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ISIS: a case study for smart brand building

Few recognize “ISIS” as a successful brand, but it is. We just see their despicable beheadings, destruction of ancient ruins in Palmyra, and all the other grotesque forms of brutality and violent extremism they display. The ISIS Caliphate is an extreme terrorist group which has, seemingly overnight, conquered a large territory in Syria and Iraq. ISIS continues to recruit new members from around the world. But “ISIS” is also a strong brand with a distinct impression and message.

It is a classic example of effective branding, dedicated to gain worldwide recognition (and fear) and expand by attracting new recruits. It also reflects the basics of smart brand positioning:

• Market Opportunity – The disastrous war in Iraq after 9/11, the failure to create sustainable democracies after the “Arab Spring” in 2010, and the turbulent events in Syria between 2011 and 2014 left a power void in the area for the religious extremists. Timing is critical in branding, and finding a gap in the marketplace that has relevance for unfulfilled, dissatisfied customers (jihadists, in this case), created the perfect conditions for jump-starting a new, powerful movement with a captivating brand image.

• Target Audience and Desires – There are many young, religiously ardent Muslims who feel alienated by life in the West, are looking for purpose and adventure, and are vulnerable to ISIS invitations to build a puritanical utopia and support jihad. Not only do they seek camaraderie, but they have been propagandized relentlessly to take extreme action against any non-Muslim or infidels, especially the sexual imagery in the West. Supporters around the world have also been impressed by ISIS seizing vast territory in the Arab heartland with access to oil revenues, as well as their efficient bureaucratic organization.

• Competition – Most other religious sects of Islam are riddled with internal strife, lack strong leadership, and are perceived as a quarrelsome, dysfunctional family. ISIS stands out as the ultimate ideological choice for those who want a pure, authentic destination.

• Brand Name and Identity – ISIS is the most commonly referred name, although other brand variations such as IS (“Islamic State”) or ISIL may cause confusion. Their symbol is striking, a black banner comprised of a white calligraphic shahada, which means “there is only one god” in Arabic, against a black, haunting background.

• Point of Difference – The incomparable intensity and extreme terrorist tactics makes ISIS stand out among all religious groups in the world.

• Benefit/Promise – The hypnotic idea of eternal life from strict obedience to these rigid, yet dubious principles, even dedicating your life for this goal, is a mesmerizing inspiration for these young recruits. Perhaps the rationality of this promise is questionable, but the emotional motivation is compelling and convincing, which is essential for strong branding.

• Reasons to Believe this Promise – Every ruthless demonstration by ISIS is designed to add further credibility to this emotional force for young recruits, and of course outrage the civilized world. Their success in overpowering weak Iraqi and Syrian forces and occupying vast territories in both countries represents further proof that their zest for this extreme faction of Islam works and can be justified.

• Brand Champion – Every effort to build a strong brand requires an impressive, credible brand evangelist or champion to drive the passion and effectively lead a movement. The first figurehead emir when ISIS was formed in 2006 was a former small-town policeman from Iraq with no religious qualifications. Then an Egyptian took over who was rash and incompetent. Both were killed by American and Iraqi forces in 2010, which was an embarrassment for ISIS’s parent al-Qaeda and its anxious leader, Osama bin Laden. The new emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claims direct descent from the Prophet, and has become a very shrewd, well-connected leader. He initiated the final break from al-Qaeda in 2014, enhancing ISIS’s preeminent position in the global jihadist community.

• Brand Persona – There are many personality traits that facilitate the bonding between young recruits and this religious cause – passion, ruthlessness, intense idealism, willingness to sacrifice all traditional moral values, and relentless pursuit of the great battles that would accompany the “End of Days,” the Islamic equivalent of Armageddon. It reminds one of a sick, crazed gorilla – shrewd, relentless and strong, and also atrociously ruthless.

• Marketing and Social Media – The successful use of digital channels to reach and empower such impressionable young Muslims throughout the world has gained the admiration of many marketing experts. Using mainly YouTube and Twitter, which are more suitable for posting pictures and movies, the content shows how they have created stable communities and a lifestyle that is faithful to their extreme cause, yet enjoyable and pleasant for anyone. Brand building doesn’t take hold overnight, but their message and reach are focused and consistent, which has been key reasons for their success to date.

• Brand Sustainability – This becomes the true test of the long term survival and success of any brand. Here lies the major risk for ISIS. They have absolutely no allies in the world, and many recruits have become very disillusioned. There have been signs of young supporters returning home recently, which may indicate that ISIS has already reached a tipping point.

While it may not be the most appealing case study on how to build a brand, the rapid rise of ISIS reflects many essential elements for successfully re-positioning and developing a strong global brand.

Jay Gronlund

Jay Gronlund is an experienced business development and branding professional with a successful track record introducing new products and services, expanding into foreign markets, re-positioning products, and facilitating ideation sessions. Jay has effectively applied proven marketing and branding principles from his background in the consumer goods industry to other industry sectors, including B2B situations. Jay’s career began in consumer packaged goods and then expanded into household products, beverages and publishing. His first company was Richardson-Vicks (now part of Proctor & Gamble), where he held new product positions in New York and in London. He continued his new product responsibilities for Arm & Hammer products at Church & Dwight (Arm & Hammer), then VP Marketing of the wine/champagne division of Seagram, and finally VP, Director of Marketing at Newsweek. Gronlund started The Pathfinder Group in New York in 1990, an international business development and brand consulting firm. Related to this, much of his work today involves re-positioning brands, ideation sessions and marketing workshops, with a primary focus on emotional branding, especially building brand trust for clients. Jay has also been teaching a marketing course at NYU since 1999, “Positioning and Brand Development". Jay recently wrote a new book, “Basics of Branding," reflecting his NYU branding course and professional experience. He has also published several articles on diverse marketing topics: “5 Steps to a Successful Ideation Session," “What B2B Marketers can Learn from B2C," “Employer Branding," “Customized Marketing for Tomorrow’s Leaders," “Sharing and Implementing New Ideas Across Borders," and “Working with the New Russians”, “Word-of-Mouth Marketing for B2B Situations," “The Future of m-Health” and “How to Build ‘Value’ for Healthcare Brands in Emerging Markets." Jay Gronlund is a graduate of Colby College and has an MBA from Tuck at Dartmouth College.

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