Osama bin Laden was a leader with too much time on his hands.
Idling away the years in his compound, he fretted in his final writings that al-Qaeda was suffering from a branding problem.
In an undated letter discovered among bin Laden’s recent writings the al-Qaeda CEO lamented that his organization was losing its focus and the West was winning the public relations war. All his old trusty lieutenants were dead and he barely knew their replacements.
It was time for a rebrand.
As bin Laden saw it, the problem was the group’s full name, al-Qaeda al-Jihad, which means ‘The Base of Holy War’. It had become shortened to al-Qaeda, ‘The Base’, which does not quite get the point across. By lopping off the ‘Holy War’ part of the name, bin Laden wrote, it allowed the West to “claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam.”
Maybe it was time for al-Qaeda to bring back its full original name. Or maybe change it to something like Taifat al-Tawhed Wal-Jihad, meaning Monotheism and Jihad Group. Or Jama’at I’Adat al-Khilafat al-Rashida, meaning Restoration of the Caliphate Group.
Now, as any branding consultant could have told him, names do not work like that. al-Qaeda al-Jihad and those other names are just too long, and long names get shortened. It’s the Fedex, Bevmo and MetLife syndrome – you can’t do too much about it once it’s out there except go with the flow, or find a shorter alternative.
The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman appears to have uncovered some additional documents — or brainstorming notes from an international marketing firm — that show where the terrorist organization may had been moving.
To: Osama Bin Laden
From: Ron Johnson, Vice President, International Marketing
After receiving the keychain flash drive and reviewing your memo, I wanted to get back to you with some of my initial thoughts regarding this matter. And let me be honest from the outset. While I am sensitive to your concern that Al Qaeda has exhausted its usefulness as a brand, I am not entirely convinced that either of the two suggestions you proposed—Taifat al-Tawhed Wal-Jihad or Jama’at I’Adat al-Khilafat al-Rashida—is the solution to your problem. We have spent time with some of our best people and we have come up with a few ideas. Here are the four that received the most traction in-house.
1. aQ: The Al Qaeda name may not be doing everything you want, but its international name recognition is huge. It tests out higher than almost any other brand, corporate or personal; it’s in the same neighborhood as Coca-Cola, Nike, and Shaq. So how about a simple streamline? aQ would retain the connection with Al Qaeda while introducing a sense of high design and elegance. And I can already see the campaign: “Q: aQ? A: aQ!”
2. Terrora: Extensive market research on pills and cars has shown decisively that the soft vowel ending greatly increases trust. I assume that’s why you selected Al Qaeda in the first place. So let’s stick with that but emphasize to a much greater extent what you do—which is, let’s be frank, terrorism. Like it or not, English is still the world’s principal language where corporate identities are concerned.
3. Boomtown: We’re really high on this one, which conveys a sense of excitement and possibility while still incorporating your commitment to explosives. A few people in the office have suggested that it sounds too American, and I encourage you to be frank with me on this point. The more serious issue here is that it skews extremely young—the closest comp we could find in terms of positive reaction was Chuck E. Cheese—but isn’t youth appeal an important part of what you want? Build toward the future, we always say, not away from the past.
4. Qaravan: Earlier I mentioned that the pharmaceutical and automotive industries have done great things with vowels at the ends of words. That’s true. But they have also made magic with simple, strong names. You’re familiar with the Dodge Caravan, I assume? It’s one of America’s most potent brands: in or near the top ten of vehicle nameplates worldwide. Well, one of the guys here, Paul, was doing some research and he discovered the Caravan Raids in the seventh century, which were one of the first times that Muhammad gave his followers permission to fight back against the Meccans. Given that your main concern with Al Qaeda is that it has lost the connection to religious combat, this seemed like kismet, and just like that we came up with Qaravan: strong, memorable, familiar, and also nostalgic. I should stress the last of these. Earlier I mentioned that we like to try to build toward the future, but there are also cases where it makes sense not to build away from the past but to build upon it. Creating a strong bond with what came before is vital in these kinds of things. As Don Draper said of nostalgia, “It’s delicate but potent.” (You may not know who that is, and that’s O.K.—I think the insight stands on its own.)
At any rate, those are the early contenders. We are open to a dialogue. Feel free to respond on the enclosed flash drive and have your answer sent anonymously from an Internet café.
- Al-Qaeda has an image problem, needs a new name, Bin Laden wrote in letter (theglobeandmail.com)