This may be a controversial post for some, but it is a topic I have been meaning to write about for some time. In fact, ever since I got an advance copy of an article by John Cook called "Branding Bin Laden" which was published in the April 2008 issue of Radar Magazine. It is an insightful analysis introducing the idea that perhaps the real war the US is fighting (and losing) is a branding war instead of a physical one. In the piece, Cook points to the growing use of Bin Laden’s image in the Arab world (and beyond) as a symbol of anti-American sentiment, but not necessarily terrorism. To a degree, it has moved beyond Bin Laden as a person or even what he represents. His symbol is becoming a brand, similar to how the face of Che Guevarra that can still be seen around the world (though ironically it is often in support of global brands and exactly the kind of capitalism he once fought). It’s not the people agree with the politics, necessarily (though certainly many do). They are taking an image and assigning a different meaning to it. Brand Bin Laden, Cook argues, has started to stand for defiance of America in any form.
This reshaping of brands is not a new phenomenon in countries outside the US. When I was travelling through India, I found a rickshaw driver who was wearing a Washington Redskins jacket. Was it because he was a Redskins fan? Definitely not. I asked him and he had never seen an American football game. To him, the jacket was a symbol of America – akin to wearing an "I Love NY" shirt. The broader meaning of the Redskins was that they were something uniquely American and his wearing the jacket didn’t indicate any support for the team, but rather a desire to associate with a brand that represents America. As Cook describes in his article:
"It may seem naive or offensive to describe a terrorist organization that has killed thousands of civilians on four continents as a brand. But just as Coca-Cola is both a sugary, brown liquid and something you’d "like to buy the world," Al Qaeda is at once a murderous gang of zealots and an increasingly potent symbol of resistance to US power."
The article goes on to reason that if the real war America is fighting is one of PR and branding, then perhaps the solution also needs to come from this world. There are relatively few pieces of journalism that can really make you think about the role and importance of branding in the broader context of the world. This is bigger than much of the internally focused ideas we are often guilty of focusing on (and what you may often find on this blog, I admit). For any marketer interested in how branding relates to our culture and the world, as well as how it may in fact be one of the most powerful forces shaping the world as we see it today, you need to read Cook’s article.*
* The article is currently only available through Radar’s archives, however I have requested from their PR team to repost the entire PDF here on my blog.