Brand ISIS: A Case of Extremism as Cultural Innovation

by Ahmed Humayun

Cezanne_cherriesA shepherd tending to well fed sheep on a lush green field, the blades of grass glistening in the sunlight. A bustling marketplace with stalls sparkling with multi-colored fruit and loaves of freshly baked bread. A father looking on affectionately as his young sons frolic in a playground.

These images are culled from the advertising campaign of a highly successful global brand, though likely not the one you have in mind: these are all high quality, high definition images found on pro-ISIS Twitter feeds, advertising life in the self-proclaimed Islamic state. That the brutality of ISIS – the beheadings, mass executions, child soldiering, and enslavement – has galvanized Western media attention is unsurprising but it comprises only one element of its vast propaganda campaign. No other violent extremist organization in the Muslim world has gone to such lengths to define and broadcast a new cultural expression, which amounts to a branded vision of violent extremism as a consumerist lifestyle choice under the ambit of a restored caliphate. Transfixed by the ghoulish atrocities, we overlook the subtle cunning of brand ISIS.

Cultural Innovation and Jack Daniels

According to cultural brand strategy, in mature markets competitors engage in ‘dog eat dog' competition based on incremental feature improvements that yield limited margins. [1] However, social disruptions create crises for incumbents, and present ideological opportunities for innovative niche brands to emerge and capture market share. Effective ideological innovation creates new cultural expressions that repurpose shared cultural content such as myths and cultural codes.

Consider the use of cultural strategy in the case of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey.[2] By the end of the first half of the 20th century in the United States, there were dozens of varieties of undistinguished whiskeys, none of them with leading market share. Among them was Jack Daniels. Yet the brand got ahead of its competitors and became a global brand through the deft, deliberate use of cultural strategy.

By the mid-1950s, the U.S. economy had undergone a major transition where traditional occupations of farming and small enterprise had been replaced by white collar professions in massive corporate bureaucracies. Whiskey in the United States is typically entangled with cultural associations of masculinity and class. At this time, virtually all whiskey brands including Jack Daniels touted their customers as successful status seeking, corporate climbing ‘organization men'. Yet by 1965, Jack Daniels had positioned itself as the embodiment of ‘rugged individualism'. It did this, for example, by emphasizing its traditional, pre-industrial methods of making whiskey, and associating the brand with stories from frontier mythology. By jettisoning cultural orthodoxy and advancing an innovative alternative ideology, Jack Daniel's crushed its competition and today ranks among the world's top global brands.

Caliphs as Cultural Entrepreneurs

In Muslim majority societies, particularly in the core states of the Middle East and South Asia, violent extremist groups have been engaged in cultural innovation for decades. Islamist terrorist groups have taken advantage of the failures of political order in the region by creating alternative ideologies that repurpose cultural content. The subcultures they draw on include the early and medieval Islamic period but are heavily influenced by a Western revolutionary tradition of remaking society by a militant vanguard, such as that embodied in the historical experience of the French Jacobins or the Russian Bolsheviks.[3]

In this crowded, mature market, like Jack Daniels, ISIS has been uniquely successful in differentiating itself through ideological innovation and sophisticated brand building strategies. Like other terrorist groups, it draws on common cultural categories such as resistance to oppression and the restoration of a pious past. However, it differentiates itself in several ways, including by posing as the most extreme and radical brand of Islamist terrorism, the only one to restore the caliphate in the modern world, and as defined by a unique sense of community. It has disseminated its brand through an unrivaled understanding of how to achieve global media penetration.

In particular, ISIS discerned the unique ideological opportunity to be found in the fragmentation of the postcolonial geopolitical order in the Middle East. Violent extremism appeals to a niche market, and all niche brands confront the challenge of converting narrow popularity into mass market success. In the case of ISIS, the declaration of the caliphate has been one among several attempts to garner mass market appeal, to bridge the gap between spectacular terror and mainstream Islam. Simultaneously, ISIS differentiated itself ideologically from other terrorist groups and the existing authoritarian states in the region. What made the branding particularly potent was that it had some roots in reality, including ISIS's seizure of vast territory in the Arab heartland, its access to revenues from oil and criminality, its bureaucratic organization, and its attempt to offer basic services. All these turned the concept of a return to the caliphate into a tangible reality, a specific and unique appeal to the loyalties of Muslims around the world.

Timing is everything when it comes to breakthrough innovations. The Muslim caliphate was formally abolished in 1924, but it was ‘restored' by a fringe group in the Arab world only in 2014, after the political and social breakdown in Iraq, the war in Syria, the dismantling of the state in Libya, and the other upheavals in the region. The emergence of ISIS was not a response to some grassroots call by Arabs and Muslims for a caliphate. This is not caliphate as theology, it is caliphate as entrepreneurship.

ISIS labors hard to depict its caliphate as comprised of an ordered polity. This is a unique cultural expression, unlike other violent extremist groups – the myth of a return to a well governed, even prosperous past defined by community. In ISIS propaganda, people are constantly shown eating well, the roads are clear and the views of well ordered cities panoramic, the government efficient, with officials even shown hunched over ostensibly working on the zakat tax collection. This is jihad as the good life and efficient bureaucracy. This is different from jihad as the ascetic, lonely struggle of the heroic vanguard popularized by Bin Laden's carefully calculated projection of austere simplicity. (In fact, ISIS loves Western products and designer brands). This is a vision of a society that is an openly lived community rather than a hidden group holed away in caves. The potential ISIS recruit is told he or she will be the global revolutionary by day and a prosperous member of his community at night. In a way, the most disturbing images are not the gruesome beheading videos but the ‘Leave it to beaver' style images of rugged, handsome fighters, AK-47 slung over shoulder, surrounded by smiling children celebrating the Eid religious holiday together.

A Deceptive Media Halo

In the influential militant manual, Management of Savagery, whose prescriptions often bear a striking resemblance to ISIS's strategy for spreading and consolidating power, there is deep consideration of the role of spectacular propaganda in warfare. Management attributes Western power to military ability, social cohesion, and what is called a ‘deceptive media halo', something especially important. It argues that despite their overwhelming dominance, ‘countries of the center' cannot impose their will on the periphery without a ‘deceptive media halo which portrays these powers as non-coercive and world encompassing', relying on slogans like freedom and justice. In a way, ISIS is systematically trying to imitate what it believes to be one of the key sources of Western power, projecting its own deceptive media halo as an ideological weapon, rife with its own slogans and illusions, against the West and Muslim majority societies.

Little surprise, then, that ISIS is obsessed with branding. Has any major global organization ever gone through as many changes to its name – the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the State of the Islamic Caliphate, the Islamic State, and so on? It has threatened to cut the tongues out of those who refer to it as Daesh, the Arabic acronym that is commonly used for it in the Arab world, and which has derogatory connotations. To recognize the extent of its success in penetrating the global media consider all kinds of organizations known as ‘ISIS' who have been forced to change their names due to negative brand perceptions, ranging from Western companies to French rockers.

Successful brand managers know that it doesn't matter what you say about yourself – what matters is what others say about you. By that measure, ISIS has been phenomenally successful. In the global media there is an all too ready tendency to take ISIS at its word – that it is ‘very Islamic', that its ranks are exclusively filled with true and fanatical believers, that it is an existential threat to the West. Yet, mainstream religious scholars using the same canonical texts as ISIS have ostracized it. Furthermore, as an expert on Islamic law at Georgetown University argues, legal pluralism was central to the traditional Islamic schools of law. [3] No doubt, this pluralism is often within a narrow range, and no doubt, many rulings of the traditional schools are rightfully jarring to modern sensibilities, but interestingly this tradition of jurisprudence often mandates behavior that is antithetical to ISIS. For example, it turns out that most classical Islamic jurists were highly concerned with establishing detailed prescriptions for ‘noncombatant immunity' in warfare. This clearly runs counter to the deliberate slaughter of civilians that Islamist terrorist groups specialize in. Illiberalism is not the same as spectacular terror.

No less relevant is the fact that the rise of ISIS owes a great deal to secular Baathist nationalists, such as shadowy former intelligence officers in Saddam Hussein's army, who have systematically relied on surveillance, espionage, and subversion, to infiltrate local populations and eliminate opposition. And while it may be that many in the rank and file of ISIS subscribe to the cult of martyrdom as a religious obligation, the extensive use of mind altering drugs probably helps as well. Indeed, like any effective start up, ISIS is adept at using whatever resources – human, ideological, organizational – at its disposal in order to scale. Indeed, simply giving the appearance of scale constitutes success. The organization makes up for its deficiencies in labor and resources relative to entrenched incumbents through advanced ideological innovation.

The Keyboard Jihad

Social media is a critical element in the dissemination of ISIS's illusions. In its use of platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram, ISIS is not that different from other emerging brands in mature categories seeking to raise brand awareness and build brand community through guerilla tactics against entrenched incumbents. ISIS claims to be a state but it lacks the traditional media infrastructure that would allow it, for example, to have access to satellite channels. Inevitably, this makes social media the dissemination channel of choice. Social media provides direct, unmediated access to followers and potential recruits. If you have the right message and know how to use the distribution channels, you can gain cheap publicity and, ultimately, deep mainstream media channel penetration. Thus, ISIS has mastered the assembly line production of spectacular terror. It focuses on producing low cost, easily constructed, and repeatable images rather than high cost, one off events (such as the September 11 attacks) and pairs these with a calculated distribution strategy.

ISIS enjoys the support of a large, deeply engaged participant social media community that is not actually fighting, but is content to wage keyboard jihad. To keep participants involved, ISIS creates near real-time media myths, such as through spinning narratives about tactical advances on the battlefield. Pro-ISIS accounts diligently track media performance – one account for example, recently publicized metrics such as a battle propaganda film allegedly being viewed 70,000 times in just 20 hours. This is accompanied by continuous incitement through images of Muslims allegedly killed by Western forces and local regimes, and theological defenses of ISIS's violence through a stream of videos by self-appointed clerics. The terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer has argued in his study of the rise of the Muslim foreign fighter phenomenon that their ‘recruitment message message lies not primarily on complex theological arguments, but on simple, visceral appeals to people's sense of solidarity and altruism.' [4] This assessment appears to be borne out in the specific instance of ISIS propaganda as well.

ISIS's social media efforts also show sophisticated message customization targeting different markets. ISIS makes innovative use of brand champions, such as celebrity warriors who don't actually participate or have experience in fighting but are attractive as icons of the jihad, or brand ambassadors designed to appeal to market segments, such as young women who try to sell life under the caliphate to Muslim women living in the West. These brand building strategies are as important for ISIS as the use of spectacular terror.

ISIS is particularly attuned to waging propaganda against alternate modes of political mobilization by Muslims, particularly in the West. A recent social media campaign by pro-IS activists in the United Kingdom seeks to dissuade British Muslims from participating in elections, using the hashtag ‘Don't Vote, Stay Muslim'. Another campaign condemned Muslims who denounced ISIS on social media as ‘Hashtag Muslims' because they would allegedly not speak out against Western atrocities against Muslims.

To counter this propaganda, rather than a single, centralized counter narrative it is more likely that multiple alternate narratives will need to emerge. Over time,Jihadi brides will need to be replaced by burqa avengers. More than the theology of the jihad, it is the false sense of glamor, mystique, and community that will have to give way. In the meantime, ISIS should not be given the satisfaction of being seen as it wishes to be seen – a vanguard of intimidating holy warriors, unafraid of death, confronting the oppression of autocrats and Americans.

Converting Niche Appeal into Mass Market Success

Compared to other terrorist groups, by attracting tens of thousands of fighters, including several thousand from the West, ISIS's branding strategy has been highly successful. And yet, while ISIS sells a galvanizing message through a slick advertising campaign, and it is supremely effective at spectacular terror, it is losing ground and money, and is facing increasing resistance to its violent repression.

For niche brands to prevail, they must use innovation to significantly capture mainstream consumer markets. But despite its ideological innovation and sophisticated brand building, ISIS has struggled to convert its niche appeal into mass market success. Jack Daniels it is not, and outside the narrow ranks of terrorist organizations, consider the stark limits to ISIS's appeal. Compare, for instance, the difference in orders of magnitude between the tens of millions involved in the political mobilizations of the Arab Spring against the authoritarian status quo (whatever their ultimate outcome) and limited user base of violent extremism that runs in the tens of thousands.

And yet, there seems no immediate end in sight to the disintegration of the political order in the core states of the Middle East. The incumbent governments in the region remain authoritarian, whether styling themselves as ‘religious' or ‘secular', and they are focused on entrenching the status quo, engaging in incremental improvements on the old, failed models, whether this means escalating repression or purchasing obedience. Moreover, there is no common strategy among local states to restore a political order that can minimally adjudicate between the different political and sectarian interests in the region. This suggests that the opportunities for radical brands will continue to be strong, and that they may evolve in unpredictable directions. At the least, we will likely see new cultural expressions of violent extremism. Different groups will emerge, all jockeying for position at the head of the vanguard. One group may focus on the war against the infidels while another focuses on the apostates; some will lurk in the shadows while others erect proto-mini states and principalities. Just as ISIS is too extreme for al Qaeda, we may find that its successor in the vanguard is too extreme for ISIS. Whatever the case maybe, the innovative path blazed by Brand ISIS will influence imitators and successors alike.

[1] Douglas Holt and Douglas Cameron, Cultural Strategy: Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[2] Cultural Strategy, pp. 48-63.

[3] Malise Ruthven, A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America, (UK: Granta, 2004).

[4] Thomas Hegghammer, The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad, International Security, 35.3, (Winter 2010/2011), pp. 53-94.

[5] Sohaira Siddiqui, Beyond Authenticity: ISIS and the Islamic Legal Tradition, Jadaliyya, (24 Feb 2015).