Branding Bin Laden

How Osama's death will affect the al-Qaeda name

Had al-Qaeda paid better attention, it might have learned a lesson or two from Florida orange juice.

In 1977 the Florida Citrus Commission’s long-term spokeswoman—a young Anita Bryant at the peak of her popularity—spearheaded a highly publicized campaign to repeal a Dade County, Fla., gay rights ordinance. Bryant’s strident and religious anti-gay crusading triggered a strong backlash in the gay and left-leaning communities nationwide, culminating in a boycott of Florida orange juice that was supported by other leading celebrities of the day.

The Citrus Commission was so stung by the negative publicity and the boycott that it fired its rogue pitchwoman in 1979. (Bryant’s career never fully recovered.)

The moral of the story: It’s never a great idea to have your brand identified with just one person.

"Florida orange juice took it hard. This is a classic branding case study," said brand consultant Rob Frankel. "Whenever you tie your entire brand to a human being, things can happen. If they personify the brand, they can take the whole thing down."

The Brand Is the Brand

To be sure, al-Qaeda is by definition a fringe group—a brand aligned with extremism and out of touch with the rest of the world. But insofar as it is a brand, to what extent does the death of its founder affect its prospects going forward?

While Frankel suspects it will never fully recover, even if it doesn't disappear entirely, others—including President Obama—are more cautious. "There is no doubt that al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us," Obama said in his address to the country. "We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad."

That may sound like boilerplate political speech, but al-Qaeda and its offshoots have carried out smaller-scale attacks since 9/11, including the 2004 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid and the July 2005 bombings in London. These attacks may have occurred during Bin Laden’s lifetime, but their nature suggest the organization has, as Mohamad Bazzi of the nonprofit Council on Foreign Relations writes, "transformed itself from a centralized group to a brand name used by assorted jihadist movements across the globe. The organization founded by Bin Laden in the 1980s has morphed into small, localized cells and affiliated groups that do not necessarily take orders from the old leadership."

In short, the degree to which a post-Bin Laden al-Qaeda continues to achieve its mission (wreak terror on the West in general and the U.S. in particular) is the degree to which the brand will survive going forward. Its leader's big mistake was conflating the brand with himself.

"You're not the brand; the brand is the brand," said Frankel. "You have to make it so that if you retire, go away or get killed, the brand keeps going." GE survived Jack Welch’s retirement, after all, and Apple will survive Steve Jobs. Probably. Nazis still exist, Frankel points out, but without Hitler—the personification of the brand—they're irrelevant.

Some Advice for al-Qaeda

Adweek asked Brad VanAuken, chief brand strategist at the Blake Project, how he would (hypothetically) consult al-Qaeda going forward. "To live on past Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaeda must successfully launch attacks of at least the scale and shock value of the attacks of 9/11," he wrote—reluctantly, he said—in an email. "If this does not occur, al-Qaeda will eventually lose its cachet."

Of course, al-Qaeda is on the wrong side of history. "Terrorism is a last-ditch effort to strike out in great frustration and anger when one's ideas have failed or been superceded by better ones," added VanAuken. Indeed, the current uprisings sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa reflect a much more attractive alternative to al-Qaeda’s vision, and speak to the universal human cry for freedom. Perhaps the question to be asking is what impact the demise of Bin Laden will have on the brand of Islam.

"No one has done more damage to the brand of that religion than Osama Bin Laden, hijacking the religion, manipulating its meaning to support a cause far from its intended purpose," Derrick Daye, publisher of the Blake Project's Branding Strategy Insider, told Adweek.

Something for the surviving members of al-Qaeda to ponder over a delicious glass of Florida orange juice.