Saturday, November 21, 2009


In recent years, however, I have found myself doing something I swore I had finished with: re-reading the branding gurus quoted in this book. Guys like Peters ("Brand! Brand!! Brand!!! That's the message…for the late '90s and beyond.") and Scott Bedbury ("a great brand raises the bar -- it adds a greater sense of purpose to the experience"). This time, however, it wasn't to try to understand what was happening at the mall but rather at the White House -- first under the presidency of George W. Bush and now under Barack Obama, the first U.S. president who is also a superbrand.

But the administration's most lasting legacy may well be the way it systematically did to the U.S. government what branding-mad CEOs did to their companies a decade earlier: it hollowed it out, handing over to the private sector many of the most essential functions of government, from protecting borders to responding to disasters to collecting intelligence.

This hollowing out was not a side project of the Bush years, it was a central mission, reaching into every field of governance.

One company that took over many of those services was Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defense contractor. "Lockheed Martin doesn't run the United States," observed a 2004 New York Times expose. "But it does help run a breathtakingly big part of it …. It sorts your mail and totals your taxes. It cuts Social Security checks and counts the United States census. It runs space flights and monitors air traffic. To make all that happen, Lockheed writes more computer code than Microsoft."

No one approached the task of auctioning off the state with more zeal than Bush's much-maligned defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld was steeped in the corporate culture of branding and outsourcing. He entered the Defense Department not with the posture of a public servant but channeling a celebrity CEO -- the guy with the guts to downsize and offshore and, most of all, rebrand. For Rumsfeld, his department's brand identity was clear: global dominance. The core competency was combat. For everything else, he said, sounding very much like Bill Gates, "we should seek suppliers who can provide these non-core activities efficiently and effectively."

Iraq under U.S. occupation. From the start Rumsfeld planned the troop deployment like a Wal-Mart vice president looking to shave a few more hours from the payroll. The generals wanted 500,000 troops, he would give them 200,000, with contractors and reservists filling the gaps as needed -- a just-in-time invasion. In practice, this strategy meant that as Iraq spiraled out of U.S. control, an ever more elaborate privatized war industry took shape to prop up the bare-bones army.

Blackwater, whose original contract was to provide bodyguards for U.S. envoy Paul Bremer, soon took on other functions, including engaging in combat in a battle with the Mahdi Army in 2004. And as the war moved into the jails, with tens of thousands of Iraqis rounded up by U.S. soldiers, private contractors even performed prisoner interrogations, with some facing accusations of torture. The sprawling Green Zone, meanwhile, was run as a corporate citystate, with everything from food to entertainment to pest control handled by Halliburton. Just as companies like Nike and Microsoft had pioneered the hollow corporation, this was, in many ways, a hollow war.

That same kind of can't-do attitude applied even when the financial system imploded in the fall of 2008 and the U.S. Treasury stepped in with a $700-billion bank bailout. Not only did it fail to attach meaningful strings to the money, but it announced that it did not have the capacity to administer the program. It needed to outsource the rescue of the banks to the very banks that created the disaster and were receiving the bailout funds.

The Bush administration's determination to mimic the hollow corporations it admired extended to its handling of the anger its actions inspired around the world. Rather than actually changing or even adjusting its policies, it launched a series of ill-fated campaigns to "rebrand America" for an increasingly hostile world. First came Charlotte Beers, hired as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan. Despite the seniority of the post, Beers had no previous diplomatic experience. She had, however, held the top job at both the J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather ad agencies, where she built brands for everything from dog food to power drills. When Secretary of State Colin Powell came under criticism for the appointment, he shrugged it off: "There is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something. We are selling a product. We need someone who can rebrand American foreign policy, rebrand diplomacy." Besides, he said, "She got me to buy Uncle Ben's rice."

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