ISIS As Brand Movement

Patrick Hanlon
Feb 12, 2015 · 12 min read

Coke is a brand. Nike is a brand. Apple is a brand. New York City is a brand. Not all brands are so collectively good, wholesome, or egalitarian. So how can we suggest that a marauding group of brigands called ISIS, a group that has seized large portions of Iraq and Syria, can suddenly assume the same stature of some of our most beloved brands?

Begin with the new definition of “brand.” Brands are no longer simply the result of Madmen trying to plunder your wallet. Brands are communities of people driven by a common belief system. This system attracts others who share your beliefs, whether it is two brothers building a bomb in a Boston basement or two billion people defining a nation.

Insofar as brands are something that we trust, believe in, and are willing to belong to and participate in, ISIS (which means Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is a growing, active, and relevant brand community.

As United Nations counter-terrorism consultant Artur Beifuss writes in Francesco Trivini Bellini’s book Branding Terror, “Branding employed by terrorist groups is an understudied subject…Brand, marketing, and the visual communication of ideas and messages are tools…used not only by corporations and political parties.”

As Beifuss points out, many studies define the nature and scope of terrorist acts, but they “do not help us understand the brand identities of terrorist organizations…and how and why they carry certain meanings, emotions and values.”

For the last year, the world has watched with fascination and horror as the band of warriors that calls itself ISIS (or recently the more expansive ISIL, which means Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) moved across Syria and Iraq, gathering storm clouds along the way.

Their actions have been dramatic, not only because of their surprising ability to crush city after city, but also because of their dramatic use of social media to enact terror over the airwaves.

The paradox of 5th century brutality and 21st century media placement has, from a safe distance, transfixed the civilized world.

Brand communities can be deconstructed into an emotional architecture — a “social code” — that ping our primal core and draw people together. This social code has seven data points (including creation story, creed, icons, ritual, lexicon, nonbelievers and leader) that, once in place, create a storyline that moves random, often meaningless peoples, products and events into understanding.

Importantly, they deliver the how and why brands carry certain meanings, emotions and values. And provide meaning for spontaneous WTF moments of terror.

Remember 9/11. The inexplicable “What’s happening?” event quickly unrolled a narrative that included Osama bin Laden, an organized terrorist group called Al Qaeda, and terrorist training cells around the globe. The initially senseless act quickly gathered “sense.”

If we deconstruct ISIS according to the “social code” that drives brand community, we can better understand how, even as it creates terror, ISIS also captures imaginations. And how they have transcended beyond isolation to — at least for the present — seize a position that seems marginally authentic and state-like.

The “social code” is a construct of seven pieces that designs and creates meaningful brand narratives.

The first piece of code is the creation story.

The origin myth is the basis for all narrative: Google started in a Stanford dorm. Apple started in a garage. Facebook started in a dorm room. And so forth.

The ISIS creation myth comes from the early years of the Iraq War in 2004 when they were first known as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, or The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad (JTJ).

ISIS was originally composed of and supported by a variety of Sunni insurgent groups, and went through several name changes before becoming ISIS in 2013, after expanding into Syria. The group has been known as the Mujahideen Shura Council, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Frequent name changes, including the recent move to ISIL, result in confusion for the observing public.

Side note: confusion is just one outcome of an agile and creative foe pitted against an outmoded top-down pyramid hierarchy. In Silicon Valley, this “agile creativity” approach is usually pitted against the traditional waterfall organization. The agile approach is able to repeatedly pivot and disrupt categories and has put thousands of companies to sleep.

The next piece of social code is creed.

All belief systems have core principles that attract others who share those beliefs: a belief in life after death; freedom for all; a belief that the state is supreme; semper fi.

The goal of ISIS is to install a “pure” Wahhabi pan-Islamic state, led by a supreme religious and political leader, the caliph. In other words, ISIS aims to create an Islamic theocracy, ruled by Sharia law (a radical offshoot of Sunni Islam that intends to return to the earliest fundamental Islamic sources of Muhammad’s teachings and deeds), over a wide swath of land in the Middle East, including Cyprus, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and southern Turkey.

As the world has witnessed, their conviction is steadfast. As ISIS military forces enter a community, those who do not immediately convert are instantly shot dead, beheaded or burned alive.

Their dynamic binary yes/no conviction is shocking. And it is also appealing.

ISIS membership continues to grow, recruited not only from Arab countries, but from Chechnya, Turkey, and parts of the Western world, including Europe and the United States. More on that later.

The next piece of code is icons. In the Middle Ages, armies identified friend from foe by banners decorated with dragons, lions, bulls and other forms. What designer Steven Heller calls “charged badges of loyalty.”

Like those medieval armies, ISIS has a black flag, and a symbolic logo. They also wear distinctive clothing (including black masks). Weapons like RPGs and the AK47 distinguish and differentiate them.

Other brands have icons, too. We rally around the American flag and logos for Nike, UnderArmour, Gatorade and other brands.

But icons are not just the logo. Icons stimulate all our senses: sound, taste, smell, and touch. These cues instantly signal whether we should approach or avoid. Smoke means fire, a snake rattle sounds danger, a victim burning to death is a sticky iconic image.


Once we know where you’re from, what you believe, and you have identified yourself, we identify the repeated actions or interactions that differentiate you: your rituals.

In the United States, citizenship includes the ritual of voting. Checking Facebook and commuting are rituals. Reading is a ritual. Rituals can be positive or negative. If you want a positive ritual, get a hug. If you want a negative ritual, call your credit card company. When subjugating a culture, burning books, killing political and cultural leaders, and prohibiting people from speaking their native language are the rites of destruction.

Rituals surrounding ISIS are the rites of war. Brutal violence has accompanied their conquests, with executions directed immediately against Christians and Shia Muslims.

Sectarianism, and using untrained volunteers (often children) wearing suicide vests, or driving vehicles packed with explosives, are also rituals. Death as rite of passage.

Beheadings, like those of American journalists Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as American aid worker and former soldier Peter Kassig, are traditional ritual events, even when they are not broadcast over the global Internet.

Another ritual is conversion. In July, 2014, two twin sisters from Manchester, England traveled to Turkey and then crossed the border into Syria to join the jihad.

In September, a 19-year-old Minnesota woman phoned home to tell her surprised family that she had moved to Syria to care for wounded ISIS fighters. Three under-aged Minnesota teenagers are also thought to have fled to Syria to join the Islamic State via Austria. Colorado teen Shannon Conley pleaded guilty to terror charges after being arrested for trying to flee the country and join ISIS.

Exactly what the appeal of ISIS may be for young Americans and other Westerners is personal and individualized. Bob Fletcher, a retired sheriff in St. Paul, Minnesota, has dedicated himself to helping the local Somali community (at over 50,000 persons, Minneapolis and St. Paul have the largest Somali population outside Somalia). Fletcher states in an online article that recruitment to ISIS may appeal to young Muslims because they feel they are in at the start of something new, an Islamic state, that they believe can offer them the future they fail to see in America.

“Many Somalis are struggling as their transition to the American life has been difficult,” says Fletcher in an article posted by Martin Gould for MailOnline. Some immigrants arrived coinciding with the downturn in the U.S. economy, many have not been able to find work (the fact that one of the 9/11 terrorists received pilot training in Minnesota is also worth noting).

“Many also came here without fathers, who had either been killed in the war or did not make the trip, so on occasion the extremist religious leader becomes their father-figure,” claims Fletcher.

This gives us a small sense of the ritual surrounding ISIS.

The next piece of social code is lexicon.

All brand communities have specialized words known to members of the community and help to identify that community. This vocabulary becomes a unique part of the community narrative and both identifies and bonds those who understand it. If you don’t know the words, you’re not a part of the community.

Similarly, the words surrounding warfare, secret codes and ciphers, or special military units are well-known to anyone engaged in those activities. They are a foreign tongue to others.

Unless we are part of the ISIS internal brand community, no amount of watching “Homeland” can help us understand what code words identify those who are members of ISIS and those who are not.

Certainly, sacred words and phrases from the Koran form the liturgy that weaves through the everyday life of the ISIS community. Words like “Caliphate,” “Jihad,” “mujahedeen,” seep into the Western world.

As governments and other forces penetrate the ISIS community, more words will be discovered.


Every brand community has people who do not want to be a part of that community. They are members of another, different community.

Examples of these nonbelievers in ordinary life can be Democrats versus Republicans, liberal versus conservative, Fox News versus Jon Stewart.

ISIS targets nonbelievers within Islam, leaders in Iraq and Syria and throughout the Arab world, Western governments, and unilaterally everyone outside Sharia law. Even you. It is important to note that the recent military collaboration by allied Arab states to expel ISIS suggests that ISIS does not speak for all of Islam.

The final piece of code is the leader: the person who set out against all odds and the world at large to create something new, something different.

ISIS leadership has flexed over time. A recent article in The Guardian points to a pivotal learning moment for ISIS leaders who were held together in U.S. prisons.

“We could never have all got together like this in Bagdad or anywhere else,” says ISIS leader Abu Ahmed in The Guardian article. At Camp Bucca they were not only safe within the American fortress, but right under the noses of American leadership, they were able to coordinate plans and gather relationships that would be invaluable upon release. “We were only a few hundred meters from the entire Al-Qaeda leadership,” says Abu Ahmed.

The desert fortress of Camp Bucca was also where the future emir of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was held prisoner. According to the article, neither the Americans nor the terrorists themselves were aware of the potency of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who quietly gained status while in prison.

After the death of Zarqawi, al-Baghdadi used his direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammad and a PhD in Islamic Studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad to claim ISIS leadership in July, 2014, it was a surprise. “Baghdadi was a quiet person,” the article quotes Abu Ahmed (who is now deceased). “You could feel that he was someone important. But there were others who were more important.”

In 2009, Al Baghdadi was among the prisoners released from Camp Bucca near Umm Qasr in Iraq. (The camp is no longer operational.)

Today, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (also known as Abu Dua) is the acclaimed leader of ISIS and sole legitimate successor to the Prophet Mohammed.

The seven pieces of social code create a holistic surround that touches individuals at their emotional core. It is a powerful combination that seeks what’s missing in people’s lives and fills it in. It helps us believe in something larger than ourselves. It helps us feel that we belong. If we feel alone or isolated, it helps us identify a community that seems to care.

Thanks to the worldwide Internet, human beings today can feel disproportionately attached to people and events. When they see people in trouble, they want to help. They engage. If they feel disconnected from their own environment thanks to social or economic factors, they seek release from these constraints. Anything can seem feasible, fungible, possible. You can stare down the throat of terror and see the hollow void.

Fanaticism. Zealotry. I am terror: Honor me.

As we write this, we are standing at 9/11 Ground Zero. The new Calatrava PATH Station rises from the ashes, ribs exposed.

Visitors walk around the block to avoid blubbering trucks aching with loads of steel and cement. On the Western side of the Memorial, you can hear the sudden intake of breaths. Instant awe. Then silence.

There is a waterfall. Man-made. A monument.

Engraved in the black marble that rims the falling water are the names of those who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11. Normally, people might be leaning over the black marble to get a better view of the water as it falls and then falls again into the pool within a pool.

In other places, kids might be hopping up and down begging parents to pick them up and let them hang out over the water. But not here. Death is still present and visceral. No one touches the names cut into stone, reminders of a moment and place and fear that time has not quite soiled over.

My niece’s husband was working in the first tower when it was hit. His story is like many stories: correct decisions and lucky timing.

A thought. The generation of people born just before and after 9/11 are known as Millennials. They have never known a world that has not been disrupted. War has always existed in their lifetime, often without a clear, designated enemy (or clear, designated statement of war). What they know is that sometimes our country has fought against peoples we once supported, trained and armed. Our friend has also been our enemy.

In a world fraught with choices, their worldview is a jigsaw puzzle of gray swatches. Dozens of elected officials have gone to prison. Martha Stewart, a mother who makes latticed apple pies on television, has done time. Good guys become bad guys. As a friend points out, we live in a world where spacecraft land on comets. People can change gender by having an operation. Corporations are legally viewed as people. 14-year olds launch videos from their bedroom and become megastars. Vampires and zombies rule (the airwaves). We live in a world where everything is a hypothetical and anything is possible.

Even terrorism can seem as just another lifestyle.
What wasn’t, is. So, why not?

It is inconceivable to parents of the Western World that their sons and daughters might rally around ISIS black. But for some children, the absolutism of Sharia law might come as solace. As author Denis Johnson writes, “When you’re forbidden to think, it comes as a relief.”

The world is getting smaller than we realize and 5th century ideals pushed up against 21st century connectivity is proof of it.

In traditional branding terms, ISIS is a challenger brand. The notion of a small guerrilla force going against the military might of the United States of America or Saudi Arabia seems like a bout between Minimus and Maximus. Yet, people attracted to the ISIS narrative and ideals root for them as the underdog and follow just as heartily as people follow the Jets or the White Sox.

Faith is community. Faith is brotherhood. Faith is brand.

“Every military or political organization — outlawed or not — in the world has maintained a ‘brand identity’ over time,” maintains designer Steven Heller in his Foreward to “Branding Terrorism.”

If we deconstruct ISIS according to the social code that attracts and builds community, we can better understand the engineering of attraction for this group — and not just understand them better, but potentially extinguish their beacon.

Troubles with the Mideast and Arab peoples go back to our nation’s beginnings. In 1805, President Thomas Jefferson sent the Marine Corps on a special mission to punish Barbary pirates on “the shores of Tripoli.” The Western world has sent Crusades to Syria and Jerusalem. Spain was invaded in 711 and parts of that country were under Muslim rule for the next 400 years. History is a tidal flow of antagonisms, action and inaction, always viewed from the perspective of where we live now: Current events.

Meanwhile, ISIS is as volatile and hungry for horror as the Mongol horde was seven centuries ago. No one condones or excuses the actions of ISIS or any terrorist organization. Ultimately, the question is: How can a theology major and direct descendent of Muhammad wage one of the most brutal and savage campaigns in modern history?

And why are people buying it?

We forget that in the long extended timeline that reaches back to the Babylonians and beyond, we are a bubble in time. All of this: Western world: democracy: United States of America: capitalism: technocracy: combustible engines: GoogleGlass: food sourcing: shelf life. How little these things matter to the stars above us. In the grand timeline we are as transitory as Utherians and Glamorgan. Our rites are as relevant as Lammas Day. Such things are no more, as we will be more, not one of us.

When people seek, do not be surprised at what they find. As the recent attack on the French satire publication Charlie Hebdo and immolation of executed Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh remind us, anyone who thinks ISIS is just a Middle East problem might want to check outside their window.

Patrick Hanlon

Written by

Nontraditional, people-first brand evolutionary, author of “Primal Branding,” TEDx, YouTube Creator Academy, PRIMAL.LIVE, founder &Thinktopia®

Patrick Hanlon

Written by

Nontraditional, people-first brand evolutionary, author of “Primal Branding,” TEDx, YouTube Creator Academy, PRIMAL.LIVE, founder &Thinktopia®

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