Papers & Studies

Branding as a tool against the enemy: Time to try it again

Branding – the art of conditioning an audience to associate a given product, person or idea with a desired cognitive or emotional response – can be an important part of developing messages. The U.S. attempted to “brand” itself after 9/11, but after some innovative attempts with negligible results, quietly abandoned the effort. The idea, however, is sound. In the commercial marketplace of ideas, branding is a proven path to success, and the failure to brand can put one out of business. It is time to try branding again, but this time the U.S. should start with a message that its audiences are most likely to accept readily: the evil nature of the enemy. Reinforcement of that negative “brand” sets the stage for greater audience receptivity to positive follow-on messages about the United States itself.           


In some types of commercial and political branding, an effective approach is not the collection of endorsements, but denunciations. Vilification from one’s opponents can be just as valuable, if not more valuable, as a supporter’s praise. In these types of campaigns the negative is a strong, emotional, energizing, and unifying factor in building support where a positive message is insufficient. In American politics, each side can benefit from denouncing the other, and each side can gain from the other’s denunciations.


Campaign veterans say that the systematic telling of unpleasant truths about the opponent, what some call negative campaigning, can be crucial – if you can’t win, at least you can make your opponent lose – despite the wishes of the candidate and usually the electorate, for more positive and genteel messages. Here is where third-party voices again become important, where others can create and sustain powerful negative messages against the opponent while keeping the candidate and his persona (or in the war effort, the United States or the president and top leaders) above the unseemliness of it all.


Branding the enemy


The first rule in branding the enemy, as with all message-making, must be to avoid inflicting harm upon oneself. The United States has declared that terrorism, terror, or extremism, regardless of ideology, are the enemies of mankind, and that America is leading a war of the world’s civilized people against those who use terrorism as a means of influencing events or seeking power. While much disagreement remains over the scope and definitions, the overall U.S. message has been firm and clear, making the Afghanistan campaign and international counterterrorism cooperation relatively uncontroversial considering the breadth of the coalition.[1] 


Equally clear is the American “branding” of the more specific terrorist enemies.President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s first named Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda organization as dangers to the United States. In doing so, the president helped draw an obscure businessman-turned-terrorist from the relative anonymity of his network in Sudan and Afghanistan to become one of the most ubiquitous names and faces on Earth. Bin Laden was one of countless extremists seeking to lead a global “jihad” against the United States and its allies, but he offered both material resources and a greater vision beyond a holy land or geographic area to impose his particular view of Islam on the rest of the world. He also had a track record and a following. His ideology therefore held a global appeal to those contemplating revisionist “jihad,” and threatened not just the occupiers of Jerusalem and its allies but all thos