How Mexico Can Rescue its Brand

Mike Shannon   , James S. Taylor    Mexico2 Thumb

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In the U.S. and around the globe its image has been battered. Since 2005, Americans’ views of Mexico have declined steadily, reaching their lowest point since 1993 last year, according to Gallup polling.  While neighboring Canada places first in terms of overall favorability, Mexico now ranks closest to Russia and Egypt.

This brand erosion is undoubtedly a function of negative media coverage – out of a total of 200 countries, Mexico ranks 192nd in a recently published media perception index.  That ranking puts Mexico in the company of war torn countries like Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria.

Figure 1: U.S. Perceptions of Mexico (Gallup)

For anyone who follows Mexico, this should not come as a surprise. It seems as though the U.S. media rarely has anything positive to say about Mexico. A recent Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute study showed that coverage of Mexico has become increasingly negative over the past two decades.  Whereas in the early 1990s, only 1 in 10 New York Times articles on Mexico focused on crime, corruption and illegal immigration, today nearly 90 percent do.  Even the Wall Street Journal, known for covering business, is about four times more likely to report on crime and border issues in Mexico than the country’s economy.

To be sure, the bad news is grounded in reality.  Mexico is facing high rates of violence – often carried out in brutal, high profile crimes – related to its ongoing battle against drug traffickers.  But this is only a partial glimpse of what has been happening in Mexico.  And this incomplete story has created a misleading brand narrative that damages Mexico’s tourism industry, threatens foreign investment, and reduces its relationship with the U.S into a security arrangement.

The big picture reality is that in the midst of its security struggles, Mexico has become more prosperous (GDP per capita up nearly 50 percent over the past decade).  It now has a growing and majority middle class (60 million strong – a fertile market for U.S. products).  According to Dr. Shannon O’Neil, a Mexico expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, “The emergence of the middle class is a game changer for the Mexican economy, but many people have not quite realized yet that it’s there.” Mexican companies are also expanding their footprint into the United States by acquiring firms in different sectors of the US economy, from cement with CEMEX, to bakery through Grupo Bimbo and even steel with Deacero.  These companies, among others, now employ nearly 50,000 American workers.  And much of Mexico – from Cabo and Cancun to Mexico City and Leon – is as safe as major U.S. tourist destinations and big cities.

In July, Mexicans will elect a new president.  Polls show the winner will likely be the young, telegenic Enrique Peña Nieto, who has inspired comparisons to John F. Kennedy. The second leading contender is Josefina Vázquez Mota, who would be the first democratically elected female head of state in North America’s history.  The election of either of these candidates will provide a unique moment and messenger for Mexico to begin to restore its reputation in the U.S. and beyond.

However, it will take much more than a new president.  Here are four steps we believe Mexico must take to begin revitalizing its brand:

1.    Define a new, authentic story and common vocabulary.  Brands are stories, and as author Nicholas Taleb has said, “You need a story to displace a story.”  In order to counteract the prevailing, overwhelmingly negative storyline about Mexico, there needs to be a well-defined, positive story to replace it.  That story must speak to the reality of the drug war to be authentic, but should reframe the security situation – emphasizing the triumph of the Mexican people to overcome these enormous challenges.  It should highlight that Mexico’s stable GDP growth and burgeoning middle class represent a true economic miracle in spite of these challenges.  It should emphasize that the violence is contained within certain geographies, and that most of the country isn’t affected.  You wouldn’t postpone a trip to New York City because of violence in St. Louis, right?

And to convey this new narrative in a coherent and persuasive way, leaders need to develop a common vocabulary. We suggest focusing on phrases such as middle class miracleMexican triumph and isolated violence.

2.    Develop new substance and symbols. After George H.W. Bush and Carlos Salinas de Gortari were both elected in 1988, they met in Houston, Texas and began talking about a new path forward for U.S.-Mexico relations. This positive dialogue, dubbed the “spirit of Houston,” set in motion a series of events that recast Mexico as an opening, growing and competitive economy.

It is precisely this type of game-changing moment that Mexico needs to reaffirm and reposition its relationship with the United States. Of course, the symbols will need to be updated to resonate in the current economic and political dialogue. One economic symbol that Mexican leaders should help popularize is a new acronym for world’s top emerging economies called the “MISTs.”  Created by Jim O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs chief economist who came up with the concept of the “BRICs,” the MIST grouping positions Mexico alongside the stable and rising economic powerhouses of Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey. 

Such symbolism, however important in its own right, must be backed up with policy substance. Both of the leading candidates have said they would open PEMEX, the state oil company, to outside private investors – a bold move that would boost Mexico’s global competitiveness. This initiative would expand on recent anti-trust legislation that combats monopolistic practices and further opens the Mexican economy.  

3.    Deliver through a public-private partnership of dedicated, disciplined brand champions. To carry a new story forward, it is essential that the government, business leadership and civic associations get on board with a common communication strategy.  This starts with the chief executive of Mexico and extends to the chief executives of the business community and to civil society groups more broadly.

To be most effective, these groups must convey their message in a disciplined way. They must coordinate their talking points in order to build a synchronized chorus of voices championing a new, positive brand narrative for Mexico. 

4.    Distance valuable individual brands from the whole. There also needs to be a complementary effort to brand Mexico’s parts, at times separating them from the whole. One of the big challenges Mexico is facing is reviving its tourism industry. The best way to tackle this is to disentangle popular tourist destinations from Mexico’s broader image. Places like Cancun, Oaxaca and Los Cabos – Mexico’s crown jewels – really have remained safe, and therefore should be distanced from those isolated geographies that are more dangerous. This effort will not only improve the image of these individual places, but will also strengthen Mexico’s brand as a whole.

To revitalize Mexico’s brand, leaders in government, business and civil society must unite around a coherent, more positive new narrative. This story should be one of Mexico’s improbable success despite security challenges, and Mexicans’ incredible rise to economic prosperity in tough times. With a fresh face in office in 2013, Mexico has the chance to rescue and renew its global image for the better. For the country’s sake, its leaders cannot afford to waste this opportunity.

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