You are here

Breaking the Brand: A New Way to Dismantle Perceptions of Terror

Matthew Freear
RUSI Newsbrief, 22 January 2016
United States, Defence Management, Defence Policy, UK, Global Security Issues, International Institutions
Governments should draw on marketing techniques in their efforts to undermine the brand of terrorist organisations

The widespread coverage of recent attacks in France, Mali, the US and Indonesia is just a snapshot of the profile that terrorism has in the global media. Details of plots, groups and individuals paint a picture of a menacing horror that is sweeping across the world. While the Western response has largely abandoned explicit references to a ‘global war on terror’, popular characterisations of terrorism continue to converge towards a single, homogenous idea of ‘Islamic’ extremism associated with spectacular brutality. Governments need to promote a new public understanding of what is actually happening to support national security and foreign policies, and reduce the impact of this form of political violence.

The language and perception of terrorism matters. Distinguished anthropologist Scott Atran describes terrorism as a mission of moral and political redemption: ‘young people self-mobilize to the tune of a simple, superficial, yet broadly appealing “takfiri” message [the accusation of apostasy by one Muslim against another] of withdrawal from impure mainstream society and the need for violent action to cleanse it.’ Spread through flat, globalised networks of communication, the word ‘terrorism’ has acquired broad and deep meaning for individuals, groups and nations.

Terrorism, as a uniform concept of globalised political violence, has enabled the smallest act to produce the largest consequence, in a way that the mainland campaign of the Irish Republican Army never did. Despite new methods – such as suicide bombing – terrorist acts have always had two essential components: first, the act of violence itself; and, second, the attendant perceptions and meanings generated.

Since the 7/7 attacks of 2005, the British government has been effective in preventing another major domestic terrorist event, thereby nullifying the first component of terrorism. However, the second component – the perceptions and meanings generated by the act – continues to affect the UK’s way of life and national consciousness, its liberal politics and constitution, as well as the country’s global outlook and internal cohesion. Why have these second-, third- and fourth-order effects of contemporary terrorism become so significant?

Unlike the close and comprehensible history of Northern Irish terrorism, today’s public has to make sense of terrorism within a complex global context in which foreign cultures are distant and motives are obscure. Many governments privately acknowledge that, despite the echoes of a global ideology, most armed opposition movements in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are in fact locally rooted. Yet this fact is not widely recognised among the public because its attempt to decipher a seemingly indistinguishable string of terrorist atrocities around the world relies on a highly constrained frame of reference provided by the media, even in the ultra-connected online age. And, significantly, news and media channels have become spaces in which terrorists can escalate division and thereby seek support, recruits and finance. Today’s most effective terrorists have become adept at leveraging simplified meanings of culture, religion, power, identity and morality to conjure up the spectre of global violence and provoke fear, promote their cause and escalate conflict.

In addition, how governments respond through the media is critical. While groups can certainly mimic one another, no single group can control how terrorism is seen; rather, it is how governments react that largely defines what is, and is not, terrorism. Governments can tend to simplify, conflate, obscure and reduce public understanding of the real nature of the threat, and thereby – by omission or commission – reinforce the brand impact of what has come to be understood as terrorism.

A number of the same techniques used by marketing agencies to build commercial brands are used to build the public image of terrorism: simplified messaging; intelligent positioning; emotional appeal; organisational unity; consistent labelling; reputation for delivery; and clarity of purpose. How people understand today’s terrorism is therefore similar to the way consumers receive a brand.

Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) has applied these techniques to its own ‘business’ and marketing strategies. In Syria, it has positioned itself locally as a credible alternative to the hated regime of Bashar Al-Assad. It claims to be standing up for the civilians being killed by the regime, thereby hoping to strike an emotional chord with Muslim youth around the world and presenting them with a potentially life-changing dilemma between national loyalty and standing up in defence of sacred values. Indeed, the power of the terrorist brand comes from the emotional response that it arouses and its adept positioning on matters of local and global politics. For youth at a transitional stage of their life, Atran has found jihad to be ‘an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious, cool – and persuasive.’

Daesh’s logo and choreographed narrative of brutality, especially in the absence of any effective competitor, powerfully symbolises unity and consistency. It has also built up a reputation for delivering on its message. In the words of Ije Nwokorie, the CEO of London branding consultancy Wolff Olins, a brand is the ‘manifestation of an organisation’s purpose’. The more a corporate organisation appears to live out its values while saying what it is doing, the stronger the brand. By conquering territory Daesh can claim to be delivering on its promise to establish a caliphate; it delivers on its threats by beheading ‘apostates’ and non-Muslims. In so doing, it demonstrates a purpose unrivalled by other groups.

Brand marketing uses stories and pictures, reasoned argument and emotional triggers, personalities and myths to envelope consumers, align them with a corporate identity and, crucially, generate real-world action. Today, Daesh is the pre-eminent rebel brand among a global marketplace of localised grievances, political insurgencies, dislocated youth, sacred values and religious difference.

The employment of these branding techniques by terrorist organisations is a major reason why Western governments struggle to identify who, or what they are fighting – at times the focus has been on an individual, while at other times it has been on a cause, group or ideology. Undoubtedly, Daesh is selling more than just a single, simple and static storyline. Daesh sympathises use individuated social media conversations to convey messages of value and emotion which resonate with a globally aware youth, shaping a mythic brand that has an impact on the very meaning of their lives.

To counter such a sophisticated branding strategy, governments need to work together to craft an equally sophisticated response. Prime Minister David Cameron seemed to recognise this when he urged the BBC to add the prefix ‘so-called’ to the name ‘Islamic State’ in an attempt to deny the movement its claimed religious and political legitimacy. But a far deeper and broader model is required to deny the influence and benefits which stem from the association with a global name.

Everything is in a name. The various lists of designated terrorist organisations – all with local names – in Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Yemen, Indonesia and elsewhere have the effect of placing various unresolved and protracted local political conflicts into a single category – ‘terrorist’. In turn, this places these organisations on the global battlefield of terrorism. Last year, the White House appeared to recognise this connection when it distinguished the ‘armed insurgency’ of the Afghan Taliban from the ‘terrorist’ operations of Al-Qa’ida. By gradually using more creative language to reflect the variety among violent groups in the world, governments can highlight how different forms of political violence have different causes and thus different solutions, as well as undermining the simplistic idea that there is a single terrorist struggle of ‘us’ against ‘them’.

The ongoing conflation of terrorism with Islam provides the most effective breeding ground of confusion and fear in which terrorists flourish. Branding tells us that rational, abstract counter-narratives about the relationship of terrorism with Islam will have little impact in comparison with the powerful emotions provoked by perceptions of an unrelenting assault on sacred notions of group identity, loyalty and dignity. This is especially true when government attempts to separate ‘extreme’ from ‘moderate’ Islam result in a baffling, inconclusive theological debate, entirely lacking credibility among those young, disgruntled Muslims to whom the debate matters most. In the British government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy, published in October last year, the word ‘Islam’ was used over fifty times, despite government statements that modern terrorism is a perversion of religion. At the level of strategic perception, governments have failed to define terrorism as criminal, illegitimate violence and to separate it from Islam.

This version of terrorism has become uniquely self-perpetuating: the larger the random horror, the greater the division, and the greater the call to further violence by terrorists. Fast-moving, simplistic media coverage allows flawed perceptions to spread rapidly. Governments, given their positions of leadership and unique access to information, need to aggressively manage these perceptions. Alongside addressing those perceptions of labelling, legitimacy and simplicity already mentioned, governments should consider using four counter-branding approaches to weaken the terrorists’ influence: dismantle the sense of a unified globalised organisation; emphasise the local character of different terrorist causes; challenge the terrorists’ reputation for success; and undermine the standing of individual militants.

The first approach recognises that brands are designed to promote and anchor products or ideas. In this war of ideas, using the corporate language of ‘affiliates’ and ‘franchises’ to associate individuals and groups with a central ‘organisation’ reinforces their significance and unity. The more terrorism is perceived as a global brotherhood of rage that can be ‘joined’, the more attractive it is to youth in search of belonging. Governments should emphasise the highly fluid and fragmented character of leaders, movements, and structures of command and control that lie behind terrorist acts.

Second, by emphasising the local character of different terrorist causes, governments can undermine the idea of a global titanic clash between terrorists and everyone else. For example, Boko Haram’s history is rooted in local political grievances, yet its recent pledge of allegiance to Daesh – and its global brand – is meant to increase its legitimacy, funding, recruitment and morale. Like many connections between such groups, this apparent allegiance belies an essentially fractured relationship, ripe for exploitation. Politics is locally specific and best addressed locally. Governments can expose the differences between different groups’ causes and history, as well as their internal divisions and flaws, to weaken their attempts to portray themselves as part of a global movement.

The third aspect targets the perceived effectiveness of terrorism. As already discussed, a commercial brand succeeds or fails based on its reputation for delivering what it promises. The wider public today recognises terrorism as a credible and ever-present threat, and the potential recruit sees terrorism as a high-profile outlet for his or her grievance. The two perceptions are interdependent: no rebel wants to join a flop. Yet the reputation for success is far from justified: the majority of terrorist plots fail, often in absurd fashion. Governments should emphasise these failures and thus undermine the idea of an ever-present threat from terrorism, as well as disincentivise potential recruits from joining terrorist groups.

This then leads to the fourth approach: undermining the standing of individual militants. Terrorist groups mythologise certain individuals, especially suicide ‘martyrs’ and group leaders, building them up as heroes. Surrounded by recognisable terrorist regalia in propaganda videos and mainstream media, these terrorists present themselves as ‘brand ambassadors’ by exemplifying their cause. But these individuals are human and fallible. Governments should emphasise the personal shortcomings of ‘martyrs’ and leaders, demolishing their standing and substantially weakening their influence. In so doing, they could undermine the global terrorist brand in much the same way as the global credibility of the Catholic Church was damaged when the reputation of its leadership was questioned.

To date, the government response to terrorist propaganda has largely been about constructing and promoting counter-narratives. Reasoned argument is useful insofar as it can credibly address specific ideas of legitimacy, history and conflict. However, responding to terrorism with bellicose language only helps the terrorists’ purpose. Generally, the approach leaves governments in catch-up mode and fails to address the deeply resonant emotional, perceptual and spiritual offers of hope, purpose and belonging that a terrorist group like Daesh generates.

The analytical model of brand marketing gives researchers and practitioners a shopping list of techniques, narratives and tactics with which to gradually reverse the growing influence of modern terrorists and the threat they pose to various countries. Through a sequence of co-ordinated measures, governments can craft a realistic strategy to combat the growing brand impact of terrorism. The model also suggests a way to revive a much-needed alternative vision of what Western societies can offer to today’s youth – one which goes far beyond the thinly communicated refrain of the ‘traditional British values’ of freedom and democracy.

Matthew Freear
Communications Research Consultant, RUSI.

Support Rusi Research

Subscribe to our Newsletter