Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

In business marketing, branding means creating demand for a product by creating an image that is appealing to potential consumers.  This probably brings to mind successful brands like Coca-Cola, Disney, and Nike.  But brands can also become “toxic.” Recent evidence suggests al-Qaeda may now be one such failed brand.

Brands become toxic when they are initially strong and well known, then negative events transform their image in a way that turns off potential customers.  A strategic communication asset is suddenly transformed into a liability.  The stronger the initial brand image, the greater the liability when it goes bad.

In recent years several well-known brands have turned toxic.  Rupert Murdock’s News Corporation is now being called a toxic brand because of fallout from scandals in the UK over voice mail hacking.  The label was applied to BP in the wake of the Gulf oil spill disaster, and to AIG because of its role of the U.S. economic meltdown.

In some cases, a brand becomes so toxic that the only solution is to throw out the old identity and start over.  This was the strategy used by Blackwater Worldwide.  After its brand was hopelessly contaminated by scandals in Iraq, it changed its name to Xe.

Reports suggest that Osama bin Laden considered the same move for al-Qaeda.  According to The Telegraph, documents seized in the raid on bin Laden’s compound “portray bin Laden as a terrorist chief executive, struggling to sell holy war for a company in crisis following in the footsteps of arch-enemies like Blackwater, which became Xe after a run of bad headlines.”

Now there is a possibility that bin Laden wasn’t the only one concerned about AQ brand weakness.  Last week, Saeed al-Jamhi of the Al-Jahmi Centre for Studies and Research claimed that in May, groups associated with al-Qaeda in Yemen began operating under a new name, Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of Sharia).  The purpose of the change is to avoid to toxic associations with AQ and provide an image of greater religious legitimacy:

The al-Qaeda name conjures up terror and signifies violence and destruction. The organisation was compelled to hatch groups that operate under local religious-oriented names to persuade others to support them and move from under the spotlight that is cast on them as terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.

It is unclear whether this is a wholesale change or just the launch of a new subsidiary.  But in either case, these developments–along with the widely-acknowledged irrelevance of al-Qaeda in the Arab Spring–are signs that the brand is fading, if not toxic.

Whether due to Western efforts to undermine AQ’s image or their own contradictions coming home to roost, it would be a welcome development.  Some U.S. leaders claim AQ is on the verge of organizational defeat, but for years they have not been very threatening as a discrete actor.  Brand toxicity may be the thing that finally kills AQ as a social movement.

Update December 16, 2011

This story from Fox News quotes a “senior Arab diplomat” who corroborates this report of a name change for AQAP.