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Bin Laden And Unintended Brand Evolution


Bin Laden Stencil
Originally uploaded by Nathan Longfield

This may be a controversial post for some, but it is a topic I have been meaning to write about for some time. In fact, ever since I got an advance copy of an article by John Cook called "Branding Bin Laden" which was published in the April 2008 issue of Radar Magazine.  It is an insightful analysis introducing the idea that perhaps the real war the US is fighting (and losing) is a branding war instead of a physical one. In the piece, Cook points to the growing use of Bin Laden’s image in the Arab world (and beyond) as a symbol of anti-American sentiment, but not necessarily terrorism. To a degree, it has moved beyond Bin Laden as a person or even what he represents. His symbol is becoming a brand, similar to how the face of Che Guevarra that can still be seen around the world (though ironically it is often in support of global brands and exactly the kind of capitalism he once fought). It’s not the people agree with the politics, necessarily (though certainly many do). They are taking an image and assigning a different meaning to it. Brand Bin Laden, Cook argues, has started to stand for defiance of America in any form.

This reshaping of brands is not a new phenomenon in countries outside the US. When I was travelling through India, I found a rickshaw driver who was wearing a Washington Redskins jacket. Was it because he was a Redskins fan? Definitely not. I asked him and he had never seen an American football game. To him, the jacket was a symbol of America – akin to wearing an "I Love NY" shirt. The broader meaning of the Redskins was that they were something uniquely American and his wearing the jacket didn’t indicate any support for the team, but rather a desire to associate with a brand that represents America. As Cook describes in his article:

"It may seem naive or offensive to describe a terrorist organization that has killed thousands of civilians on four continents as a brand. But just as Coca-Cola is both a sugary, brown liquid and something you’d "like to buy the world," Al Qaeda is at once a murderous gang of zealots and an increasingly potent symbol of resistance to US power."

The article goes on to reason that if the real war America is fighting is one of PR and branding, then perhaps the solution also needs to come from this world. There are relatively few pieces of journalism that can really make you think about the role and importance of branding in the broader context of the world. This is bigger than much of the internally focused ideas we are often guilty of focusing on (and what you may often find on this blog, I admit). For any marketer interested in how branding relates to our culture and the world, as well as how it may in fact be one of the most powerful forces shaping the world as we see it today, you need to read Cook’s article.*

* The article is currently only available through Radar’s archives, however I have requested from their PR team to repost the entire PDF here on my blog.

14 thoughts on “Bin Laden And Unintended Brand Evolution”

  1. Fascinating idea. As a PR practitioner I would argue that an effective ‘PR attack’ would be to continually throw a variety of memes out there regarding Bin Laden. Don’t allow him to define himself, or be defined, as any one thing. Keep his message confused and muddled as opposed to repeating a single message – “terrorist” – over an over again, for as we know one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

    We are fighting an asymmetrical war and need to use asymmetrical ‘weapons.’ I wonder what web 2.0 style tactics the U.S. is employing in the war on terror? Are their applications for tools like Twitter, Facebook, etc. to help spread our message and counter extremist propaganda and misinformation?

    Reply
  2. Fascinating idea. As a PR practitioner I would argue that an effective ‘PR attack’ would be to continually throw a variety of memes out there regarding Bin Laden. Don’t allow him to define himself, or be defined, as any one thing. Keep his message confused and muddled as opposed to repeating a single message – “terrorist” – over an over again, for as we know one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

    We are fighting an asymmetrical war and need to use asymmetrical ‘weapons.’ I wonder what web 2.0 style tactics the U.S. is employing in the war on terror? Are their applications for tools like Twitter, Facebook, etc. to help spread our message and counter extremist propaganda and misinformation?

    Reply
  3. @Ryan – I think that your ideas of fighting a propaganda war with Bin Laden’s brand are missing the point–This course of action would be equivalent to Microsoft attempting to affect consumer perceptions of Apple. Twitter, Facebook, and other current social media applications were mostly developed in the US and as such give power to Bin Laden’s directive. Using them to propagandize against al Queda would only further support his cause and strengthen his brand, not weaken it.

    @Rohit – I think this is a fantastic post. You went out on a limb content-wise, but it definitely paid off. Thank you for sharing that article and your thoughts. I think one relevant concept you could have touched on was the transformation of leaders into symbols. Our recent history is filled with examples – Hitler, Andy Warhol, Martin Luther King, Jr., George W. Bush, Gandhi, Lenin, Nelson Mandela, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs…the list goes on and on (and is obviously incredibly diverse).

    All these leaders possess a commonality – over time they transitioned from the operative heads of their respective movements into something larger, something that transcends their stated responsibilities: a brand. Just look at the short list above. Each leader owns his respective space: Martin Luther King, Jr.: Civil Rights, Lenin: Communism, Walt Disney: Imagineering, Steve Jobs: Making innovation cool.

    What would make a really fascinating post would be an examination of how these leaders become brands.

    Reply
  4. @Ryan – I think that your ideas of fighting a propaganda war with Bin Laden’s brand are missing the point–This course of action would be equivalent to Microsoft attempting to affect consumer perceptions of Apple. Twitter, Facebook, and other current social media applications were mostly developed in the US and as such give power to Bin Laden’s directive. Using them to propagandize against al Queda would only further support his cause and strengthen his brand, not weaken it.

    @Rohit – I think this is a fantastic post. You went out on a limb content-wise, but it definitely paid off. Thank you for sharing that article and your thoughts. I think one relevant concept you could have touched on was the transformation of leaders into symbols. Our recent history is filled with examples – Hitler, Andy Warhol, Martin Luther King, Jr., George W. Bush, Gandhi, Lenin, Nelson Mandela, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs…the list goes on and on (and is obviously incredibly diverse).

    All these leaders possess a commonality – over time they transitioned from the operative heads of their respective movements into something larger, something that transcends their stated responsibilities: a brand. Just look at the short list above. Each leader owns his respective space: Martin Luther King, Jr.: Civil Rights, Lenin: Communism, Walt Disney: Imagineering, Steve Jobs: Making innovation cool.

    What would make a really fascinating post would be an examination of how these leaders become brands.

    Reply
  5. Considering how many have been killed by other corporate brands, Al Quaeda’s death toll is actually rather low. The real action was Latin America during the 1970s, when tens of thousands of people were “disappeared” by corporate-funded death squads to clear the lane for good old globalization.

    I didn’t find this offensive at all — it was a very well-reasoned post and I definitely appreciate the heads-up on the Radar article, too.

    Reply
  6. Considering how many have been killed by other corporate brands, Al Quaeda’s death toll is actually rather low. The real action was Latin America during the 1970s, when tens of thousands of people were “disappeared” by corporate-funded death squads to clear the lane for good old globalization.

    I didn’t find this offensive at all — it was a very well-reasoned post and I definitely appreciate the heads-up on the Radar article, too.

    Reply
  7. Reminds me of the idea in “The Starfish and the Spider” about institutions build like spiders not being able to fight network based organization (starfish).

    The closest example was the extermination of Indian tribes. The sophisticated walled cites of the Incas and Mayan tribes went down fast (like Baghdad). The Apache tribe took centuries because they were small autonomous units.

    The authors suggested that there was a government somewhere in the world that was fighting cells by allowing a network to “go do what it takes”

    But once you empower such networks, you never regain control.

    Reply
  8. Reminds me of the idea in “The Starfish and the Spider” about institutions build like spiders not being able to fight network based organization (starfish).

    The closest example was the extermination of Indian tribes. The sophisticated walled cites of the Incas and Mayan tribes went down fast (like Baghdad). The Apache tribe took centuries because they were small autonomous units.

    The authors suggested that there was a government somewhere in the world that was fighting cells by allowing a network to “go do what it takes”

    But once you empower such networks, you never regain control.

    Reply
  9. This dovetails with a story I heard on NPR the other day. In the U.S., the word “Jihad” is branded by politicians and the media as being nearly synonymous with terrorism. In much of the Islamic world, the word “Jihad” simply means to struggle for one’s faith whether the struggle is with oneself or others, and has no overt connotations of violence.

    Reply
  10. This dovetails with a story I heard on NPR the other day. In the U.S., the word “Jihad” is branded by politicians and the media as being nearly synonymous with terrorism. In much of the Islamic world, the word “Jihad” simply means to struggle for one’s faith whether the struggle is with oneself or others, and has no overt connotations of violence.

    Reply
  11. I’m sorry, this is a bit long.

    In response to the earlier comments about using social media, facebook, twitter, etc. I think that wouldn’t do any good, it would probably do just the opposite. I don’t think its similar to Microsoft and Apple, I’d say its more like Ford vs. Fiat. An American brand versus one of the leading car manufacturers for all of Europe. Our brand vs. theirs. Our brand of Bin Landen versus that of the rest of the world. We don’t have the power to change Fiat’s brand because it is not ours and we couldn’t change it with American media forms. We could easily convince American’s that Fiat was subpar and bad, but we could not easily convince Europeans because it is their brand, and they live with it and they have a different view of it then we do. Here democracy is the best option, it is taught to us from a young age and can be seen in media, communists are the bad guy in many films. When I started school in Italy I was shocked that the strongest political group in my school was the communism party, followed closely by the socialist party. I will never forget the day that Italy faced its greatest casualty loss since world war two, 18 solders died. I went to school the next day and was pretty much forced by the Art teacher to justify their deaths because it was not the fault of terrorism, it was the fault of America. We had over 2,000 deaths in Iraq alone, plus everyone who was murdered on 9/11, but that did not justify the 18 men and women who died when their base was attacked because the war on terrorism is branded differently here then it is there. America, according to the rest of the world, is not the view portrayed by the media here. I think Ryan stated it perfectly, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

    I would also love to see a follow up post on how various leaders, both in politics and business, become icons for something greater then themselves and I enjoyed the post.

    Reply
  12. I’m sorry, this is a bit long.

    In response to the earlier comments about using social media, facebook, twitter, etc. I think that wouldn’t do any good, it would probably do just the opposite. I don’t think its similar to Microsoft and Apple, I’d say its more like Ford vs. Fiat. An American brand versus one of the leading car manufacturers for all of Europe. Our brand vs. theirs. Our brand of Bin Landen versus that of the rest of the world. We don’t have the power to change Fiat’s brand because it is not ours and we couldn’t change it with American media forms. We could easily convince American’s that Fiat was subpar and bad, but we could not easily convince Europeans because it is their brand, and they live with it and they have a different view of it then we do. Here democracy is the best option, it is taught to us from a young age and can be seen in media, communists are the bad guy in many films. When I started school in Italy I was shocked that the strongest political group in my school was the communism party, followed closely by the socialist party. I will never forget the day that Italy faced its greatest casualty loss since world war two, 18 solders died. I went to school the next day and was pretty much forced by the Art teacher to justify their deaths because it was not the fault of terrorism, it was the fault of America. We had over 2,000 deaths in Iraq alone, plus everyone who was murdered on 9/11, but that did not justify the 18 men and women who died when their base was attacked because the war on terrorism is branded differently here then it is there. America, according to the rest of the world, is not the view portrayed by the media here. I think Ryan stated it perfectly, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

    I would also love to see a follow up post on how various leaders, both in politics and business, become icons for something greater then themselves and I enjoyed the post.

    Reply

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