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Lunch at Nobu with: Keith Reinhard

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-06-27

After more than 50 years of acclaimed accomplishment in advertising, Keith Reinhard, chairman of DDB Worldwide, certainly knows a thing or two about branding. But now he's worried about the biggest branding problem he's ever tackled - Brand America.

"Our brand is being defined by other voices, especially in the aftermath of September 11, 2001," Mr. Reinhard said. "Others see us as arrogant, ignorant, insensitive, disrespectful toward foreign cultures, and self-centered. Of course, America is still admired as a land of opportunity, freedom, diversity, creativity. But recent surveys have shown the negative feelings about America are widening."

Mr. Reinhard believes the American business community should address the problem.

Even though American exports continue at a healthy clip of $650 billion annually, research confirms that 1 out of 4 consumers in the Asia-Pacific region and 18% of consumers in the G-8 countries are avoiding American brands. Anti-Americanism is also keeping tourists away from the U.S. This, plus tighter visa policies, has resulted in a declining share of the world's tourism traffic, down from 7.4% in 2000 to 6% in 2004. Mr. Reinhard emphasizes that each percentile point translates into 7.4 million tourists to America, 153,000 jobs domestically, and $12.3 billion in revenues for America's economy.

And so, in the can-do spirit that has characterized his own career since left his hometown of Berne, Ind. (population: 2,000) after high school to seek his fortune in big cities like Chicago, Mr. Reinhard has decided to counter anti-Americanism.

"Whenever I'm faced with a challenge, I always think of the guy in my hometown who told me I'd never succeed in advertising," Mr. Reinhard said. "That made me even more determined to succeed."

His determination this time led to the creation not long ago of "Business for Diplomatic Action." Funded largely by himself and his wife Rose-Lee, with some assistance from companies such as Pepsi and UPS, the group has brought together 150 well-known professionals from advertising, marketing, communications, media, academe, and other fields.

"BDA's purpose is to sensitize American companies and individuals to the rise of anti-Americanism globally - its root causes and implications - and enlist the business community in implementing specific actions aimed at addressing the problem," Mr. Reinhard said.

The organization's board of directors is made up mostly of media and marketing executives including top executives of the three global advertising companies that function under the rubric of the Omnicom Group. Mr. Reinhard was instrumental in forming Omnicom in 1986 by aligning DDB - which was created in 1949 by the legendary Bill Bernbach - with Needham, Harper Worldwide, and BBDO, to form the world's biggest advertising holding group. DDB alone has 206 offices in 96 countries; Omnicom's revenues in 2004 were $9.7 billion, a 13.1% increase over the previous year.

Mr. Reinhard's new organization, BDA, has so far produced and distributed 250,000 "world citizenship" guides to American students who study abroad. The guide offers suggestions for how these young Americans can be better "diplomats" while sensitizing them to various aspects of foreign cultures.

The group is now working on a version of this guide for the 55 million Americans who travel abroad.

BDA members have taken part in dozens of seminars in the U.S and overseas, and Mr. Reinhard testified last August before Congress on the private sector's role in the Bush Administration's plans to promote public diplomacy. BDA is now asking American the business community to take on the task of "out-recruiting bin Laden."

"Why am I involved in pushing for a better image of America in the world? Because it's important and timely. And because I believe I should use the skills I learned in the profession that has rewarded me so well to 'pay back,'" Mr. Reinhard said.

The notion of "pay back" isn't something new for Mr. Reinhard. He and his wife have long been active in New York's philanthropy, although in a quiet fashion. Mrs. Reinhard is co-founder of Wellmet, a foundation that awards grants to struggling New York women's groups who have "fallen between the cracks." Together, the Reinhards support a number of New York philanthropies, and they have established fellowships at medical institutions.

What explains his civic-mindedness?

"There was a woodworker who lived next door to me, in my hometown. He was a real craftsman who would say to me, every time I visited his shop, 'Be always good" - that exhortation was imprinted on my mind since my growing up years," Mr. Reinhard said.

When his hometown recently marked the 150th anniversary of its founding by Swiss immigrants, Mr. Reinhard was invited to deliver the keynote address. The title of his speech? "Be always good."

"Everything that I am, every success that I've enjoyed, has been somehow influenced by the values I learned in that tiny Indiana town - the importance of integrity, of honesty, of helping neighbors, of standing up for who you are, of being the best at what you choose to do in life, of passion and persistence," Mr. Reinhard said.

His return to Berne brought back powerful memories of his maternal grandfather, Japtha Liechty, who, among other things, was an auctioneer and real-estate broker.

"I learned the art of selling from him," Mr. Reinhard said. "I learned from him how important it is to listen carefully to your customers."

Mr. Reinhard synthesized that lesson when in due course, he created three of the advertising industry's most memorable lines: "You Deserve A Break Today," and "Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun," for McDonalds, and "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there," for State Farm Insurance.

The lessons he learned about staying close to the customer are particularly relevant for the advertising industry now, Mr. Reinhard said, because consumer habits are perceptibly changing. He quoted a recent study showing that, for the first time ever, teenagers in America listed the Internet as their preferred medium, ahead of television and print.

"The advertising business has to accept this, and expand our creativity beyond the television screen and the printed page," Mr. Reinhard said. "There are radical changes in our clients' needs. So we've got to create not just messages for a product but a total brand experience that the consumer chooses to engage with. This requires a change in mind-set."

That change is something Mr. Reinhard is also promoting in the American business community concerning America's image in the world.

"We need to dramatically improve the brand experience of America as seen in other cultures," he said. "If we don't do something about it, American brands will take more hits, and America is likely to lose its competitive edge. And our kids and grandkids will face a hostile and unfriendly world."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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