Rebranding America: Can the U.S. Sell Itself to International Tourists?

Facing new competition from countries like Brazil and Turkey, the U.S. has launched its first national tourism campaign overseas. Is it working?

Brand USA

BERLIN — Recently, a curious bit of programming popped up on German television, sandwiched between a dating show and the news: a commercial promoting the United States, in the form of Rosanne Cash singing America’s praises under the Brooklyn Bridge.

While ads for American products like iPhones or Coca-Cola are a staple of advertising abroad, rarely is the U.S. itself the product on display. But if there were ever a time when America needed to make a sales pitch for itself abroad, this was it. In Germany, as a result of the NSA spying scandal, trust in the U.S. government has fallen from 76 percent in 2009 to 35 percent today. The trend is in keeping with eroding pro-American sentiment elsewhere in the world.

The “Discover America, Land of Dreams” ad campaign is the product of a joint venture between the U.S. government and tourism industry. The entity behind the campaign is called Brand USA, and it aims to attract international tourists who have been turned off to America as a vacation destination.

“After 9/11, we secured our borders, but made America unwelcoming,” Anne Madison of Brand USA told me. “People abroad saw the U.S. as a ‘been there done that’ country.”

Madison said America’s share of global international travel dipped 30 percent in the first decade of the new century—this despite an otherwise growing global tourist sector. The ramifications for the economy were clear. “International tourism is the number one services export that we have. And yet, until this campaign, we were the only developed country that lacked a national tourism campaign.”

International tourists to the U.S. directly support about one million jobs, and the tourism industry generates almost 3 percent of U.S. GDP. The country’s nearly 70 million international tourists spent $166 billion in the U.S. in 2012, and an estimated $179 billion in 2013. The Obama administration, which launched Brand USA in 2010, wants the U.S. to attract 100 million international tourists and $250 billion of their cash annually by 2021.

Brand USA functions as a public-private partnership—in 2013, 339 travel-industry partners contributed $139 million in services and cash; it also took in $100 million through a $14 fee levied by the Department of Homeland Security on visitors from countries that qualify for visa-free travel to the U.S. The television ads debuted in 2012 in Canada, Japan, and the U.K.—since those countries’ tourists have traditionally spent the most money on trips to the U.S— and the campaign also features videos of native-language narrators giving tours of various American locations deemed of interest to respective audiences: a Chinese woman recommends outlet malls in California, a German man kayaks around Virginia Beach, a French woman tours New Orleans.

Cash’s catchy song, “Land of Dreams,” is the campaign’s centerpiece. The commercial, directed by Dave Meyers, of Katy Perry’s “Firework” fame, features lush images of Cash singing with Brazilian-American artist Bebel Gilberto and sitar players. There are frequent cutaways to images of Americana, including a blonde woman tip-toeing through the Everglades, two smiling Muslim women strutting down a Manhattan street, a man of Asian descent riding a Harley-Davidson through a redwood forest, friends enjoying dinner in Napa Valley, a bi-racial couple celebrating their wedding in New Orleans, and a gay couple embracing on a trolley in San Francisco.

So, is the campaign working? Madison says yes.

Intent to travel to the U.S.—an industry term meaning the likelihood of a person booking a trip within the next few months—has risen by 22 percent in Canada, 12 percent in the U.K., and 14 percent in Japan since 2012, Madison said. (Data for other countries targeted by the campaign is expected in early 2014.) Overall, international visits to the U.S. have rebounded since their dramatic fall after the 9/11 attacks and dip in 2009 during the height of the global economic crisis; indeed, in 2013, more international tourists visited the U.S. than ever before.

The next phase of the project is to train U.S. border guards to be nicer to visitors, and to improve the visa application experience at U.S. embassies around the world. “In the coming year, we are going to be putting more and more energy into making the U.S. more welcoming,” Madison explained.

But John Kester of the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization suggested that America’s image problem has more to do with negative news—the NSA spying scandal, for instance—than brusque border agents. “People are influenced by the news, but you can try to counterbalance some of that,” Kester told me. “The problem with the U.S. was that it was lacking an image overall—so negative news has tended to define the image.”

Kester noted that America’s visitor numbers—while strong today—could be even higher were it not for the country’s ‘lost decade.’ But he applauded the campaign, and cited South Africa as an example of another country that solved a similar image problem stemming from apartheid and a high crime rate. “South Africa was primarily defined by negative news until the country decided to make soccer center stage,” he said, referring to the country’s winning bid to host the 2010 World Cup games.

Though the U.S. boasts strong regional brands—“I Love New York” comes to mind—Kester agreed that the country needed to create a national brand strategy in the face of competition from new markets.

“Now we have these new locations that serve as a bridge between Asia and Europe, and many other countries—think of Dubai, Istanbul,” Kester said. “They are underpinned by the building of strong airlines like Turkish Airlines, Emirates, Qatar Airways. Nowadays, they are in a central position—though, in the past, they were more on the fringe.”

It’s hard to quantify the extent to which newly popular locations like Turkey or the United Arab Emirates have cut into visits to the U.S. But experts say that Turkey’s emergence as a major tourist destination offering a combination of urban and beach tourism (it is now the world’s sixth-most-visited country, while the U.S. is in second place behind France) is serving as a model for other countries like Brazil, which benefits from strong positive brand awareness despite ranking only 44th on the list of the world’s most-visited countries.

A recent study appears to corroborate this. Niklas Schaffmeister of the marketing consulting firm GlobeOne, in Cologne, Germany, looked at Germans’ views of BRIC nations and found that Brazil ranks much higher as a potential vacation destination than previously thought. This suggests that Brazil could one day vie with the U.S. and Mexico for Europeans’ tourist dollars.

“We found that 33 percent of Germans had a favorable view of Brazil as a tourism destination,” Schaffmeister said. “The perception of Brazil–rightly or wrongly—is that the country is a spirited, happy place that runs well and will grow into a strong future tourism destination.”

Just like South Africa, Brazil is using soccer to improve its international reputation by hosting the World Cup in 2014. And the effort appears to be working—especially among Germans who spend about $84 billion a year on foreign trips, second only to the Chinese ($102 billion).

But also like South Africa, Brazil struggles with corruption, poor infrastructure, high levels of crime, and one of the world’s worst rates of air pollution. And then there are policies that make little sense, like requiring U.S. citizens to apply for a tourist visa (many European Union passport holders can travel there without a visa). These drawbacks are keeping Brazil’s pristine beaches and soaring landscapes from seriously competing with U.S. tourism attractions—for now.

Back in the United States, critics of Brand USA say the Discover America push is unfair because it levies a tax on international visitors for the very ad campaign meant to attract them. They also take issue with government involvement in the funding of tourism promotion abroad, and maintain that the travel industry could fund the program on its own.

But country-branding expert Tom Buncle notes that government funding for tourism promotion is standard practice. He points out that Germany, which in a recent BBC poll ranked as “the most popular country in the world,” spends more than $150 million a year promoting its image abroad, and a further $350 million on its international television and radio networks. On the whole, Buncle likes the Discover America campaign, which he said serves as an “umbrella that for the first time ties together the U.S.’s image.”

“When I first heard about it, I thought, ‘How do you brand a country as diverse as the States?’” Buncle told me. “It’s not like with consumer brands, like Coke and Dr. Pepper—which don’t want to be seen together. Washington state and Florida want to be seen side by side. This campaign manages to do this well.”

While Buncle says the campaign should help attract visitors who are favorably inclined toward the U.S., he’s doubtful that it will improve America’s image in the Middle East. And this could be a weakness in the campaign, since the Middle East has experienced one of the world’s highest rates of outbound tourism growth over the past 20 years. Figuring out how to pitch the U.S. to travelers in wealthy Gulf states—who are increasingly visiting countries like Austria, France, Germany, and Switzerland for leisure and medical treatment—could become more of a priority once in-bound visitors from Europe and Japan reach saturation.

“Especially in places like the Middle East, where there’s this deep psychological conflict between the delights of an American lifestyle and the politics of the U.S., you can't change all the negative perceptions with a marketing campaign,” Buncle explained. “But you can speak to those who are well-disposed to the U.S.”

But John Kester of the UN’s tourism agency says the organization has found that, despite tensions between the U.S. and Middle Eastern countries, interest in visiting America is strong.

“It’s a love-hate relationship, and yet many people would want to travel to the U.S., despite the hassles,” Kester noted. "The Middle East isn’t a large source market right now, but that could certainly change in the future.”

An official at the U.S. International Trade Administration told me that the government is discussing ways to market the U.S. as a high-end medical tourism destination to potential visitors from Gulf states. But the official, who asked to remain anonymous, also noted that the agency is battling to maintain the funding it already has—and would need more cash before it could expand its tourism promotion in the Middle East and elsewhere.

“Despite the fact that we’ve had a surplus in tourism exports every year since 1989, people in Washington just don’t take travel and tourism seriously,” the official told me. “International tourism is one of the few industries in this country that has an export trade surplus. But we don’t get any respect. We’re like Rodney Dangerfield.”

“That being said, this administration is giving us some attention,” the official added. “They’re finally looking at tourism as an economic driver, a creator of jobs.”