Mark Ritson: What to do with unwanted brand associations?

When the concept of near field communication payment, or NFC mobile payment platforms, as they are known, became popular at the start of the decade, there was a rush from several suppliers to claim the lead.


A payment method that used your mobile phone, or even the case you carried it in, to make small instantaneous purchases held all kind of advantages over more traditional forms of payment.

With big players such as Google intent on owning the space, three US mobile networks, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, joined forces to create their own network-backed NFC wallet.

In 2010, the nascent company chose Michael Abbott, the former chief marketing officer of GE Capital, as its new chief executive and set about building the offer. Abbott, who is no stranger to start-up businesses, was unconcerned about Google’s head start: “Lycos and AltaVista were first in online search,” he explained to Forbes magazine in 2011. “This is not about being first but getting it right.”

Alas, things started to go wrong for Abbott when he opted for a brand name that “captured the simplicity of our mobile wallet experience”. He called his new company Isis.

I have sympathy for him and his now tainted organisation. How was he to know that less than three years later a name that communicated simplicity and peace would be associated with insurgent Islamic fighters and the creation of a paramilitary Caliphate? Unlike other branding unfortunates who rebranded themselves despite their ignorance of the negative association that their new name evoked, Isis could not have predicted the disastrous associations ahead. Mitsubishi should have known that a pajero was a Spanish man who masturbated himself into unconsciousness before it used it for its latest 4X4. Just as Ernst & Young should have checked before it renamed its firm after a gay, soft porn magazine. These companies had it coming to them but Isis was plain unlucky.

So what are the branding options available to Isis in light of the rise of its deadly namesake to one of the prominent and threatening names of 2014? There are four options.

First, rebrand. In the face of what can only be a stream of negative associations, the company could simply move fast to shift identity before any real damage is done. It’s a tricky option because Isis has successfully spent the past three years building both strong brand awareness and a very attractive position in the market.

Option two is to use its positioning to differentiate between the insurgent Sunni warriors intent on global domination, and the simple, hi-tech application that allows you to buy things on the move. With a decent London agency and a small pile of cash, I am sure a ‘big idea’ could create enough perceptual distance. I would probably go outdoor with a bit of search optimisation but, hey, I am no expert.

Option three is more risky but speaks to the classic branding strategy of turning a crisis into an opportunity. You have unintentionally become associated with one of the world’s most feared organisations but why not consider adopting some of your namesake’s trademark (and highly distinctive) identity for your own approach? Cancel the Christmas party, grow beards, adopt a black flag as your logo and start calling all your competitors infidels. It might not be as crazy as it sounds.

Finally, my favoured option is to wait it out. You got there first and Islamic fundamentalists are probably just as unhappy with the association with a western, capitalist operation based in Manhattan as you are with them.

It would appear that Abbott’s Isis has decided to opt for the first option and rebrand its organisation. “We have no interest in sharing a name with a group whose name has become synonymous with violence,” Abbott wrote in a recent blog post. His company will continue to operate while searching for a new, untainted brand name.

It’s a shame because reports suggest that option four would have worked. Last week, a spokesman for Isis (the insurgent group) announced that it had rebranded with the more catchy name of Islamic State and dropped the four letter acronym. No word on who did the work but anyone want to hazard a guess on the branding agency?

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