WASHINGTON - In the advertising world, "brand identity" is everything. Volvo means safety; iPod means cool. But since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, its "show of force" brand has proved to have limited appeal to Iraqi consumers, according to a recent study commissioned by the U.S. military.
The key to boosting the image and effectiveness of U.S. military operations around the world involves "shaping" both the product and the marketplace, and then establishing a new identity that places what you are selling in a positive light, said clinical psychologist Todd Helmus, the author of Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation, a 211-page study, for which the U.S. Joint Forces Command paid the Rand Corp. $400,000 (U.S.).
Helmus and his co-authors concluded that the "force" brand, which the United States peddled for the first few years of the occupation, was doomed from the start and has lost ground to enemies' competing brands. While not abandoning the more aggressive elements of warfare, the report suggested, a more attractive brand for the Iraqi people might have been: "We will help you."
That is what the new Iraq strategy is striving for as it focuses on establishing a protective U.S. troop presence in Baghdad neighborhoods, training Iraq's security forces, and encouraging the central and local governments to take the lead in making things better.
Many of the study's conclusions may seem as obvious as they are hard to implement amid combat operations and terrorist attacks, and even Helmus acknowledged that it could be too late for extensive rebranding of the U.S. effort in Iraq. But Duane Schattle, whose urban operations office at the Joint Forces Command ordered the study, said that "cities are the battlegrounds of the future" and what has happened in Baghdad provides lessons for the future.
"This isn't just about going in and blowing things up," Schattle said. "This is about working in a very complex environment."
In an urban insurgency, for example, civilians can help identify enemy infiltrators and otherwise assist U.S. forces. They are less likely to help, the study says, when they become "collateral damage" in U.S. attacks, have their doors broken down or are shot at checkpoints because they do not speak English. Cultural connections - seeking out the local head man when entering a neighborhood, looking someone in the eye when offering a friendly wave - are key.
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Helmus recommends expanding military training to include shaping and branding concepts such as cultural awareness, and the study underscores the perils of failing to understand your consumer.
Words can cause cultural confusion, the study said. The Arabic word "jihad," for example, has religious connotations for Muslims; its repeated use to connote terrorism is insulting and also lends legitimacy to violent acts.
Schattle acknowledged that much of what works for consumer advertising in the U.S. might not translate well in Baghdad. But urban ops, he said, is all about experimenting and adapting to new realities.
"We want to look at new concepts, new business practices, to see if there are things that we can learn."
Adversaries are doing their own shaping on Iraq's urban battlefields. While intimidation, coercion and assassination might not make them beloved, such techniques effectively limit public outreach to U.S. forces, the Rand study notes. Enemy forces have also learned that "doing good works is a classic approach to winning friends and influencing people" and frequently provide basic services that the U.S. military is unable to match.
At the same time, Helmus said, U.S. military and civilian authorities must stop thinking of themselves as a "good-idea factory" whose every thought has greater merit than those of their customers. "Procter & Gamble doesn't even do that."
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