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Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda's P.R. Woes

Among the more lighthearted bits of news to emerge from the killing of Osama bin Laden was the revelation that the terrorist leader considered changing Al Qaeda’s name in order to improve its “brand.” In an odd amalgamation of religious fanaticism and modern corporate p.r. tactics, bin Laden was apparently displeased at the dropping of the religious part of his group’s full name (Al Qaeda Al Jihad, or “The Base of Holy War”) when “Al Qaeda” was adopted as shorthand. In response, he wanted to come up with a new name to emphasize the organization’s religious nature. Apparently, bin Laden reasoned that Al Qaeda stood a better chance of winning adherents if it could emphasize its religious component over its image as a perpetrator of violent mayhem. But could the rebranding have accomplished anything at all?

Of course, the most extensive literature on branding and renaming comes not from terrorism studies, but from marketing. One 2008 paper (PDF), by Duke’s David Robinson and YiLin Wu of Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University, examined the conditions and outcomes of “pure” name changes—those that occur independent of any prior corporate restructuring, such as a merger or an acquisition. They found that brands that undergo “pure” name changes are characterized by poor reputations (though still probably better than Al Qaeda’s); but, after changing their names, many brands benefit from positive market reactions. However, not all name changes are created equal: “[T]his finding of significantly positive returns,” the authors note, “is being driven primarily by Brand Adoption and Focus Narrowing”—just two possible types of name changes (the latter, for example, might be a change from Acme Co. to Acme Anvil Co.). “Radical” and “miscellaneous” changes did not spur the same kind of positive market reaction—suggesting that, if bin Laden wanted to improve Al Qaeda’s brand with a name change, he’d have to have been careful not to go with a completely unknown moniker. (One final note about a lesson bin Laden learned the hard way: In their description of name-changing firms, the authors point out that such firms “are associated with a higher frequency of CEO turnovers.”) 

See this slideshow for more of TNR's favorite rebranding efforts