Is the world falling out of love with US brands?
Joseph Nye, the Harvard academic who coined the phrase "soft power" to describe indirect US influence in the world, likes to recall the dining deliberations of a family in India to explain what he means.
Asked what attracts them to McDonald's, the middle-class parent she cites suggest something more seductive than a Chicken Maharaja Mac and fries cooked in vegetable fat. They say they want to take the children out "for a slice of America".
When burgers can stir such emotional aspirations, it is no accident that 64 of the most valuable 100 global brands, as measured by Interbrand, are owned by US companies. For more than half a century, the US and its products have stood for progress, glamour and freedom in the minds of consumers around the world.
But Mr Nye sees a growing challenge for US companies in the attitudes of people such as John McInally, a Scottish management consultant living in Brussels, whose boycott of US products goes as far as asking that his four-year-old son not be given Coca-Cola at birthday parties.
"I used to have a lot of respect for America; now there is mostly fear," says Mr McInally. "You feel pretty powerless, but the one thing you can do is stop buying American products."
There is little doubt that there are more Mr McInallys in the world today than there were before Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay became household names. Poll after poll has shown that allegations of human rights abuses and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have tarnished the international reputation of the US.
But geopolitics is easily left behind when shoppers get to the till. Those activists who express their anger at the US through conscious boycotts of its companies remain a small minority.
The bigger question worrying the business world is whether the opinion poll data point to a more subtle tarnishing of US brands in the minds of millions of ordinary consumers. If the American dream played such an important role in the growth of iconic US brands, what happens if significant numbers of consumers begin to think of the US as a bit of a nightmare?
Mr Nye, a former dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and assistant secretary of defence in the Clinton administration, is one of many who are certain of the connection.
"US brands have benefited from a sense that it is fashionable, chic and modern to be American," he says. "The other side of that coin is when US policies become unpopular, there is a cost."
This kind of unconscious brand association is the lifeblood of the marketing industry, and those taking the threat most seriously tend to reside on Madison Avenue, home of New York advertising.
Keith Reinhard, chairman of DDB Worldwide, an agency that counts McDonald's and Budweiser as clients, is leading Business for Diplomatic Action, a coalition of advertising executives and public relations consultants who want to fix brand America's problem.
"That slice [of America] no longer looks so attractive," says Mr Reinhard. "Foreigners are transferring anger at the US government to anger at the US and anger at US business."
Others question whether politics is affecting consumer behaviour. Why, they ask, are more companies not reporting it? Could it be the era of one-size-fits-all global brands, rather than US dominance of consumer markets, that is coming to an end?
Earl Taylor, chief marketing officer of the Marketing Science Institute, a US think-tank, is typical of the sceptics. "Consumers are able to compartmentalise the brands of a country from its foreign policy," he says. "If there was a simple relationship between US brands and foreign policy we would have seen it decades ago."
By Dan Roberts
FT December 29 2004