June 10, 2006

How is Al Qaeda like Louis Vuitton?

I know, I haven't blogged in a while. I... I well, I just haven't been able to.

Anyway, I saw this thing on ARTE just now. Yeah, I know, it's a warm Saturday and I should be out somewhere. But, the wife is in the States, and Leuven is dead on the weekends, and besides, MCM runs four episodes of Berlin, Berlin on Saturday night. I've become an addict of Berlin, Berlin. I don't know if there's any explanation. It's never been broadcast in the English speaking world as far as I can tell and they've only just started running it in French on MCM. It's a German show. Normally, I hate Friends-style sitcoms, so this is odd behaviour for me. Or maybe it's just that Felicitas Woll is hottie. But I digress.

I didn't catch what this show on ARTE was called - I missed the beginning, and the end is after Berlin, Berlin starts, so I didn't see the end. It discussed at some length "Al Qaeda in Iraq" and the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It said some things I'd never heard before, like that the terms of the agreement between Osama ben Laden and Zarqawi effectively made Zarqawi the boss of Al Qaeda.

It's not exactly a novel idea that Al Qaeda is pretty loosely tied together, and that there are no training camps or central management whatsoever. The whole thing seems to be organized by Internet for the television media. But the thought that occurred to me was this: What if Al Qaeda is nothing more than a brand name? Think about it for a moment. The Zarqawi/ben Laden connection makes more sense if you think of it as a reverse corporate takeover designed primarily to acquire control of a high-value global brand name. They talk about postmodern guerilla movements, but Al Qaeda seems to have gone one better than every other underground movement in the world and become pure brand, divorced from any precise party or any specific agenda beyond "kill the Jews and Crusaders and defend the umma".

How do you fight such a brand? How do you kill it? I get three English language news channels, BBC World, CNN International, and CNBC. BBC's people seem very doubtful that killing Zarqawi will have accomplished anything - maybe even make things worse since you can't kill a martyr. CNN International and CNBC seem to have a lot of commentors who think this might (maybe) be the turning of the corner in Iraq. But if you think of Al Qaeda as a brand rather than an organization, there is no leadership to kill. Anybody can take up the name and run with it.

I can't think of any successful anti-branding campaigns in the corporate world. Has an organized, targeted campaign - as opposed to some screw up on the part of the brand owner - ever succeeded in killing off a brand?

Looking at historical revolutionary movements, the only one I can think of that was at all comparable to Al Qaeda in resembling a brand name more than an organization was revolutionary Marxism. But this lends itself to a comparison: If Al Qaeda is the Louis Vuitton of global revolution, Marxism is Hello Kitty - nowadays only fashionable as kitsch. And that transformation took a century, and followed serious screw-ups by people who had taken control of the brand.

So, as I sit here and watch Felicitas Woll grimace at the state of her sex life, I keep thinking, how do you destroy a high-value, high-recognition global brand from the outside? Parody? Adbusters has been trying that for years without success. Offer an alternative product? Democracy and liberal, secular values as Pepsi to Al Qaeda's Coca-Cola? How well has that been working for Pepsi, since Coke is still the most valuable global brand according to most surveys?

Culture jammers and anti-corporate activists have been looking for an answer to this problem for years. Now, I wonder, is anti-branding the same problem as anti-terrorism?

Posted 2006/06/10 22:27 (Sat)

Maybe we don't "defeat" a brand like al Qaeda. Instead, perhaps we coopt it, or just disassociate it from the bad effects we don't like. Who cares if the wanna-be hipsters switch from Che t-shirts to bin Laden t-shirts, as long as nobody tries blow things up any more?

If "anybody can take the brand and run with it", I wish some inspired spook PR flack would figure out how to run with the brand in a new, cooler direction, that doesn't involve any of that messy blowing oneself (and others) up. Just convince potential al Qaeda recruits that the really cool thing to do is to wear your new Qaeda-wear (TM) outfit while you hang around in your ultra-top-secret hideaway and discuss how morally bankrupt western society is, and how much you'd teach it a lesson if only you could do so without mussing your outfit.

Posted by: Jeremy Leader at June 27, 2006 2:04

I like that idea.

Surely somewhere in the bowels of central China is an unscrupulous T-shirt manufacturer who would gladly whip up a couple million shirts with ben Laden's face for less than the cost of an average tank. Ship it all to Dubai, where no one checks on stuff, and truck it out across the Middle East. Saturate the market until gushing on about Al Qaeda is something only a total poseur would do. Turn terrorists into the Vanilla Ice of Arab politics.

It's so much cheaper than military options that surely it's worth a try.

Posted by: Scott Martens at June 27, 2006 20:52

This comes close though.

Posted by: Scott Martens at June 28, 2006 5:26
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