Is Julian Assange a terrorist? Or is he a revolutionary, crusading for transparency because it makes the world's business and government institutions more ethical and the markets truly free?
If one takes the media as representative of the public, we are seeing the pendulum swing back and forth rapidly, with coverage of leaders and pundits decrying what Assange has done, while at the same time offering him a wide berth to express his views.
This blog is not about taking a side on that debate. What matters to me is the analysis of Assange as a brand-builder. As he told Forbes' Andy Greenberg in an interview published on November 29, "There's a network effect for anything to do with trust….that's why brand is so important."
Assanges' opponents are dealing with someone who not only understands branding but who in many ways seems a natural master of the art. Here are the brand principles he's following and how they can be combated.
#1 – Relevance and Credibility
Some may dislike it, but Wikileaks is both relevant—everybody wants to know what has been leaked—and credible: I haven't heard anyone suggest that the leaks are falsified. Transparency is "the" word of the day right now, and Assange has clearly claimed it, even though it remains to be seen how many laws he will eventually be prosecuted for breaking. Relevance and credibility go together, because just talking about the one, without delivering the other, wouldn't work.
#2 – Playing Offense Against An Enemy
Assange has gone on the attack. He has delivered the goods. He is sure of what he is doing—in almost a missionary-like way. He is thumbing his nose at the world. He is branding government and business leaders around the world as illegitimate in their activities. The fiercely proactive approach, together with the definition of an enemy to be overcome by his activities, is powerful.
#3 – Playing to An Audience
Assange has found a receptive audience. He is like the preacher of a religious movement: the Chief Evangelist for Transparency. He caters to his audience and his audience in turn supplies him with more material to distribute, thus building his brand.
#4 – Influencers With A Microphone
Assange represents rebellion against the status quo. This has an inherent appeal to the disgruntled, disaffected and disengaged. His strength is magnified by the fact that he is a techie, and his followers are the type of people who can work their way around any security protocol. More, it is the loud negative types who make a lot of noise on the Internet and ultimately affect the media and public opinion. So however small the number of people he reaches, their voice is much louder than the average person's.
#5 – Symbology
Assange has distinctive brand symbols that create awareness easily. He always looks the same, talks the same in interviews, and carries the same message. And the word "Wikileaks" has a ring to it. It sounds like something that everyone is collaborating on, and agreeing to, and that gives people information that they need from the people who are hiding it from them.
Brand vs. Brand: How to Combat Wikileaks
Assange has pulled the curtain back. And instead of going on offense—to take control of the conversation, offer an appealing counter-brand based on responsible transparency, and even engage Mr. Assange in a dialogue—we are seeing a range of reactions that go from "He's a terrorist" to "I don't see you, wah wah wah." This is not a recipe for effective strategy.
Let's be honest: Denying the Wikileaks' brand appeal is a waste of time. What matters is who has the sympathy of the public. Look at Robin Hood: He is still legendary for taking from the rich and redistributing it to the poor. Yet today we call that socialism and cry foul just at the use of the word.
Similarly there are those for whom Assange is just like Robin Hood: facilitating the taking of information from the powerful, casting them as evil schemers taking advantage of the masses (e.g. "if you're innocent you have nothing to hide,") and distributing the information for those who deserve it. To others he may be irrelevant. To yet others he is a dangerous man, one who must be stopped. But the point is, cultural belief does not create itself – it is created and perpetuated by people themselves. Assange is using the principles of branding to get the people on his side.
I know from my own experience that the more emotional you are about something, the more difficult it is to respond effectively. But when a crisis like this is going on, it is actually more important than ever to remain logical. And make no mistake about it: If there are no opportunities to communicate privately, it will create delays, misunderstandings, and other bottlenecks that can cause serious harm to the world's political and economic systems.
So the response to Assange has to be cool and collected. There has to be a strategy that at its heart puts him on the defense in a war of ideas. However, we are seeing the following instead—quite similar, in fact, to the attitude portrayed toward the fascinatingly destructive and mischievous Joker in the movie Batman (note that the Joker also had a "moral agenda" regarding hypocrisy and the importance of chaos to social functioning).
The following five themes are being replayed over and over in the media:
· He is bad. He has hurt everybody.
· He is irrelevant.The documents weren't that important anyway. (The opposite of #1)
· He will be punished for the laws he's broken. (And if he hasn't broken a law yet, we'll create one just to prosecute him for.)
· He can't be trusted. He is a criminal and a rapist too.
Doesn't anybody see how much power is being given to this single individual, how much all this negative attention is reinforcing the brand?
5 Specific Suggestions
To defeat an Assange on a branding level, at least 5 things have to happen:
· #1: Acknowledge the positive things he has done by launching appropriate investigations.
· #2: On a global level, commit to reforms that will help achieve the valid goals he specifies in a more socially constructive way. Perhaps there can be a way to share information that achieves the same goals, but in a more responsible way.
· #3: Put Assange in charge of leading those reforms in some way, if possible.
· #4: Engage Assange's followers rather than just telling them that "he is bad."
· #5: Turn the transparency lens on Assange in a more intelligent way than simply calling him a criminal. The only impact that has is to turn him into a rebel hero, especially when he is on the lam. Fund a TV show, a movie, etc., analyzing who he is and what drive someone like him to act this way.
The Moral of the Story
In the end, you don't win branding points by denying the success of your competitor or by calling him or her "bad." The reality is, brands are morally neutral – the only thing that matters is whether you've successfully played the game. And Assange is successful, in the sense that when you think of transparency you do think of him.
Let's look forward to a future where abuse of power is unthinkable. In the meantime, if we really want to, we can find a way to brand a different kind of system, one that engages people to follow the law while also enabling meaningful and productive transparency.