customers won’t care. What our brander-in-chief fails to understand, or perhaps more insidiously, fully understands, is that even if a brand’s product (citizenship and all that comes with it) remains inaccessible to most, the brand’s idea must remain open to its entire market. Otherwise, there is a risk of an exodus by all.
If we stay on this path, we have to be ready to compete on the product of America alone without our brand to back it up — which is possible. But consider what we lose when our American brand is diluted or lost: The glitter of our universities, our businesses, our culture and communities as a beacon to the entire world; all of that fades away. And soon enough, we’re another country among 195 shouting without a microphone in the noisy arena that “We’re No. 1!”
On Jan. 20, 2009, my 94 year old grandmother watched, from her home in India, Barack Obama take the presidential oath of office. She marched with Gandhi and participated in the nonviolent “Satyagraha” movement for Indian independence. But 61 years later, she saw the election of Barack Obama not just as an election of a U.S. president, but as a lineage traced directly back to and derived from Gandhi’s legacy in India. I imagine a similar story is repeated for families and cultures in South Africa and South Sudan and South Korea. And in Haiti, El Salvador and East Africa. This is the identity of the American brand; its true genius being that each citizen of the world basks in the light of the shining city on the hill, even if they may never visit that magical place. The last best hope on earth, where in every corner, no matter your situation, at least the idea of “America” is still accessible to you.
Oh, and remember, Netflix still kept “House of Cards,” but ditched Frank Underwood.
Amol Purohit is an intellectual property attorney; his email is email@example.com.