Terrorism brand management: What’s in a name?

UPDATE: In the wake of terror attacks in Paris, Beirut and elsewhere, the world is struggling over not only how to defeat ISIS, but to identify a rallying point around which the world can gather against this existential threat that appears ubiquitous, but invisible. Today there is a reurgence of the term “Daesh,” or Da’ish, from Muslim scholars who say what the group is doing has nothing to do with writings of Islam. In fact, the term is a grave insult when used in a particular way.

isis leader watch
Terror chief al-Baghdadi reportedly sporting a $6,000 watch.

As the world watches ISIS’s attempts to carry out its mission to rid the global community of the Infidel, it just may be helping. Or is it ISIL, or Islamic State, or QSIS? What’s in a name, really? Frankly, a great deal.

ISIS’s identity has appeared to randomly shift. But it is something U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently referred to as “a bigger threat than 9/11.”

But he was partially wrong. He got the name wrong, that is.

Let’s call the misnomer the beginning of our accidental brand management.

we are all isisISIS — “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” — implies two states with a clear mission to convert governmental structures into theocracies. That name came from the group itself.

ISIS is called Da ‘ish or Dar al-Ifta by Arabic media (Note: at the time of this original post, it was not clear if there was an ironic use of this term by media in this region.)

However, the United Nations refers to the group as ISIL, or the “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant.”

Levant? Levant is, by historical definition, the Eastern Mediterranean and encompasses a broader swath of area, including modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

“The U.N. and the U.S. State Department have now started using the term ISIL to refer to the jihadists because of the group’s broader mission to extend their reach into a wider area,” said Associated Press editor Tom Kent. “Using ‘Iraq and Syria’ gives the incorrect impression that the group’s aspirations are limited to these two present-day countries.”

As of Aug. 27, a new brand has emerged. QSIS: “al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria.” And that name comes from a group in Egypt. What happened to Levant? Leaders in some Middle Eastern states are urging media to adopt the new name in an attempt to prevent Islam from being broadly associated with extremism.

Ibrahim Negm , advisor to Egypt’s chief religious leader, Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam said the extremists have an incorrect understanding of Jihad.

“The initiative by Dar al-Ifta came to express the institution’s rejection of many stereotypes that attach the name of Islam to bloody and violent acts committed by such groups,” he said to Al Arabiya News

So, what will the final name of this group be? The ultimate problem is less about that and more about the narrative swirling around the reasons why. This is where it becomes a true marketing conundrum particularly from a cultural perspective.

The narrative began online among the influencers, the media, and the mob.


What is a brand? A brand transcends the letters in the word itself, despite itself. Coke, Nike, Apple, or the “The Red Bear” or “Dear Leader.”


It is here in the vagaries of the Internet where, at the outer limits of the web, influencers engage the casual web surfer and greet the mob. And it is also here where brand relationships are made.

courtesy: The Daily Beast
courtesy: The Daily Beast

A marketer’s job is to craft a brand that evokes a personal response — a call to action, general buy-in, or empathy. Most importantly, marketers want you to feel a personal relationship with whatever they’re promoting.

Now, government, religious groups, and media are arguing over not only what the group stands for, but also over the nature of the relationship the group has to their own stakeholders.

It is also an editor’s job to make sure the stories they publish are relevant to their readers or viewers.


Again, this is a conundrum for all. And it has become even more so, considering a new study from Pew Research that shows people are less likely to share their views online if they don’t believe others will agree with their stand on a particular issue. As a result, they surround themselves with like-minded individuals with similar political or social bents. In the case of this group’s branding, perhaps the fact these narratives are continuing in separate vacuums is actually promoting confusion. And perhaps more armed conflict.

President Obama with Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri-al-Maliki in 2014
Mr. Obama with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri-al-Maliki in 2014

So, this is where we are: we brand an enemy according to how it may impact our way of life. So, we (the media, the government, the mob) begin a narrative on the whys, but ignore how the enemy affects others. And without listening to others, that narrative crescendos into a din and even accelerates up into a financial storm.

Reports are that this terrorist group has amassed more than $2 billion in financial assets. With that kind of funding, coupled with the help of web inhabitants and some cross-cultural (and silo-ed) branding, fever for a bigger and broader military-industrial complex might be a cinch. Unfortunately.