Wanted: Global brand to counter ISIS

Like many people I have been watching with increasing alarm the attacks by the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) around the world, from Jakarta to Istanbul to Paris to Egypt to San Bernardino. As an advertising professional with an expertise in brand building, what is more alarming to me is the growing strength and resilience of the ISIS brand.

In the movie, The Godfather Part II, there is a scene in Cuba where the character Michael Corleone sees a communist guerilla kill a policeman in Havana with a grenade that also killed himself.

It was Hollywood's first depiction of a suicide bombing. Michael Corleone's judgment was that the revolutionaries would prevail if their guerillas were so unafraid of death.

Today, we're seeing ISIS fighters determined to fight to certain death either against superior firepower or with suicide bombs. Seemingly intelligent young people are rebelling against their families and strong community ties, and leaving to join ISIS.

ISIS - with its distinctive black flag, ambition to create a modern-day caliphate, numerous Twitter postings and death videos - is creating a powerful global brand.

A kind of Apple or Coca-Cola or Nike but focused on a cult of death and nihilism.

Activists holding a banner last Friday that said "Indonesia is not afraid" at the site of a bombing in Jakarta. The day before, local militants had launched an assault in downtown Jakarta, which left seven dead.
Activists holding a banner last Friday that said "Indonesia is not afraid" at the site of a bombing in Jakarta. The day before, local militants had launched an assault in downtown Jakarta, which left seven dead. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

So when it comes to brand building what are they doing right and what could we be doing better to counter them?

There are five key steps they're taking to build their brand:

1. They've created a brand logo, displayed on their flag, giving their cause a singular image to rally behind.

2. They've identified a tangible brand goal with the creation of the caliphate, giving their followers a clear sense of what they're fighting for.

3. Their social media outreach via Twitter provides a common platform for followers to have a sense of belonging, so that they feel they're part of a large movement.

4. They are creating "myths" of their militants' triumphs in the field of battle. These "stories" are then used to recruit and inspire fighters.

5. They have a perceived common religious background, Sunni Islam, which gives them a sense of belonging to a "tribe", an "us" versus the world's "them".

Yet, while they have been focused in their efforts, the rest of the world has been uncoordinated in its own. The responses to attacks, whether bombing sorties or military incursions, may be satisfying on a visceral level but won't work in winning a war.

After all, wars are won with ideas not weapons.

Fifty years ago, South-east Asia looked similar to the Middle East today: chaotic and prone to extreme violence.

A half million people were killed in 1965-66 in Indonesia, as part of an anti-communist push by its military. The Vietnam War was in full swing. The Khmer Rouge was gaining power in the Cambodian countryside. The Pathet Lao was building strength in Laos. Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines were fighting communist insurgencies. Myanmar was under the oppressive rule of General Ne Win. It was a geopolitical mess.

Yet, the recent democratic election in Myanmar will allow the opposition to rule. The launching of the Asean Economic Community heralds a peaceful economic integration of South-east Asian nations, creating the third largest trading entity in Asia, after China and Japan.

Fifty years ago, no one wouldhave foreseen this level of peace and prosperity in South-east Asia. The United States may have lost the military conflict in Vietnam and South-east Asia but clearly won the war of ideas. South-east Asia, including Vietnam, is capitalist today and if not always democratic, clearly headed, even if tentatively, in that direction, despite some setbacks such as Thailand's recent coup.

With the lessons of South-east Asia, what can the world do better to counter the ISIS brand?

1. Create a brand that promises a better life for both today's and tomorrow's generations. If South-east Asia can be successful why not the Middle East?

2. Identify a common enemy so that ISIS' numerous adversaries are clearly talking about the same entity. Currently, ISIS isn't even referred to in the same way by leaders and the media around the world. It is called ISIS, ISIL, IS, Islamic State and Daesh. Without a common name, there isn't a common enemy. Let's agree on one name and stick with it.

3. Develop a social media platform that rivals that of ISIS' social outreach and aggressively manage and grow it.

4. Create "myths" that counteract the ISIS myths, "stories" that counteract ISIS stories. This is an area where not only Madison Avenue but Hollywood excels. Let's start using that expertise.

5. Finally, Sunni Islamic leaders need to speak out more against the group to give young people who are thinking of joining ISIS an alternative Sunni "tribe" - a different "us" to the "us" that ISIS has defined.

Some next steps are:

• Hire Madison Avenue or other advertising agencies to do the same branding work that they do for great global brands. If brands like McDonald's, Colgate, Pepsi, KFC can straddle the world, then so can a brand that provides a positive alternative to the ISIS brand. Let them run focus groups and quantitative research to see what buttons to push with vulnerable young people. What makes them susceptible to ISIS' message? Or, willing to turn away from ISIS?

• Identify a positioning, logo and iconic imagery for the rival brand and manage it globally across social and other platforms.

• If anyone thinks that hiring multinational Madison Avenue agencies is naïve and that bombing runs over Syria and raids by special forces of various militaries will win the conflict with ISIS, think again. The US and its allies have achieved great power not because of a reliance on military strength but because of strong economies and the ideals that underpin those economies. The ideals of democracy and freedom; and the economic strength created from the power of great global brands. These brands were built by Madison Avenue agencies. It is that intellectual strength that will help win the war against ISIS.

• The writer is director of web- filtering start-up Rawstream, and a communications professional with extensive experience in Asia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2016, with the headline 'Wanted: Global brand to counter ISIS'. Print Edition | Subscribe