Until recently, ISIS was nothing but the mobile wallet – a free app that lets you pay with your phone or – if you dig deeper – an ancient Egyptian goddess. Not any more. Try to search for the term ISIS and you will find the first few results are related to the events in Iraq.
Ever since the group drove the regular Iraqi forces out of the city of Mosul in record time, the media forgot about the world cup – let alone ISIS Wallet – and was caught in acronym confusion that gave the group further publicity. ISIS stands for Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (the Levant) – hence the recent use of ISIL by some media outlets.
Apart from developments on the ground, who fights with ISIS and the group ideology, several reports are focusing on how ISIS (nicknamed Da’esh in Arabic) is employing social media alongside military boots (or sandals as seen on TV). The quote describing ISIS online activity as “a calculated campaign that would put American social-media-marketing gurus to shame” has been aired on CNN (Middle East edition) and is widely found online. Their media clips were compared to Hollywood’s productions. What is behind the ISIS ‘brand’?
Here, we try to examine this campaign through a business lens. Can we apply what we learned in marketing courses? Is social media an appropriate platform to build and sustain a brand in record time with minimum resources? Do you need to introduce drama to build your brand overnight? How important is brand loyalty? And how dangerous is dissatisfaction? How do you win support and how do you deal with competition?
Some may still recall the famous Superbowl commercial “1984” introducing Apple Macintosh. By the way, Steve Jobs is half Syrian (DNA-wise, at least). Did ISIS plan the assault on Mosul and their online campaign at the start of the world cup or was it just by accident (campaign timing)? Were they as lucky as Jobs who could borrow the Orwell novel “1984″ in the year 1984? How much did the media assist because it could not resist in both cases?
It is not a secret that Apple users are truly loyal to the brand, sometimes even extra-loyal. You do not find this among users of other brands. Apple does not even maintain an official Facebook account. Brand loyalty is a great asset in sustainability and the first line of defense against competitors who try to get a bigger bite of the market share. Dissatisfied customers who desert other brands are even better: they know what’s wrong in the other camp and can help target points of weakness. It seems this is what is happening with ISIS. Oppression is beyond dissatisfaction and people who fight for a paycheck are no better than paid forum members promoting a certain product. We are not talking about bad customer service, but complete marginalization and disappointment with both regimes and controlled opposition (ex. Arab Spring).
What about market share and market penetration? And, can you work with your competitors? We are not comparing Apple with ISIS on the basis of ideology or status (so, you need not get rid of your Mac or iPhone – ISIS app was said to be Android only), but it is worth noticing that market share and penetration is widely utilized in business. American schools were key to the survival of Apple being the early adopters of their technology. Apple and Microsoft fought each other in courts and media but worked together to develop products at the same time. Apple’s tough standards, discipline and centralization contributed to its trademark. ISIS has a central point of reference (the Emir) and strict rules with a strong foothold. One can even stretch imagination to the innovative nature of each as a result of faced challenges, diverse skilled recruits and experience in context. ISIS used its ground gains to rally its supporters and deter its opponents by relaying a message of others talk, we do.
Endorsement is another way to rally supporters for an idea and this is what winning brands do. Some enlist sports or cinema stars to speak in their favor in flashy media outlets and many ‘convince’ experts to bless their features and write testimonials in their favor. ISIS is using both supporting religious figures teachings as well as opponents and enemies pitfalls to endorse their doctrine and gain supporters (or at least leave potential opponents on the sidelines).
The psychology of fear is usually used in business marketing, especially when it comes to security and safety. Marketers use both real and thought scenarios to support their claims. ISIS footage (both real and edited) is fueling its brand growth and nobody has time to verify a rumor during difficult times. At the same time, ISIS is spreading footage of control, security, stability and local support in captured areas to win further support and new recruits – remember the feature lists of competitive brands? Campaigns under related hashtags are trending and marketers have even used them to promote their own businesses. Some are planned as weekly trends (ex. #One_Billion_Muslims_Campaign_to_support_the_Islamic_State and #CalamityWillBefallUS) to show support, warn opponents and spread promises to entice and inspire people in neighboring countries. Even US official Twitter accounts can be seen engaging in arguments under these hashtags.
What’s in a logo/slogan? ISIS logo/flag design and wording is derived from Islamic literature (specifically from the first pillar). The lower part is said to be the stamp of prophet Muhammad and its black background is mentioned in a prophecy about later times. Depending on the viewer, the design looks either familiar or frightening both leading to brand spreading. It is probably as recognizable now as brands over hundred years old.
Will this work for another brand? In some cases, it is likely. But probably not for traditional products or services. For example, sports teams are similar to a certain extent. Basically, where a brand becomes akin to an essential identity (and major threat) with dramatic introduction into the market. We already saw some attempts to capitalize on the Suarez bite during world cup as a desperate commercial, but it is unlikely that Toyota will use ISIS images to promote its trucks nor would ISIS Wallet try dramatic measures to re-capture its brand.
Why Twitter and YouTube in particular? It is not obvious if ISIS turned to Twitter due to Facebook rules on post visibility and other related tactics to squeeze money out of users pockets. However, it is worth mentioning that both Twitter and YouTube are more popular in the target areas of ISIS activity and more suitable for disseminating updates and posting pictures and movies. Twitter is also more mobile friendly, mobile being widely used for social media followers in the region, and accounts easier to maintain and reproduce under different names if closed.
And what if social media platforms become a threat? You may prevent someone from using state TV or official newspapers, but you can’t restrict access to main and public infrastructure. In fact, Iraq shut down social media in areas under ISIS control, Google removed its Fajr Al-Bashaer (Dawn of Glad Tidings) app, Twitter closed several accounts, and Egypt’s NileSat cut the transmission of three channels accused to sympathize with ISIS, but it doesn’t seem to have worked – in fact, it worked as an indirect endorsement. ISIS supporters used workarounds and alternative Internet providers, not to mention that these supporters are all over the globe. What will happen if ISIS becomes a global threat? Will social media sites be shut down completely? What will be the fate of the Internet? And now that ISIS merchandise is sold online (Daily Mail Report), what will social media outlets do to stop ISIS branding? Are we also about to see new related releases in the gaming industry? Or did those guys play bloody and violent games, or watched horror movies in the past?
The sudden rise of the ISIS brand is an extreme case study in business marketing. It is too early to tell if the brand will last longer, spread further or reproduce in other areas. Market dynamics and visible indicators suggest there is a high probability of further techno-social and geopolitical clashes and unrest.
Update (July 8, 2014): ISIS, the mobile wallet, is planning to re-brand. It is worth mentioning that the other ISIS has already re-branded as IS (Islamic State) in late June. If the media is fully synched, mobile wallet could probably keep its brand.