Shakespeare said “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” True. A rose smells like a rose no matter what you call it. But, it’s also true that words and names and the attributions and associations connected to them absolutely drive our collective perceptions. If they didn’t, then there would be no such thing as branding and people like me would be out of a job.
It seems even the world’s worst person, Osama Bin Laden, agreed.
News out of Washington today is that before he was shot in the face by Navy SEALs, the aging terrorist lamented that al-Qaida was suffering a marketing problem. In letters found at his hide-out, the mass murderer complained that his terrorist group was killing too many Muslims and, “the West was winning the public relations fight.”
In his letters, Osama suggested re-branding with a new name. The problem with the name al-Qaida, bin Laden wrote was that it lacked a religious element, something to convince Muslims worldwide that they are in a holy war with America.
“Maybe something like Taifat al-Tawhed Wal-Jihad (meaning Monotheism and Jihad Group) would do the trick,” he wrote. “Or Jama’at I’Adat al-Khilafat al-Rashida (meaning Restoration of the Caliphate Group). As he saw it, the problem was that the group’s full name, al-Qaida al-Jihad, meaning The Base of Holy War, had become short-handed as simply al-Qaida. Lopping off the word “jihad,” Bin Laden wrote, allowed the West to “claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam.” According to U.S. officials, the documents portray Bin Laden as a terrorist CEO, struggling to sell holy war for a company in crisis.
Part of Bin Laden’s branding problem stems from a very smart re-branding of his group by the Obama administration. You may recall, the President received a lot of criticism for what opponents called a “politically-correct watering down of the war on terror.”
But, good branding is defining more than just your organization, it’s also about redefining the other guys. And, that’s what the United States did. By eliminating religiously charged words from the White House’s language of terrorism, the U.S. turned the story – and public perception, especially in the Middle East – around.
Words like “jihad,” which also has a peaceful religious meaning, were out. “Islamic radical” had been nixed in favor of “terrorist” and “mass murderer.”
“The information that we recovered from bin Laden’s compound shows al-Qaida under enormous strain,” Obama said Wednesday in his speech to the nation on Afghanistan. “Bin Laden expressed concern that al-Qaida had been unable to effectively replace senior terrorists that had been killed and that al-Qaida has failed in its effort to portray America as a nation at war with Islam, thereby draining more widespread support.”
Although he never got the chance to rebrand his band of merry murderers, his last speech (released posthumously) did indicate a shift in tone and violent rhetoric. And, in other letters he insisted that his group was “not about indiscriminate killing” an obvious change in the brand of outright violence he’d previously professed.