By viewing al-Qaeda as a brand, it doesnt seem as dauntingand
that its communication techniques can equally be used for good
Jack Yan is founder and CEO of Jack Yan & Associates and
president of JY&A Consulting.
LAST MONTH, I gave the end-of-year address for the Australian
Graphic Design Association’s Victoria state chapter in Melbourne. Most of
what I said was intended to inspire. With an audience from many design companies
and Futurebrand, I felt it would be interesting to revisit the cyclical nature
of branding—and how not much has changed since Naomi Klein penned No
In the wake of No Logo, many of us in the branding
profession protested, but on most counts, she was right. Window-dressing had
made unethically produced goods palatable, while the gap between rich and poor
widened globally. But while Klein’s motivations were right, she offered few
solutions. So some of us, spurred by the lack of response, came up with Beyond
Branding in 2003, answering No Logo.
But for all the shouting, the business world of 2004 looks
much like the business world of 2000. There remains an over-reliance on how
the Dow behaves. The indices on measuring companies have not really changed,
despite gallant efforts. And one book that has managed to secure a populist
doesn’t really advance the game at all.
The window-dressing continues. BP has a nice, flowery logo.
But it’s to be expected. I asked the Australian audience to cast their minds
back to the late 1980s with the Shell logo. It was designed in the 1970s, when
geometry and hardness were the rage. The BBC documentary, Design Classics,
said that the Shell logo would not make it through the 1990s because it was
a more caring decade that demanded softer forms. If anything, the 1990s were
even more selfish: Melrose Place, while fictional, indulged in bed-hopping
for ratings, while Clinton-era excesses ensured killings on the stock market
for anyone clever enough to invest and retreat in the dot com period, but it
certainly wasn’t about caring for others. Arnold Schwarzenegger made much of
it in his attacks on Gov Gray Davis of California was he ran for the office:
California had out-spent itself. Keeping up with the Joneses, surpassing them,
and then ensuring they were subservient to you as you gazed down from your Lincoln
Navigator (or a Hummer, in the case of Gov Schwarzenegger), was the pastime
of the decade, well beyond what any Filofax-armed yuppie could indulge in during
They used to say it took us 15 years to forget our lessons,
but judging by the global economy right now, we’ve forgotten in fewer than five.
The pressing problem of 2005 does appear to be the gap between rich and poor,
something I want to address through one of our programmes next year. While the
rich and the poor have all become richer, if the conservative media are correct,
the gap has widened. In there lies the seeds of envy, and potentially of terrorism.
I have always believed, without having actually visited the territory, that
the enemy of freedom and liberty is not a young Palestinian strapping himself
to a bomb and blowing up a dozen Jews. Call me an internet idealist, who started
off in the early 1990s believing this medium had the chance to unite all peoples,
but whenever I email folks in Syria or Iran, their desires are much the same
as mine. And those desires, if you must put a name to them, may be summarized
as the American Dream. Or the Australian Dream. Or the New Zealand Dream. Whatever
the name, it means the opportunity to be all you can be, to the greatest level
But what chances are there of the Dream if there is oppression,
corruption or a lack of freedom? I refer not to civil liberties or the Bill
of Rights, but basic things such as freedom of movement and capital. I refer
not solely to places that the western media like talking about as inferior—North
Korea, Fallujah or Zaïre—but much of the west, too. The idealist in me
says we all have a right to live our greatest potential.
There are many ways that one can realize this potential. The
Bush administration would argue that its actions in Iraq are the methods. Others
would disagree, believing that naturally, this demand would be there and softer
approaches in diplomacy would work. I rest somewhere in between: preferring
the latter (wouldn’t most of us?), all while wondering if we were being diplomatic
to someone who didn’t understand diplomacy, then being forced with a very difficult
decision. Whatever one’s ideology, the tools are already there. And it may involve
the internet once again as the great democratizer, the great conversation-starter
of the planet.
I have confidence that the internet may still unite. Next
year, I finally hope to realize my dream of creating a global forum for businesses,
to help narrow the income gap. The technology has been on the server for two
years, awaiting a colleague’s book to come out in paperback and pushing the
lot out there into the world. I might do it without his book, and see where
I am confident not because of any example from the dot-com
era, most of which were designed to absorb money, but because we have all already
seen the same tools employed in the quest of evil.
The Madrid bombings were activated by cellphones, which have
become very effective and cheap detonators. Nine-eleven, meanwhile, could only
have worked because terrorists employed the very tools of prosperity and progress
to do everything from unload shares in American airlines to keeping in touch
with one another via email.
We may well be able to use the same tools for good and see
just how al-Qaeda and the like can be dismantled.
For al-Qaeda is a brand.
IT IS A DISCOMFORTING THOUGHT to consider that the west’s enemy can be thought
of as a brand. It is not unprecedented. The Third Reich’s swastika remains one
of the most powerful symbols; its propaganda and use of media equalled only
by the richest Superbowl-advertising corporations today. One reason the Third
Reich’s "brand" fails modern scrutiny is that it would be impossible
to have a consistent brand message: if it existed today, there would be enough
dissenters in niche media to make many outside Germany question its motives.
In the 1930s, distance and ignorance helped Hitler and his cronies kill millions
before anyone took notice.
I am no student of history and doubtless the above can be
critiqued fairly easily, but I believe that al-Qaeda does have more of the hallmarks
of a modern brand.
Originally I said this in jest in Australia, where I even
showed a bottle of bin Laden cologne on a slide. Some companies would have to
wait a long time, with a lot of brand-building, before considering the extension
into fragrances. While I am sure that bin Laden’s toilet water does not pay
a royalty to terrorism for every bottle sold in Karachi, Pakistan, the issue
is that it exists and it is a sign of the widespread nature of the brand.
Indeed, its possible independence from al-Qaeda is symptomatic of a 21st century
brand, where consultants such as myself have argued that modern brands must
belong to the people. Everyone can use Linux, for instance; bloggers who use
Blogger.com can show the company’s logo on their sites. Anything with a sense
of community, be it dot-com-boom period or post-boom, permits the use of their
logo, with a link usually, to show that while legally one company may hold a
trademark, it is co-opted by others. The rule of consistency no longer applies
when Google, surely one of the hottest brands of the century, plays with its
own logotype and adds cartoon characters to it for special occasions.
Other hallmarks of al-Qaeda as brand appear in the way the
organization is structured. My staff keep telling me not to draw parallels between
my companies and a group devoted to evil, but as someone who began a virtual
company in the 1980s, I can see these ideas being used for the wrong reasons.
Mr Kalishnikov, at his recent 85th birthday party, felt the same way about his
clientèle being very different to what he envisaged, though if you are
to make a gun, there’s less doubt over what people would wind up doing with
it. What I am certain about is that I have had no contact with terrorists, bar
one taxi driver in Auckland who told me that 9-11 was an American frame-up and
recalled parts of propagandist web sites about spiders in the Middle East that
only bit Americans and killed them. One can safely assume that al-Qaeda arrived
at its virtual organization structure and methods independently and naturally—which
is why I believe the same can be used for good.
Al-Qaeda has a leader who sets an overall policy for the organization.
Being a first-generation firm, such as Virgin, it is hard to separate the leader
from the organization. Individual strategic business units—or ‘cells’ as they
prefer to be called—are not scrutinized by head office heavily, yet are given
autonomy to pursue their targets in line with the vision, necessary in collaborative,
virtual cultures. Each conducts research into how their actions might be perceived
by their target audiences. Brand communications are left to head office, including
promotions and press announcements, rather than each SBU, ensuring consistency
with the vision again. This leads to a generally consistent image for the organization:
its primary home audience and staff believing one thing (although its secondary
audience believes the exact opposite, something that brands do not usually achieve).
What al-Qaeda dispenses with are aspects of visual communications,
with its web sites—from what I can tell on television—having a do-it-yourself
feel. But like Klein’s No Logo web site,
that encourages community, because of the ground-floor nature of the venture.
Like some pyramid schemes, al-Qaeda has operation manuals and, disturbingly,
records video tapes of targets that can be distributed for further "staff
training". Partner organizations happily proclaim the association through
co-branding, as Jemaah Islamiah has done.
The brand of the virtual organization should bear most
of these characteristics, but instead of cells committing atrocities, they can
be promoting good. In poorer regions, cells can be forming meetings and cooperatives,
going on the internet as a group to seek advice to help export their products
to the west. That alone can begin to funnel western-style funds into poorer
communities. These things are already happening, without a unified front like
that of al-Qaeda: there are countless programmes out there from PeopleTree and
Gabriel Scarvelli that are ensuring the growth and prosperity of many communities
involved in the fashion business. Dilmah Teas, an example I gave at AGDA, sees
its founder donating money to build hospitals, churches and schools. A single
vision, a single brand-communication unit, cohesive communications and a strong
mantra are really the ingredients the virtual organization requires, presenting
a front to its audiences. Allowing community to flourish within the organization,
with co-branding as one tool by partner firms or affiliates, such as that of
affiliate programme, enhances the brand further, giving each partner a feeling
of ownership. Much is tied together by the World Wide Web.
The trouble, and boon, of virtual organizations is that they
can exist anywhere. They hinge on the corporate office a great deal: remove
it and there is nothing creating consistency, or holding the group together.
What happens afterwards is one of two things: if the brand was strongly ingrained
into its members, then the organization may well continue, with similar cultures
at each unit. The dismantling of Ma Bell was one example. If the brand was more
weakly held, then the organization will lose direction and fade away, just like
so many internet start-ups that never did much for their cultures and focused
too much on securing venture capital.
Culture is why al-Qaeda retains its fascination by the media
and many of the public. The US Government may be right when it says that three-quarters
of al-Qaeda has been destroyed, but the brand has its loyalists and its detractors.
Individual cells are still doing their ugly business in its name.
What the US Government might be considering now, as it hunts
for Usama bin Laden, is how strongly the brand is held by cells and their members,
though not in such business terms. But thinking of it as a business and in brand
creation terms may help put it into context.
Al-Qaeda’s greatest rival is not another terrorist group that
could steal its members, because it can easily say the other group is an ally.
The red brigades of the 1970s, with their connections to anyone from Col Gaddafi
to the KGB, managed their relationships accordingly. Al-Qaeda’s greatest threat
is an organization that targets the same audiences with the opposite message:
one of hope and peace.
However, if there was hope, al-Qaeda would not have attracted
its members. But a group that is dedicated to encouraging that "Dream"
amongst the citizenry, starting off small (as the cells did) and finding paths
to prosperity, may be the catalyst to winning the war on terror.
Al-Qaeda the brand exists as partly a cause-driven one: remove
the cause (anti-American-imperalism), it can no longer stand. It becomes, instead,
an institution. It is when the active, virtual organization becomes over-institutionalized
in its processes that it sinks into being an anachronism, archaic and ineffective.
The other limb is in the leadership, because it has become too closely identified
with Usama bin Laden. His removal has an equivalent in a hypothetical (at least
for the immediate term) Virgin plc without Richard Branson.
WE THEN COME BACK to a discussion about what the first world is doing to help
the second and third. While it pollutes or abuses workers, then it is going
to win no friends. Hearts and minds are won not by propaganda, but by real changes.
That means fair wages and living the environmental policies that companies proclaim.
That means overturning the culture of greed and rises in the Dow Jones that
have nothing to do with a firm’s value. Indeed, we come back to 2001 and 2002,
when I wrote of "moral
This can still be achieved, by the smallest groups. Most will
now be familiar with the story of Spaceship One, a spaceship created
by a private group on a shoestring budget (relatively speaking, compared with
NASA’s). On a more down-to-earth level, al-Qaeda got to where it is with a tiny
budget, too: bin Laden may have a quarter-billion-dollar war chest but it is
meagre compared with nations’. So the good—groups that drive capital to those
who might otherwise be tempted to commit atrocities, giving them a chance of
true, productive self-actualization—can also be accomplished with a clever use
of the World Wide Web and access to information. If destruction can be achieved,
then global construction can, too. All it needs is leadership, which many of
us are prepared to give. I still believe in my forum idea and if I can lead
a virtual organization for 17 years, I can give this one a shot, too.
Remove the conditions of envy, create the conditions of hope,
and the tools of evil can become the tools of good. Idealism? Perhaps. Attainable?
Watch this space.
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