“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.” – Shakespeare

What if roses, instead of being called “roses”, were called “stink bells”?  Would they smell as sweet?  What if they were called “crapweed” or “stench blossoms”, as Bart Simpson famously suggested?

What about if they were called “ISIS”?

Unfortunately, this is exactly the dilemma thousands of women and businesses called “Isis” are currently facing.  Their name has, for the lack of a better word, been hijacked by terrorists.

ISIS vs ISIL vs ISI vs AQI

As anyone who has caught the news since January, “ISIS” is the name by which most people refer to the self-declared Islamic state/designated terrorist organisation.  “ISIS” (which most media outlets pronounce asahy-sis) is an acronym that stands for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”.  The “ISIS” moniker replaced its former name, “ISIL”, which was short for “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”.*  “ISIL” in turn replaced an earlier brand name, “ISI” (“Islamic State in Iraq”), which in turn replaced its first incarnation, “Al Qaeda in Iraq” (or “AQI”  or “Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn”).

Re-branding is clearly in this group’s nature.**

Despite all these name changes, the term “ISIS” seems to have been the name that has stuck (for now at least).  This graph from Google on use of the words “Isis” v s ”ISIL” clearly indicates the exponential rise in the use of the word.

Interest over time. Web Search. Worldwide, 2004 - present.

Click here to view the table

Awareness of the group and its activities has grown as fast as its self-declared borders have.

Wordjack (verb) To commandeer or seize control of a word; to assign a new meaning to an existing word

The problem with referring to this new terrorist organisation by the acronym “ISIS” is that the word “Isis” already has multiple more positive meanings.  Isis is the “Egyptian Goddess of Fertility”.  It’s also “the local name for the River Thames at Oxford”.  Consequently, “Isis” is a popular girl’s name around the world.  It also pops up regularly in popular culture.  It’s the name of a Bob Dylan songCatwoman’s cat, a character from the cheerleading flick Bring It On, and so on.

And not surprisingly, it is also currently used by, or has been used by, over 1000 Australian businesses as part of their name.  There are also 28 current trade mark registrations for the word “ISIS” in Australia according to IP Australia, including “ISIS International Student Insurance Service”, “isis law”, “ISIS VISION INSTITUTE” and “ISIS BEAUTY HOUSE”.***

So what was once a fantastic name with positive associations with fertility and motherhood and Egypt and gentle flowing rivers, is now connected with a barbaric terrorist organisation labelled “Enemy #1″ by most of the world.

In other words, “Isis” has been wordjacked.

Names matter

Every business knows that brand names are valuable.  The 5 simple letters that make up Apple’s famous name, for instance, have recently been valued at $US119 billion.

Mess with your brand name and you risk messing with all the valuable goodwill you have built up over the years (just type “rebrand fails” into Google for examples).

The same applies when you mess with the meaning of your brand name.  “Crapweed” may actually smell as sweet as a “rose”, but the words “crap” and “weed” may take on new more positive meanings.

So when your name is suddenly ascribed a new, more dominant, negative meaning, your brand is forced to work against that new meaning.  Businesses and women with the name “Isis” are now facing a genuine identity crisis, through no fault of their own.

The backlash has already begun

We may not have reached the point yet where the word “Isis” will forever be listed with words like HITLER or LUCIFER, and it may not yet have been banned by birth registries around the world like names such as“Mafia”, “Sex Fruit” and “Yeah Detroit”, but it is already having an impact.

For example, young Sydney mother Ms Sheridan Leskien, has talked about the problems the new meaning is causing her daughter named Isis and her family.  As The Daily Telegraph reports:

 “Isis’s brother, 13-year-old Maximus, has already started to be teased at school about his sister’s name and has been in fights defending her.”

Then there’s “Isis Wallet”, a new mobile payments system backed by AT&T launched in November last year. In the face of the blanket coverage given to the other “ISIS” from January on, they have relented and changed the name to “Softcard”.  On the change, Softcard CEO Michael Abbott said:

“However coincidental, we have no desire to share a name with this group and our hearts go out to those affected by this violence.”

On the other hand, some businesses, are holding firm and weathering the storm.  For example, a spokesperson for biomedical company Isis Pharmaceuticals recently said:

 “It is, of course, an unfortunate twist of fate that an al-Qaeda offshoot is referred to by an acronym that matches our company name … [but] our company name is not associated with a retail consumer market. … Physicians and medical staff we work with know us very well and are not confused by the recent news regarding the terrorist group in Iraq.”

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me (or can they?)

This isn’t the first time either that businesses have had to re-brand to distance themselves from bad reputations.  The band Shihad (temporarily) changed their name to Pacifier following the September 11 attacks because of the association with the word “Jihad”.  A company in the 80s suffered a backlash when their appetite suppressant called  ”AYDS” forcing them to re-brand.  And more recently Chinese soda giant Hey Song Corporation were forced to change their sasparilla-based soda “Sars” to “Hey Song Sarsparilla”.

Should businesses re-brand or tough it out?

It’s not an easy decision to make.  Some of the factors that businesses need to take into account when they find themselves in this position include:

  • the cost of re-branding, including developing a new brand (it’s not easy!), marketing that new brand (it’s not cheap!), and potentially writing-off old stock (also very expensive!);
  • the amount of money they have already invested in the name (“Isis Wallet” was only in its early post-launch stages when the name was pulled, so they may not have spent a lot; but then again they may not have had a lot of revenue coming in at that stage);
  • the strength of the earlier meaning/branding and whether it can withstand the rise of a competing homonym (Isis Pharmaceuticals are banking on the strength of their reputation with their key audiences, and who knows, it may have bought them a bit more publicity and sympathetic chatter);
  • the extent of the reputation in the negative meaning and how long it may last (for example how many people associate the word “lonewolf”, which is a common brand name, with its new alternative meaning of “a terrorist acting alone”?);
  • the business owner’s personal emotional investment in the name (it’s hard coming up with an awesome brand name and it’s hard to let go!).

When a new brand enters the market and is very successful, existing trade mark holders can rely on trade mark law to assist them.  Unfortunately though there aren’t too many legal options for “Isis” brand-owners when the new brand they’re effectively competing against is a terrorist organisation that is not (at least as far as I’m aware) in business in Australia.

So trade mark infringement is out unless Islamic State get into the beauty business, gift and homeware business, the au pair insurance business, the (legal) drug business, or the hundreds of other markets within which “Isis”-branded businesses offer goods and services in Australia.

Passing off is also likely to be a non-starter – I doubt anyone would seriously think that Isis Pharmaceuticals would be in some way connected with terrorist activities.  And even if they could sue under this tort or any other tort, it would be a brave individual or small business to take on a terrorist organisation.

Unfortunately, if the new meaning attributed to the word starts impacting the bottom line, then you may have no choice but to rebrand, if you have the capacity to do so.

But is that the only choice?

Reclaiming the word “Isis”

The only other alternative for women and businesses named “Isis” is to start a campaign to get people to stop using the name “ISIS” to refer to the terrorist organisation.  Like the one a Ms Isis Martinez in the United States started recently asking the media to stop using the acronym “ISIS” in their reporting of the crisis. That petition has now gone global: