USAID providing ventilators for delivery to Russia. Photo by: Staff Sgt. Keith James / U.S. Air Force / CC BY-NC

BURLINGTON — President Donald Trump’s plan to rebrand U.S. foreign aid with a single logo that “embodies the values and generosity of the American people” could put at risk six decades of global brand equity built up by the U.S. Agency for International Development, experts warn.

On Dec. 10, Trump issued an executive order on “rebranding United States foreign assistance to advance American influence.” It states that within 30 days the president will select a new logo that will replace the wide array of agency-specific logos currently attached to various U.S. aid shipments and communications. While some experts agree that the proliferation of different logos is a problem worth solving, they cautioned that a hastily-implemented effort in the waning days of the administration would likely do more harm than good.

“USAID has 60 years of equity out there. It is a well-known brand in the places that USAID works. So I think messing with that particular brand without doing thorough research, yeah, I do think that could do harm,” said Stephanie Bluma, a former USAID deputy assistant administrator for public affairs, who spearheaded the creation of a 67-page branding guide for the agency.

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Bluma added that based on her experience, the idea of choosing a logo in 30 days, and then rolling out new guidance and procedures to all of the relevant agencies and departments within 120 days, as the order requires, seems “completely impractical.” Just updating the style guide for USAID’s existing brand took more than 30 days, she said.

During the George W. Bush administration, when the agency settled on the current brand, it was a very expensive undertaking that involved significant congressional involvement, international focus groups, consultation with USAID mission directors and program officers around the world, and a “360-degree” look at how the brand would resonate with global audiences, according to a former USAID official who spoke to Devex on the condition of anonymity.

“The timeline is just completely overly-ambitious,” the former USAID official said.

Branding is about more than just a logo or mark; it is about what an organization is trying to communicate to a particular audience, and should be based on a well-informed understanding of how best to do that, said Bluma.

In USAID’s case, the logo centers on a handshake, accompanied by text that reads, “From the American people.”

“Your brand is almost the culture of your organization. I think ‘From the American people’ really sums it up. It's about working in partnership with these countries overseas. That's what USAID is trying to promote,” Bluma said.

Earlier reports about the rebrand effort suggested the National Security Council would be in charge of creating the new logo, but last week’s executive order hands that power to the Department of State.

“With over 20 departments and agencies delivering U.S. foreign assistance, a single logo will replace the many, varied logos currently in use and better and more clearly communicate the generosity of the United States,” a State Department spokesperson wrote to Devex.

“The use of a single logo will unify the U.S. Government effort, foster goodwill with partner countries, and enhance U.S. leadership abroad. Consistent U.S. branding will also be an essential tool to counter strategic competitors seeking greater visibility and influence,” the spokesperson added.

Some reports have suggested Trump is likely to settle on an image that features the American flag.

Doing so would run the risk of attaching development efforts to an image that, in some parts of the world, is synonymous with the U.S. military, and could undermine the message that the assistance is from the American people as a whole, Dan Runde, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an op-ed for The Hill.

“Your brand is almost the culture of your organization. I think ‘From the American people’ really sums it up. It's about working in partnership with these countries overseas.”

— Stephanie Bluma, a former USAID deputy assistant administrator for public affairs

Runde added that the best option would be for other agencies and departments that deliver aid to also use USAID’s handclasp image and “From the American people” message, but he noted that given the “animus” felt toward USAID by other agencies, that seems unlikely.

The executive order does not require the rebranding of existing projects or products overseas, which raises the additional concern that instead of harmonizing aid messaging, it will simply result in the creation of another logo, Bluma pointed out.

The former official said there are reasons why USAID might consider a reevaluation of its current brand.

One of them is the agency’s significant emphasis in recent years on local ownership of development programs, and the question of whether current branding reflects that philosophy.

“How do you ensure that local communities, local government leaders, local parliamentarians, whoever they may be, that the local community is really seen as being in the driver’s seat around their development? I think that’s healthy,” the former official said.

Another, which the Trump administration highlighted in its executive order, is to more effectively counter strategic competitors such as China.

“What really needs to be done is a brand audit, where you actually look at how the brand is being used and then you can make some smart decisions,” said Bluma.

The implementation of this executive order overlaps with the transition to President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, and the incoming team will likely have significant authority to either pursue or reject it.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.