The Al Qaeda Brand Ten Years Later

Most people don’t think of Al Qaeda and marketing in the same sentence. But marketing is important to Al Qaeda and so is the strength of its brand. It is the key to raising money, recruiting jihadis and motivating them to attack.

Al Qaeda Flag

The Al Qaeda flag features the Shahadah, the Muslim declaration of belief “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

Weak Al Qaeda Brand Image
The Al Qaeda brand is in trouble. Like many brands, it got its name by accident. The name means “The Base,” referring to the network of mujahedeen training camps founded during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It doesn’t really have a logo ( but it does have a flag). At least it avoids the terrorist visual clichés of crossed swords and crossed guns.

Al Qaeda Brand Built on Personalities
Al Qaeda’s brand largely rests on cult of personality—think Martha Stewart, Oprah or Donald Trump. That’s why Osama bin Laden dyed his beard for his video appearances and why Khalid Sheikh Mohammed draped himself in white robes for the Red Cross photographers on Guantanomo. With the death and capture of its iconic leaders, the engine of the Al Qaeda brand is broken. Chief Marketing Officers in American firms have notoriously short tenures. So do CMO’s of Al Qaeda. Getting fired from Al Qaeda, however, tends to take the form of a drone attack.

Failing Brand Experience
In addition to outsize personalities, the Al Qaeda brand was built on headline-grabbing acts of terror. A decade has passed without what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed called “spectaculars.” It’s been years since Al Qaeda has been able to make splashy attacks like the USS Cole, the Bali bombing or the 9/11 “Planes Operation.” Thwarted attempts, like the Underpants Bomber or Times Square bomb fizzle, show smaller ambitions and a “brand experience” linked to failure after failure.

Splintering Franchise
Like many once iconic brands, Al Qaeda has splintered. Brand experts point out the damage to brand power when it “stretches” too much. The most effective brands are singular and iconic. Al Qaeda is fading due to the proliferation of “flavors” and associated “subbrands.” Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula lacks the panache of plain old Al Qaeda and Jaish-e-Mohammed lacks name recognition.

Al Qaeda Brand and a Reduced Strategy
Ten years ago, Al Qaeda was more like Procter & Gamble with central brand management and control. Nowadays, it is more like Amway. Al Qaeda declined from peerless icon to a collection of franchises to local to being a coach on the sidelines, encouraging and assisting personal initiative. Pursuing a “strategy of a thousand cuts” or “one man, one bomb,” Al Qaeda supplies the fatwa, the bomb recipes, the strategic suggestions and sits back. Current Al Qaeda propaganda minister (CMO) Adam Gadahn asks, “So what are you waiting for?” Thankfully, making a bomb from a recipe in Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine is more difficult than duplicating Martha Stewart’s cake fondant. It always looks so do-able on the page and comes out like crap in your own kitchen.

As a brand that inspired fear, attracted investment and inspired jihadis, the Al Qaeda brand has lost its power.

UPDATE: 9/30/2011: The Al Qaeda brand has sustained another blow with the death of its chief English speaking propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki and the editor of Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine Samir Khan. al-Awlaki wasn’t considered a top leader in Al Qaeda, but he was an important face of the brand in the U.S. due to his role in assisting some of the 9/11 hijackers, his inspiration of the Ft. Hood shooter Nidal  Malik Hasan, and his involvement with the Underwear Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. His role in Inspire magazine and his English language threat videos further raised his personal profile and awareness of Al Qaeda. We had talked about how many Al Qeada brand leaders have been “fired” by drone attacks–for the marketing leaders that remain, it is a question of who is next on the list and when. See my article on Forbes.com

Related Posts:
Approaches to Brand Architecture
When a Brand Is a Person
Bin Laden Brand Lives and Profits (But Not as He Intended)

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