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

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

Most Valuable Chinese Brands

Most Valuable Brands In ChinaThe Hurun Report covers new ground with its release of the Most Valuable Chinese Home-grown Brands List 2011. As we posted earlier this year, creating brands is official Chinese government policy. Chinese leaders recognize that the big profits are in selling brands, not making products. Since opening their markets in 1990, the Chinese have made fast progress in learning how to brand.

Most Chinese brands are still unknown in the US Market.  There is simply so much potential in the domestic Chinese market that companies don’t need to face the risks of exporting. It makes sense to go after a local market of 1.3 billion people you know well before taking on the logistical and cultural challenges of the United States with just 312 million people.

The top ranking brands were built on state-owned enterprises. The ICBC (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China) leads the list, followed China Mobile and China Construction Bank (CCB). Baidu, China’s answer to Google, is the most valuable privately owned brand. Indeed, digital brands are doing well in China. Tencent QQ, a social networking/instant messaging company ranks seventh.

Chinese businesses still struggle with the concept of branding. Most don’t get past the name and logo to understand what truly creates value. They are much better at mastering the pragmatic nuts and bolts concepts of process efficiency, accounting, and distribution logistics than they are at the art of branding and marketing. Chinese companies sell almost exclusively on price. In talking to Chinese businessmen, it is not unusual to hear the complaint, “I have a new logo, but I still can’t charge more than my competitors.”

Branding agencies in China struggle to sell the value of brand strategy, design and execution. When I visited a Chinese based branding agency, their process of brand creation involved asking client company executives what colors they liked. The few exported Chinese brands like Haier and Lenovo truly struggle against much savvier competitors in the US market.

Still, Chinese businesses are famous for learning fast. Branding is in its infancy in China, but it won’t stay that way. The value of Chinese brands is up 27% from the 2010 list. And at a value of US$403.8 billion, is more than double the value of the 2009 list, which was US$186.9. While more than half of the top 100 Chinese brands are state-run, the number of private, nimble businesses on the list is growing, as is their value. And twenty-one brands on the list are entrepreneurial first-timers.

Beyond Name and Logo: Other Elements of Your Brand

The most basic brand elements are a name and a logo. But these alone are not enough to communicate a rich brand identity.

Your own personal identity is more than your name and your face. Your identity includes personal data like your birthday, place of residence, where you work, and your phone number. It also includes the sound of your laugh, the way you walk, and the taste of your most famous recipe. As your own personal identity is multidimensional, so should be the identity of your brand.

Trademarks Brand Elements

Think beyond name and logo to how you can appeal to the five senses. Can your logo move and animate? What colors, shapes, symbols, textures, sounds, vocabulary, smells, flavors, and styles can be associated with your brand? As more customers experience your brand in an interactive environment, adding more dimensionality to your brand will help
you stand out and engage.

Creating a rich brand identity more effectively communicates what makes your brand so special, compelling and worth remembering.

For more on brand basics–here’s a classic old post:  What is a Brand?
Also worth a revisit:  Kinds of Logos

Add Heroics to Proxios’ Brand Promise

At Merriam Associates, we have been honored to work with some truly great companies large and small. Occasionally, we get to work with a company which does something truly heroic.

Proxios The Bookkeeping Department FireWe renamed and repositioned Proxios, which manages companies’ information technology through cloud computing. It is a nifty company with great people and a service that is compelling. Just how nifty and compelling came to light last week when one of Proxios’  customers, The Bookkeeping Department, got the phone call that all business owners dread.  Their building was on fire.

For a business that provides financial reporting, accounts receivable/payable, general accounting, and tax services, this type of emergency could cause severe problems for its clients and put them out of business – especially this close to April 15.

The fire destroyed The Bookkeeping Department’s offices so thoroughly they won’t be able to return for at least six months. But, since all of their IT was in “the cloud” with Proxios, clients didn’t even notice the catastrophe. Phones and emails were immediately re-routed. All bookkeeping and tax documents were miles away from the fire in Proxios’ secure offsite facility. The company kept operating without losing touch with customers and without losing a single byte of data.

“Despite the severity of the fire, I never had a moment’s doubt about being able to access our data,” explained The Bookkeeping Department’s CEO Harry Garmon.  “Since we were able to maintain contact with our clients, they couldn’t really perceive any difference in reaching either us or their data.”

Congratulations to Proxios for delivering on its brand promise of providing complete, uninterrupted access to world-class IT and communications services any time,  anywhere, even during a catastrophic fire.


Ad Age Says Goats Are In; Monkeys Are Out

Goat Swoosh

Advertising Age reports this week on a growing advertising trend–the increased use of goats in ads.  It’s an odd aspect of our creative industry that copying is so common.  One area where follow-the-leader is rampant is in naming. Brand names should be distinctive above all, but I often get naming project requests like: “I want a name like Twitter” or “Lizard names are so cool, I want a lizard name, too.” Now, it seems, goats are a potential new brand fad.

The goat trend, if it can be called one,  is still in its early stages for brand names. Only a few, mostly small companies have branded around the animal:

  •, a design and production company
  • Goat Rock Semiconductors
  • Surly Goat Beer
  • Goat Eyewear
  • The Childhood Goat Trauma Foundation, a support group for people with problems from traumatic experiences at petting zoos as children–if anyone has suffered a traumatic run-in with goats, counselors are standing by (I suspect this is the Ricky Gervais of support groups).

    The “goat” name trend doesn’t look like it will bring a run of copycat names like the “fish” trend of a few years back that brought us such gems as Babelfish, Snapfish, or Razorfish. Nor is it like the “primate” trend that brought us Red Monkey Jeans, Mail Chimp, or Gorilla Glue.

    None of the animal name trends have rivaled the “e” trend of 1999, when nearly 5000 “e” names were registered in a single year, up 220% over 1998. Fast on the heels of “e” came “i.” Companies whose brands were built on innovation and who had resources to come up with innovative names jumped on the “i” bandwagon: Two of the most disappointing brand names in the last decade come from Apple, the iPhone and iPad.

    Stop the goat trend before it starts. Don’t jump on any name trend. Pick a name that stands out. If a name idea makes you stop and say “that’s different,” even “that’s weird,” you have a winner.

  • How Google Algorithms Sense Brand Names

    “Brands are how we sort out the cesspool.”

    This famous quote from Eric Schmidt, President of Google, gives us insight into the importance of brands when determining what search results to offer in response to customer queries.

    How do you know a word is a brand?  Google codes up the clues into mathematical algorithms.

    Google’s advanced and interlacing set of logical statements make it possible for a computer to sense what is and isn’t a brand. And, using logic strings, Google computers can gauge what brands matter most. What is most intriguing is that these algorithms are influenced by marketing tactics and results much like human brains.

    The blog “Whiteboard Friday” discussed some of Google’s patent applications and their recent acquisition of a company called Metaweb that sniffs out entities based on context, content and word usage. Google algorithms now can possibly:

    • Study the appearance of certain words and repetition of text content
    • Track frequency of use
    • Assessment of context of use and how text is positioned.
    • Follow what kinds of sites these words appear in, including news sites and retailers
    • See if the word gets talked about in links and in social media posts (and even in email as Google owns Gmail)
    • Note that the word appears in advertising (Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick gives it more power in this area)
    • Check if the word appears in patents, licenses catalogs, product reviews
    • Record how the word is used in search and what people click on as a result

    If a word is used often, is mentioned on lots of different contexts like news Web sites, product review service, in blogs, in social media in advertising and in stores, it might just be a brand.

    Renaming Proxios: CEO Talks About the Process

    Fast growing, innovative companies can sometimes outgrow their brands.

    “Our name became constraining,” said Frank Butler, CEO of Proxios, a fast-growing company using cloud computing technology to create affordable and reliable alternatives to traditional in-house information technology and phone systems. “Our old name Super-Server did not have broad appeal and it was dated.”

    Merriam Associates gave this company a new identity that better fit their reputation and future aspirations. Our research showed that their competitors were all saying the same things and using the same colors, in the same way. Plus, in talking to customers and prospects, we found what truly made them special. Over and over, customers talked about how responsive the company was in understanding the intricacies of each business, in customizing solutions to fit, in answering questions quickly, and in resolving problems.

    “We always thought we were a technology company. What we discovered in this process was that customers could not care less about technology,” Frank continued. “What they want is results. They could care less how we do it.”

    Informed with that insight and a solid creative brief, we considered hundreds of concepts and tested dozens of candidates through our proprietary process. We recommended the name Proxios because of its deep meaning that is directly relevant to the promise the company makes to their customers.

    Proxios derives from the Latin word “proximus”. That word has many meanings including “nearness”, “closely connected” and “close relationship”. The variant “proxios” literally means “freely”. We felt the word perfectly summed up the value proposition:

    • ­A close relationship with clients
    • ­Keeping them closely connected to applications and data no matter where they are
    • ­So that they are free of the headaches and risks of running their own information technology systems

    The name is just the first step in creating a brand. We designed a new logo that raises the company above the visual cliches so common to the category. And to tell the Proxios brand story, we wrote copy and designed a visual system that unified the look of all the company’s marketing communications pieces. The new Proxios brand gives the company a solid foundation for fast growth and national expansion–and the stature of innovative and responsive company.

    Frank concludes, “It was a remarkable process. It had a magical effect on our company.”


    More naming resources:

    Naming How-To:

    Naming Mistakes
    Six Factors for a Memorable and Motivating Name
    History of Best Known Brands
    Styles and Types of Brands
    Choosing a Name
    Try a Recycled Name
    Web 2.0 Naming Considerations
    What is Brand Architecture
    Approaches to Brand Architecture
    Brand Architecture and Business Strategy

    Companies and Products:

    MSNBC vs. and The Bigger Naming Problem
    Macy’s Blunder with Marshall Field’s Name Change
    Banks and the Name Game from Bank Marketing Magazine
    AIG Name Change to AIU
    Breaking Up the Motorola Brand
    Google’s Speedbook Disaster
    Renaming a Small Business
    Proxios CEO Talks About Renaming Process
    Naming a Green Sportswear Company
    Unintentionally Funny Names-BARF
    Unintentionally Funny Names-Putzmeister
    Renaming a $2 Billion IPG Agency
    Renaming Iraqi Freedom
    Selected Naming Portfolio

    Additional Naming Materials:

    Merriam’s Guide to Naming available at
    Naming in general

    Business Branding: Toward A More Effective Approach

    Is your brand all talk and no do? Successful brands walk the walk as much as they talk the talk. Great brands are not creatures of the marketing, living only in ads and brochures. Business brands have to break out of the marketing department and work beyond the scope of the ad campaign. They must be the driving force in selling, operations, investor relations, human resources, corporate social responsibility and in financial decision-making.

    In short, business brands can and should do a lot more. If your brand is just slogan and a logo, you are missing the bigger story.

    How is your business brand used today?  Consider the following questions:

    Sales:  What role does brand play in the sales department?   How involved is your sales force in creating, maintaining, and delivering your brand messages and experiences?  Too often brand is something that the marketing department throws at the sales force without their adequate involvement in creating strategy or devising tactics.

    Operations:  Does brand play a role in how your company operates?  Sometimes the brand is saying “we put customers first” when procedures demonstrate that policies and procedures are more important.  Bureaucracy, red tape, and rules that can’t be broken can impact your brand reputation far more than a costly ad campaign.

    Investor Relations:  How much is your brand worth?  Winning brands are proven to command a premium in the capital markets.  Your p/e ratio depends on how well people understand and value your brand.   Talking to the investors with your brand story at the center can help them digest facts, interpret trends, and buy into your vision for growth.

    Human Resources:  How are you using brand to attract and retain top talent?  How is your brand helping instill a productive brand culture?  Your brand story can educate, inspire and motivate both current and prospective employees.  When new employees join the company, your brand can be used to welcome them and inspirit them into your organization.  Ongoing brand message reinforcement ensures that people willingly deliver on your brand promise in their specific roles every day.

    Corporate Social Responsibility: It used to be that a good product and a good brand was what it took for a corporation to perform well.  Today, companies are realizing they must add a third element: Corporate Reputation.  Financial strength, management and ethics, and values and philosophies, contribute to reputation.  Corporate responsibility to communities and economies, to society at large, and to the environment, all impact reputation.  Brand can provide a coherent foundation for choosing activities and communicating achievements.

    All too often, brand builders in the marketing department get hung up on what to say in ads. It is far more productive to spend your energy on putting your brand to work throughout the corporation. It’s a cliché for sure, but when creating a brand that stands out in the market, actions truly do speak louder than words.