You can’t reposition a leopard’s spots

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There were two ways that the oppressive regime of Muammar Gaddafi could have ended. In one scenario, he would be toppled by an uprising of his own people and forced to scuttle off into the night through his secret labyrinth of tunnels to an uncertain and unlikely future. In another, he would change his reputation in the west from one of tyrant to a man of peace and intelligence who wanted only what was best for Libya and its people.

His newfound status as a global thinker would open the opportunity for dialogue and diplomacy with the west and Gaddafi would emerge as a trusted and decent leader on the world stage.

We already know which way this story ended, but don’t dismiss option two as a flight of fantasy. Thanks to the investigative journalism of Mother Jones magazine and The Guardian, it’s clear that significant resources were invested between 2006 and 2008 in an attempt to reposition Gaddafi on the world stage.

Libya contracted uber-consulting firm Monitor for $3m to rehabilitate and reposition the dictator’s global image. In 2006, Monitor CEO Mark Fuller wrote to his new client: “Libya has suffered from a deficit of positive public relations and adequate contact with a wide range of opinion leaders. This programme aims to redress the balance in Libya’s favour.”

Monitor proposed and then executed a strategy designed to reposition its new client, according to the firm’s internal documents, “as a thinker and intellectual, independent of his more widely known and very public persona as the Leader of the Revolution in Libya”. The subsequent tactics were a textbook combination of public relations, lobbying and old fashioned brand repositioning, which centred on two key strategies.

First, Monitor promised it would arrange a “regular flow of high quality visitors” to Tripoli, who would be selected for the appeal of their ideas and for “the strength of their influence in guiding US foreign policy”.

Second, these high level thinkers would then be encouraged to write sympathetic articles about their impressions of Gaddafi and their assessment of Libya. Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard’s Kennedy School wrote in The New Republic in 2007 that Gaddafi was interested in discussing “direct democracy”. Professor Benjamin Barber of Rutgers University predicted in the Washington Post that Libya could become “the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government”.

Muammar Gaddafi
Muammar Gaddafi

And Professor Anthony Giddens, former head of the London School of Economics and now a member of the House of Lords, wrote in The Guardian that Libya under Gaddafi could become “the Norway of north Africa”.

The list of academics and their supportive articles is embarrassingly long. None of these apparently independent and suddenly pro-Libyan academics felt it necessary to inform their readers that they were acting on Monitor’s behalf to engage with Gaddafi.

Four years on and the “Norway of north Africa” was gunning down its own people. Gaddafi’s “peaceful transition” to democracy “without western intervention” was revealed to be a maniacal grip on dictatorial power that only an intensive Allied bombing campaign could loosen.

And we come back to the central, strategic challenge of repositioning and the danger of believing that with great minds and unlimited resources you can change the leopard’s spots. We saw it with BP last year and its unerringly ridiculous attempt to portray itself as a green brand. And I’d argue that the Gaddafi repositioning is an even more extreme example of the fallacy of repositioning. Could there be a more ambitious objective than the attempt to make a brutish dictator appear to be a benevolent intellectual in love with peaceful democracy?

And yet Monitor believed just such a revision possible. And the academics who extolled the Gaddafi’s virtues to the mass media also conceived such a notion as being credible.

The reality of all but a few repositioning campaigns is that they fail miserably. The leopard keeps his spots and keeps being a leopard no matter how hard we apply the stripes. Only the arrogant or the idiotic truly believe such reversals of perception are achievable.

Yes, there are cases where a brand can change what it stands for. The usual suspects of British repositioning success include Lucozade, Skoda and Tesco, but they are the exceptions where special conditions existed to allow their managers to fundamentally change the brand associations.

Monitor’s failure to change the perception of Gaddafi is typical of a brand repositioning campaign. It contained all the hallmarks: big budgets, hubris, a complete inability to see the reality of the situation and a reputational hit when the strategy went awry.

Evil dictators are evil dictators, no matter how we try to reposition them. And ultimately, just as in all aspects of marketing, the people will always have the final say.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands

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