The Cable

Why Don Draper Would Be Impressed by the Islamic State

Whether or not it meant to, the Islamic State has pulled off a flawless branding campaign. It's now the premier terror group in the world.


The Islamic State is so hot right now.

Around the world, individuals and extremists groups are rushing to pledge allegiance to the group terrorizing large parts of Iraq and Syria. More than 20 Americans have been arrested for conspiring with it. Boko Haram formally aligned itself with the group. And while the United States has had some success against the group on the ground, it’s failed to stop the Islamic State’s propaganda arm from flooding social media with calls to jihad, which in turn have been answered by a swarm of foreign fighters heading to the Middle East from around the world.

The Islamic State’s success has allowed it to morph from a ragtag band of jihadis to the world’s premier terrorist organization. And unless someone within the group has studied the science of advertising, it inadvertently did this with a textbook marketing and branding campaign rivaling anything Don Draper could cook up.

When people think of smart phones, they think of Apple. Now, when people think of terrorism, they think of the Islamic State, which is still overwhelmingly known by the acronym ISIS.

“They have managed to make terrorism sexy,” Liz Goodgold, a branding expert in San Diego, told Foreign Policy. “Doesn’t ISIS sound like the coolest terrorist name ever?”

Goodgold said the group is conducting a perfect branding campaign. First, the Islamic State and the acronyms commonly used in reference to it — IS and ISIS — are easy to say and to spell.

“‘Shiites’, ‘jihadis’ — Americans stumble over those words. Every politician in Washington can talk about defeating ISIS,” Goodgold said. (Though in Washington, they’re more likely to talk about defeating “ISIL,” using yet another moniker for the group based on its original focus on holy war in Syria and the Levant.)

Its name also conveniently rhymes with crisis, and the phrase “ISIS crisis” rolls off the tongue much easier than “al-Qaeda crisis” or “Boko Haram crisis.” “Rhymes are one of the easiest ways to increase recall,” Goodgold said. Think Jelly Bellies, Stubhub, Piggly Wiggly, and 7-Eleven.

Next, the acronyms commonly used by the group repeat letter patterns and similar sounds, yet another trick for getting people to remember a company’s name. Brand names like Polo, KitKat, BonBons, M&M’s, and Tic Tacs are examples. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula also does this successfully with its AQAP acronym.

Finally, the actual name of the group makes clear what its brand is about — a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. That kind of clarity echoes brands like Pinterest, a company whose very name concisely explains the product: Users pin their interest to a virtual cork board.

Goodgold said she suspects the branding appeal of the names and acronyms is one reason the White House and the State Department have tried unsuccessfully to get people to call it Daesh and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Daniel Cohen, a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies, told Foreign Policy the power of the Islamic State product now allows it to sell more than just jihad.

“We see more focus on the state. The group is trying to show it’s stable and provides services like markets, nursing schools, and restaurants,” Cohen said. “The group is trying to say, ‘Even if the United States is bombing us we’re living a normal life. We’re here and here to stay.’”

“They’re trying to differentiate themselves from other extremist groups in the global jihad industry, that they possess something different, more legitimate than other groups in the region,” added Gina Ligon, an organizational psychologist at the University of Nebraska Omaha who studies violent extremist organizations. She said this operational legitimacy is the key to attracting the best foreign recruits. Being one of the best-funded terror groups of all time and consistently making payroll doesn’t hurt either.

“They spend a lot of time tweeting about the boots that they have, their training camps, images of them all in formation,” Ligon told Foreign Policy. “There’s a reason people are going to go fight for ISIS instead of Boko Haram.”

Photo Credit: Kris Connor/Getty Images

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