Executive order to rebrand US assistance: Right question, likely wrong answer

Last week’s “Executive Order on Rebranding United States Foreign Assistance to Advance American Influence” recognizes an important problem: There are too many U.S. government agencies carrying out soft power work outside of our borders. There are at least 20, and all of them understandably want their agency logos on everything they do.

A better solution would be to reorganize ourselves so that one agency did this work. 

The best solution would be to put all soft power activity under USAID, the foreign aid arm of the U.S. Government. But that solution is highly unlikely in the near future.

Instead, various administrations have struggled with the problem of too many agencies working overseas — and with one related problem: the so called “branding” issue.

The Bush administration was partially successful through its update of USAID’s rebranding in 2005, while all other attempts in the last 20 years have failed. The Trump administration in its waning hours is trying to take the branding issue on through an executive order. However, a number of the proposed solutions are likely to be rejected by an incoming Biden administration.

There is no branding solution that will satisfy all agencies, and it is unlikely that the State Department will be able to force the 15-plus agencies that it does not control to comply with a new executive order overseas.

To make matters worse, the public diplomacy stakes have gotten higher as China has become a global development player. The “least-bad” solution would be to have all agencies use “US Aid/Assistance from the American People” and retain the handclasp that is in the USAID logo. The Trump administration will propose a solution, and — depending on what is proposed — a Biden administration should either fix it or rescind the order.

The U.S. government has implemented foreign aid programs for the past 70 years. The first logo associated with U.S. foreign aid dates back to the Marshall Plan, when many of the supplies used to reconstruct Europe came emblazoned with an American crest and the words “For European Recovery Supplied by the United States of America.” By 1953, the logo of U.S. aid had developed into the iconic handclasp logo, which was eventually picked up by the new USAID agency, created in 1961.

Like Coca-Cola and Nike, the USAID brand now has significant value. This handclasp and “from the America People” are well known in the developing world, even if not well known in Washington.

Cross-agency initiatives like América Crece have to squeeze as many as nine brands on limited real estate. To make matters worse, even some individual U.S. embassies are now requiring branding (e.g. “from U.S. Embassy Honduras”) in addition to the other 20-plus brands. Just as onerous as the oversaturation, is the fact a number of agencies have logos that are unattractive, or lack the red, white, and blue (EPA), or are just plain illegible (the State Department seal).

In 2005, USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios brought in a professional branding expert to revitalize the original iconic handclasp. The result was a success: The updated logo kept the handclasp, but in a streamlined format that was much more readable and reproducible, including the words “From the American people.” The USAID revamp increased the visibility of U.S. aid at a time when massive U.S. foreign assistance was going to tsunami relief in Indonesia, very significantly boosting positive perceptions of U.S. foreign engagement in a region previously characterized by widespread distrust of the U.S.

Since 2008 there have been three attempts to try to get to just one brand.

The Bush administration’s State Department tried to get rid of the USAID logo in 2008 partially because of turf resentments among USAID and various state agencies, including PEPFAR, which administers the HIV/AIDS work, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The Obama administration made similar efforts, but through USAID itself. Both of these rebrand attempts were unsuccessful — in large part because the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) for contracts and grant rules out of OMB mandate the inclusion of the USAID brand on certain materials. Actually doing away with the USAID agency branding may require years of effort, going through a process of getting changes through the Federal Register — and with this coming so late in the administration it may be too late.

The executive order leaves the unitary logo entirely up to President’s discretion. Unfortunately, there is a somewhat believable rumor that part of the Trump White House wants to include President Trump’s signature on all foreign aid similar to the COVID-19 relief checks that were sent earlier this year.

Other reasonable voices in the Trump administration argue for using the American flag and saying, “from the American people” The arguments against the American flag that will likely move a Biden administration to rescind this decision will begin with what happens when some unhappy group burns bags of rice with the American flag on it? Second, in many contexts the U.S. flag is associated with the U.S. military, and third, the there is an argument that the whole of U.S. society is providing this assistance — society to society — through private charity, the private sector as well as the federal government and so a U.S. flag branding implies that it is the U.S. Government that is providing the support.

The “flag logo” camp is bolstered by some allies and competitors. Aid from the United Kingdom comes stamped with a hyper-recognizable Union Jack, and the works “from the British people.” Even China has developed their own consistent logo and tagline — a geometric red ribbon, with a subtle hint of menace “China aid for shared future” written alongside it.

Branding is a high-stakes affair, presenting both opportunities and risks. There are times when we provide aid where we cannot take credit — for example funding pro-democracy activists in politically sensitive environments, or providing assistance in places where the United States is seen as a combatant or having taken a side. For this reason, U.S. ambassadors and administrators must reserve the right to choose not to brand aid. To its credit, the current executive order includes a provision on this.

What is to be done?

The Trump administration is right to take this on because in this increasingly competitive soft power environment, building a consistent look and feel around U.S. foreign aid is increasingly important. A Biden administration’s response should depend on what the Trump administration decides should be the “single logo.”

The best choice would be to force all agencies to use “U.S. Assistance/Aid from the American people” with the handclasp. There is a slight chance that this suggested approach will be chosen, but given the negative animus of other agencies towards USAID, such a solution is unlikely. If the Trump administration proposes using the U.S. flag — however reasonable that may seem — or, far worse, some sort of Presidential signature, then the Biden administration should reverse this executive order.

Originally published on thehill.com on December 14, 2020.

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