Among established brands, what’s more American than apple pie and the Fourth of July? Levis? Coca-Cola? Harley-Davidson, Rambo and Disneyworld all rolled together as a supercharged human vehicle in a modern crime movie?

According to a survey of 4,500 consumers, conducted by New York-based research firm Brand Keys, Jeep was determined to be the most patriotic brand among 197 names across 35 categories.

As USA Today noted in reporting the news, Jeep is the brand associated with winning World War Two, for being the go-to vehicle for generations of American soldiers and for epitomizing American toughness and a sense of daring.

But most patriotic? Is that something a car company can even be? Does patriotism even matter in a global economy? Can people agree on what patriotism, in terms of marketing, even means?

Emotional Engagement = Patriotism?

For the record, Brand Keys lists the top 5 most patriotic U.S. brands as follows, with scores indicating the number out of a hundred that represents consumers’ emotional engagement expectations:

  1. Jeep (98)
  2. Hershey’s (tie, 97)
  3. Coca-Cola (tie, 97)
  4. Levi Strauss (tie, 95)
  5. Walt Disney (tie, 95)

Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, said in a statement, “”As marketers traditionally operate on the Independence Day theory that a patriotic, flag-waving call-to-emotion will motivate consumers to behave more positively toward their brands, we wanted to see which brands actually led when it came to that particular value.” Figuring that out, he noted, means doing more than simply waving the flag. It means determining “whether that value is seen to be part of the brand’s equity, whether it’s truly acknowledged on a deeply emotional and engaging basis.”

In other words, are you really going to buy a Jeep because a car commercial uses fireworks, the flag and a Sousa march for 26 of its 30 seconds of atmosphere? Or because you really believe that Jeep screams “American” through and through, and you feel a sense of obligation and duty to support that? Both good and tricky questions in an age when people wonder about the meaning of the word “patriotism” as well as its relevance in the global marketplace.

We hold these elements to be self-evident

Sean Williams, writing at Fool.com, says that when it comes down to determining what drives customer engagement or what makes a brand a key part of American culture, there are four elements to consider:

  1. I.

    A Rich Company History

    What role has a particular brand played in shaping the country’s history? If Jeep is associated with winning The Big One, where do brands like Ford fit in (which was 16th with an 86 score)? Associated with American “Know-how” and resiliency? What about Zippo (7th at 93)? Is that a leftover from anti-establishment denizens who saw themselves as more patriotic than their elders? Or a holdover from the classic Hollywood movie eras – where practically every flick featured a cigarette and the words, “Got a light?” — that assured us all was right with the good old U.S. of A.?

  2. II.

    Family Appeal

    Williams says that, particularly when Independence Day draws near, television and online ads abound with images of Ma, Pa and their kiddoes. Brands that can appeal to all age groups – while striking familial themes – are somehow deemed more American. Paging Disney and Hershey: The Griswolds are ready to spend every last buck on your amusement, entertainment and candy products. Why? ‘Cause that’s what Americans do when we’re bein’ all-American.

  3. III.

    Creates a Feeling of Delight

    This element, Williams theorizes, may be why a consumer giant such as Proctor & Gamble didn’t even make the top 25, while competitors Colgate (6th, with a 94 score) and Gillette (tied at 10th with 90) didn’t crack the top five. Personal and consumer products aren’t considered fun, Williams says – and therefore, lack a patriotic cachet. Interestingly enough, Crest (a P&G brand) and Colgate make use of patriotic colors in their toothpaste packaging – why state the obvious with splashy color if the message is inherently clear regarding fun and patriotism? Ditto for Gillette Stadium being the home of the New England Patriots football team – another fun enterprise. Maybe Williams is onto something with this one after all.

  4. IV.

    Dependability

    This idea ranges from dependability-as-longevity – meaning the brand has been around a long time and looks to stay that way – to dependability-as-resiliency – meaning the products that carry the brand name deliver as advertised. Williams wonders if that’s why there aren’t any General Motors brands in the top 25, since GM went through bankruptcy in 2009. By contrast, Levi Strauss all but owns this category. So much for flying by the seat of one’s pants.

The takeaway

Patriotism no doubt means different things to different people, especially these days, when generations seem to fragment by micro-distinction every few months.

Perhaps the key for marketers in striking those genuine patriotic chords in consumers lies less in wrapping products in the flag and more in exuding the qualities that Williams describes.

“Made in America” might take on a deeper and richer meaning – both on and away from labels – when it’s used in a way that affirms an underlying, genuine spirit. And not a mere tacked-on label. Even Gen Y and the Baby Boomers might find a way to agree on that.

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