WILLIAMSBURG, Virginia — Advertising executive Keith Reinhard has a message for U.S. companies: America's tarnished image may soon hurt your bottom lines.
Reinhard says growing anti-American sentiments and their impact on international sales aren't subjects corporations like to discuss publicly. But he says more executives are paying attention to warnings about shifting attitudes abroad.
"Sooner or later, anti-Americanism has got to be bad for business," said Reinhard, president of Business for Diplomatic Action and chairman of the New York ad agency DDB Worldwide. "In marketing, we know that changes in behavior inevitably follow changes in attitude."
Speaking Thursday at the Virginia Conference on World Trade, Reinhard encouraged businesses to practice diplomacy overseas and to take other actions, such as recruiting more foreign interns, to help change the way people view Americans.
Reinhard says the rising resentment has its roots in U.S. foreign policy, globalization's effects, pervasiveness of American popular culture and the "collective personality" of Americans.
"Americans are widely viewed as arrogant, loud, ignorant of other cultures and totally self-absorbed," he said in an interview earlier this week. "We think that's an attitude and behavior that can be changed."
Reinhard's camp points to several surveys that suggest a cooling toward America and its brands in many parts of the world.
In a recent poll of college-educated internationals ages 35 to 64, for instance, the public relations firm Edelman found that 32 percent of Europeans surveyed were less likely to buy U.S. products because of American culture. More than 40 percent of those polled in Canada, Europe and Brazil were less likely to purchase American products because of U.S. policies, Edelman said.
Not everyone is convinced there's a pressing issue. First, it's hard to quantify anti-Americanism's financial effect when few companies are talking about it. (Tourism is one exception.) And while well-known consumer brands like Marlboro and McDonald's might see boycotts, other U.S. companies say their lesser-known names simply aren't targets.
"We're not on every street corner, and we're not selling to the retail market," said Ed Ramsey, vice president of lumber producer Taylor-Ramsey Corp. in Lynchburg. "So we're a little less conspicuous."
Nevertheless, Taylor-Ramsey provides cultural training to employees who travel overseas, warning them to be cautious of their surroundings and in their speech.
The company's workers try to meet face-to-face in their customers' territory. And at social gatherings, they are encouraged to act humbly, politely listening when their clients express their opinions about Americans and their government.
"You have one mouth and two ears; use them proportionately," he said.
That doesn't mean his rivals haven't bungled overseas, particularly in Asian countries where he has found customers don't appreciate some U.S. firms' my-way-or-the-highway approach.
"A lot of our competitors say, 'Well, this is the way we do it in America,'" he said. "That tends to be the end of their orders, and then (the customers) look for an alternative source of supplies.
Still, views about America are clearly changing, several executives said.
On his frequent travels, Ted H. Williams, export manager for farming equipment maker Amadas Industries Inc., said customers in some countries pepper him more frequently with questions about U.S. policies.
They ask, "Why are you doing this? Why is your government doing this?"
Williams said his Suffolk company, like Taylor-Ramsey, hasn't suffered financially. That's mainly because its small size and niche position in peanut-harvesting equipment have helped him develop close relationships with his customers, he said.
But Paul Grossman, international trade director of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, says what happens to big companies could trickle down to small and mid-sized firms. Those companies may never know what hit them; they'll just know they didn't get the contract, he said.
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