Putting on a Good Face

Stephen DeAngelis

July 27, 2007

Those of us in business necessarily concern ourselves with branding. It’s a very important concept if you want your business to grow and to profit. Normally, we don’t think about governments or militaries concerning themselves with branding, but that is exactly what a new RAND Corporation study says the U.S. military needs to do [“The Pentagon Gets a Lesson from Madison Avenue,” by Karen DeYoung, New York Times, 21 July 2007]. DeYoung writes:

“In the advertising world, brand identity is everything. Volvo means safety. Colgate means clean. IPod means cool. But since the U.S. military 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 brand identity that places what you are selling in a positive light, said clinical psychologist Todd C. Helmus, the author of ‘Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation.’ The 211-page study, for which the U.S. Joint Forces Command paid the Rand Corp. $400,000, was released this week.”

This study underscores what my colleague Tom Barnett has been preaching — it is not enough in today’s security environment to be the best at kinetic solutions (i.e., bullets and bombs), you also must have skills that can help you secure the peace. The importance of winning the hearts and minds of the local population is not a new idea; people have talked about that for a long time. That’s been part of the problem — they’ve just been “talking” about it. Asking military personnel to conduct search and destroy missions and then asking them to win the hearts of minds of those among whom they are operating is asking a lot. It’s difficult, but not impossible. Special operations forces have a great reputation for being able to do just that. Helmus’ point, however, is that the solution requires more than training it requires branding.

“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 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 President’s Bush’s 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.”

The work Enterra Solutions® is looking to do in Iraq is part of this “We will help you” effort. Some of the criticism of the current program has been that it is being run by the military (i.e., the Business Transformation Agency) rather than by the State Department. Admittedly there have been strained relations between Defense and State, but they are working together on this. The challenge, as I have pointed out before, is that security and development are inextricably linked. When you talk about security in Iraq right now, you have to involve the military. Helmus’ argument is that development efforts have been undermined by the U.S.’s original message, “We’re here to take names and kick ass.” Helmus and his co-authors admit that what they are advocating is difficult to do and may not be able to be achieved in Iraq.

“Many of the study’s conclusions may seem as obvious as they are hard to implement amid combat operations and terrorist attacks, and 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.”

Despite the unfortunate exceptions to otherwise exemplary military conduct in Iraq, most analysts recognize that the U.S. military has earnestly tried to “rebrand” themselves as the conflict has progressed. With insurgents trying to undermine every progressive step forward the military has tried to make, rebranding has been extremely difficult.

“The most successful companies, the Rand study notes, are those that study their clientele and shape their workplace and product in ways that incorporate their brand into every interaction with consumers. … 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. … Schattle acknowledged that much of what works for consumer advertising in the United States 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,’ he said. Since his office was established after the U.S. military issued a new doctrine for urban warfare in 2002, ‘we’ve been collecting lessons learned from all over the world,’ he said. ‘Not just Iraq and Afghanistan, but places like the Philippines and South America. Wherever there have been fights, we went out and looked at them.’ … 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,’ he said.”

Every good operational plan includes a communications annex, which includes plans for what the military calls psychological operations (or PsyOps). Branding falls under that general topic, even though I doubt it has ever been called that. PsyOps are not new. What the RAND study is saying is that “branding” should probably receive more attention and a more prominent place in operational planning than it has received in the past — especially if the Pentagon believes that most future operations are going to take place in urban environments. There is a conundrum here, which is why Tom Barnett talks about two forces — the Leviathan (kick ass take names) force and the System Administrator (we are here to help) force. The U.S. doesn’t want its kinetic force to lose its tough reputation because it can serve as a deterrent and a negotiating chip. What Tom argues, is that with the establishment of a SysAdmin force, you let the kinetic force keep its tough image and foster the kinder and gentler image of the SysAdmin force. Then when diplomats sit down at the table when tensions rise, they can say, “You don’t want me to use my military force — trust me; but I am offering to let my SysAdmin force come in and help if you cooperate.”

The British Foreign Secretary, David Millbrand, during his visit to Pakistan this week, stressed “that the abiding theme of his discussions with both the president and the foreign minister was that economic, social, political and security development had to go together. That was essential for any strategy to combine all those elements to make it work and to build greater stability around the world.” [“Pakistan, UK resolve to quell terrorism,” by Qudssia Akhlaque, Dawn (Pakistan newspaper), 27 July 2007. I’m sure he also noted how difficult it is to carry out all those strategic elements simultaneously, but he is correct that it must be done.