Abu Ghraib Rebrands: Asking Too Much of a Name Change?

By Mark Skoultchi

March 9, 2009

A few weeks ago, Laurel Sutton and I both commented on the name change of Blackwater to Xe (Laurel’s Post & Burt’s Post). The BBC published a timely piece on this and other recent name change efforts. I agree completely with the author’s notion that changing the name of a vilified institution (such as Blackwater or Abu Ghraib) can only do so much, especially in the short term. Only a handful of folks will be fooled by these cosmetic changes, unless real, substantive changes are also implemented.

And it’s here that I’d like to focus my first point. True, a name change won’t completely alter the world’s perceptions of a company, product, or institution. However, the article points out that in the case of Abu Ghraib, much more has changed beside the name. A mosque and a medical center have been added, as well as a family center for visitors. And the number of inmates is now capped. While none of these additions will adequately compensate those who suffered the earlier atrocities at the facility, they should certainly go a long way toward improving the image of the facility going forward.

Over time, this place will shed its image as a house of torture and start to feel more like a “real prison” (whatever that is). It is unlikely that this generation, or even the next generation, will change their perceptions of Abu Ghraib, but at some point (presuming they can maintain a sense of humanity at the site), the scars of old will fade and the new name (“Baghdad Central Prison”) will not create such terror in the hearts of the accused.

And here is where I would like to focus my second point. While I in no way condone the behavior of the American guards who tortured inmates a few years ago (or the the previous regime’s storied tortures long before the Americans ever arrived), I wonder why we should go through such extreme measures to make a prison seem more … desirable. This may sound horribly medieval, but I think prisons should be places that people fear. Sure, take away the torture and make living conditions humane. I’m fine with that. But let the “brand” still scare the pants off the population. What better way to get people to obey the law?

Maybe there’s a lesson here for the boys at Xe né Blackwater. Again, without condoning their behavior in Iraq in any way, maybe they might want to reconsider their name change. Don’t they *want* people to be scared when they show up? Imagine you’re a terrorist considering an assassination plot. You hear your target is being guarded by The Badboys of Blackwater. Yikes. Maybe you reconsider? But if your target is guarded by The Men of Xe, suddenly images of Monty Python characters in tights appear. Fix the bad behavior, but let the scary brand play on.

As I reread this post, I am rather shocked at some of my examples. Those of you who know me understand that I am not some whacko who encourages torture and mayhem. I’m just trying to make a couple of points. First, remember that while names are extremely important, changing a name without changing anything else about your company (or institution) won’t necessarily change perceptions of your company for a long time (as in generations). Second, some folks who are changing names specifically to change their perception might have been better off with the original perception and a new underlying reality. Some people say a brand is a promise, others say a brand is a reputation. In either case, branding experts need to keep an eye on the target audience and the desired message. The role of the CMO at Baghdad Central Prison (can you just imagine the job listing on LinkedIn!)  is the opposite of the CMO at Apple. While Apple wants customers to feel hip, different, and stylish in order to relate to that brand and want to purchase their products, Baghdad Central Prison want potential criminals to feel afraid — even mortified — whenever they consider their actions. Remember: BCP wants fewer customers! Maybe there’s a new line of work for Catchword here. Crime Reduction through Branding. Hmmmm … there’s a thought.

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