NAFTA vs USMCA: What’s in a name.
If the deal on the table is approved, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will be no more, and the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA will take its place.
“It’s not NAFTA redone, it’s a brand-new deal,” U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday, October 1.
There are clearly some trade implications and policy shifts in the new USMCA deal, but most reporting has noted the agreement is not all that different from NAFTA.
“It’s a tweak really,” Axios Chief Financial Correspondent Felix Salmon explained on MSNBC. “It’s NAFTA on steroids or maybe just a tiny little blip of steroids. I don’t understand; if you hated NAFTA you would hate this, surely.”
With that in mind, I’ll leave it to the economists to discuss the policies and trade semantics of the agreement. I want to focus on the name.
Branding is important. How a product or idea is presented can dramatically shape how audiences engage with it, whether they reject it or accept it — or whether they pay attention at all. This is the same in marketing as it is in politics.
It’s no secret that the president loves branding. From his time in real estate and business, and in reality TV and now politics — leveraging a brand identity has been a clear priority. Trump brands everything. And he’s good at it. “America First” and “Make America Great”, love them or hate them, have been effective.
In moving forward on a ‘new NAFTA’, it seems natural President Trump would want to kill the old brand and replace it with his own — even if it’s just wrapping paper. USMCA is a brand. It’s all about optics and messaging. The new identity for trade between the U.S., Mexico and Canada is not about what’s in the agreement, it’s about how the administration will own the narrative and tell its story.
NAFTA has never been immune to negativity. But, in an “America First” environment, the brand has suffered from increased attacks and been more actively labeled as a bad deal for the American people. The brand has suffered, regardless of what the deal does or does not do. Trump knows this. He helped to ensure it. Simply renegotiating a NAFTA 2.0 would not suffice.
In creating the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement a new brand is born. USMCA does not exactly roll off the tongue but then again, it does not need to in order to accomplish Trump’s goal.
Branding is not merely about how a name or acronym sounds — it’s about what it represents. In quite a literal way, the Trump Administration has put America First — right in the name. USMCA prioritizes “US” and more broadly, it puts the focus back on individual national identities — the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
Nations first, others second. This is very much about the brand of “America First”.
NAFTA is about North America. The branding focused on the collective region — a trade agreement to propel the continent. USMCA is an agreement of three nations for the peoples of three nations. This may sound like geopolitical semantics, but that’s the point. Words matter, and the narrative here is clear.
Recently at the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump stated, “We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism.” This trade deal is aiming to do the same — through brand, not policy.