Branding evil: how Islamic State spreads terror, targets recruits and why it differs from Al Qaeda

Terror: Islamic State's branding techniques have several aims

Like the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis before them, Islamic State has employed strong iconography to disseminate its message and garner support. Angela Haggerty takes a look at the role of branding in the rise of the terror group.

The brutal murders of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and most recently aid worker David Haines, have propelled terror group Islamic State into mainstream consciousness and sent chills through the western world.

But for months, scores of young men and women from the west have been willingly travelling to Syria to join the self-declared caliphate’s jihad, its holy war.

Recruitment on such a scale requires first giving its followers a cause to really believe in, and the core branding and strategic decisions around identity are an often small thought of but revealing part of the process.

But it’s hardly new. Hitler’s Nazis in Europe and the Ku Klux Klan in the USA similarly deployed strong branding and identity to help state a message loudly and clearly to those it intended to frighten with it, but also to assist in recruiting new members to their causes.

According to Steven Heller – author of Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State – the branding of organisations such as Isis or the Nazis is designed partly with the same in mind as the branding of groups like the boy scouts – it’s about belonging.

“I’d make a comparison to the boy scouts,” he says. “This is a fundamental human response. You are lured into something by various means, and part of the attraction is just being a part of something. The same thing happens in gangs; you see it in California or New York, the members all wear their own gang colours.

“It really is not unlike what the Nazis did prior to getting into power; they found disaffected Germans, rounded them up, gave them a uniform, a song, a badge and a sense of power. Hitler was a genius when it came to uniforms. People like being in uniforms. The branding of any of these groups is necessary as glue to bind the groups together.”

Nazi branding and identity was held together by recognisable icons such as the swastika and the Nazi salute – images and actions which sent a strong, united message to outsiders while strengthening the commitment of those who subscribed to them. Similarly, the Ku Klux Klan’s white uniform and burning cross sent fear shuddering through its opponents while conjuring up a thrilling sense of purpose for its believers. To be successful in such groups, the branding must balance both aspects.

For Islamic State in particular, Heller says the group has created the necessary elements so far in order to meet that balance, and its actions – complete with beheadings as ‘commercials’ – are indicative of a plan with organised thought behind it.

“It’s horrible to talk about it in terms of stripping the humanity away and just talking about it in terms of the brand, but the brand becomes very effective. If we’re looking at brands, we really have to look at products and IS becomes a product in and of itself.

“The brand look is based on the brand story, or the brand narrative, and the brand narrative for Isis is terror. The videos of the beheadings then become the commercials. A brand involves a commercial, a logo, a story, and all those elements have to work together in a kind of harmony.

“I would just be speculating, but I’d say that they understand organisation – they do have a bank, an infrastructure, they are a military, or paramilitary organisation – and I think unlike some of the groups where it is just left to chance, they probably have a strategic idea of what they’re doing.

“There has to be someone who is dealing with their social media. There is a clear strategic purpose in doing those videos and if that exists there has to be a clear strategic purpose elsewhere along the line in terms of their identity and promotion.”

Islamic State branding and propaganda has been a departure from its ‘rival’ Al Qaeda, which according to Branding Terror author Artur Beifuss has vastly widened its appeal to younger recruits.

While Al Qaeda videos throw up images of Osama bin Laden in a secret cave somewhere in Afghanistan, Islamic State has a sideline in video creation through its Al Hayat production company and its films – aside from gruesome beheadings – are exciting; they glamorise violence in the same way Hollywood does with attention to good production and giving viewers a sense of thrill.

“They have fun in the Islamic State,” Beifuss says. “When you saw Al Qaeda it was in a cave, it wasn’t really attractive for young people.

“You can see Islamic State has been more successful in this part of its brand. For example they make movies, full of action and nicely cut. They film parades through towns and they are very arrogant, but it is more appealing for recruits to see that image of the group.”

With a brand comes a rebrand, and while Islamic State is relatively young and still evolving, other groups such as Al Qaeda and the Ku Klux Klan have tried to shift perceptions of themselves by repositioning their ideologies.

The Ku Klux Klan has for years tried to reinvent itself in the public eye as a non-violent, modern organisation which aims to apply political pressure to achieve its aims. Following the violent rampage of white supremacist Frazier Glenn Cross earlier this year, the Klan’s ‘Imperial Wizard’ Frank Ancona lamented that Cross had “set back everything I’ve been trying to do for years”.

Al Qaeda, on the other hand, has made efforts to distance itself from the Islamic State. In what may seem a bizarre sentiment to the west following the 11 September terror attacks in 2001, according to Beifuss Al Qaeda see Islamic State as “too brutal”.

“They go a step further than Al Qaeda would,” Beifuss says. “But also, the subtext is different. Al Qaeda did not have a state to brand. IS do.

“There are free education courses available in some regions, but when students complete them and receive a certificate they come with the black flag of Isis in the corner. They also issue parking tickets with Islamic State branding on them.

“That’s the kind of branding that Al Qaeda didn’t do because it didn’t have a state, or institutions that required it. IS has a different need for branding.”

According to Beifuss, while Islamic State’s branding and propaganda drive has successfully put the organisation on an international stage, it’s not the first group in the region to attempt to declare a ‘caliphate’, a new state of Islam. Other attempts have failed because, to put it in crude marketing language, the target market is just not ready for the kind of proposition IS is offering.

The youthful arrogance and brutality of Islamic State has created a worldwide noise, but it remains to be seen whether this latest extremist attempt will succeed where others have failed.

This feature first appeared in the 17 September edition of The Drum, which you can buy here.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.