Recent news articles report that ISIS is winning the social media war. The current attention given to ISIS social media savvy comes, in part, from a fascinating research report published by The Brookings Institution in March 2015, The ISIS Twitter Census, Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter.

The U.S. Government is also raising the alarm about our social-media-savvy enemy. Prior to the Brookings Institution study, the New York Times quoted Richard A. Stengel, the U.S. under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, about the ISIS social media threat. “We’re getting beaten on (social media) volume, so the only way to compete is by aggregating, curating and amplifying existing content,” Stengel said.

From a strategic communications perspective, I think the threat is misplaced. It’s not a war of social media. Yes, digital media is the weapon of choice, and ISIS is using it very well. But the war is a war of emotion. Think of it as a war between two brands – one that is well established and one that’s an upstart. Which one can win the hearts and minds of young audiences?

In the end, the victor will be the one who understands emotional branding, not Twitter feeds. No one can convince me that ISIS has mastered social media better than any 17 year old. Where ISIS excels is in its ability to connect emotionally with thousands of young men and women. According to FOX News, FBI Director James Comey warned that ISIS is relying more on social media to spread its “poison.”  The poison is the brand message. What makes it deadly is it effectively connects with a sub-segment of young, emotionally-disenfranchised youth around the world.

And, just like any other brand war, ISIS doesn’t have to win the entire population. It just needs to win a small percentage of it to be successful.

Emotional branding is a relatively new term. The late Marc Gobé wrote the book Emotional Branding in 2001. In it, he encourages brands to appeal to the emotions using sight, sound, smell, and other senses and to create an emotional bond. Although I never had the opportunity to meet him, I understand that Mr. Gobé was brilliant and understood consumer desire and how brands can address that desire.

However, the figurative term itself is the only new thing about emotional branding. It simply gives a name to a truth that has been used throughout history. Successful sales people, politicians, and religious leaders have used the power of emotions to connect their brand to an audience and to motivate them into action. And the less happy their audience, the more likely they were to respond.

Many young people need a sense of belonging. They need to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. They need a cause. Can the United States create a brand message, using social media, that resonates emotionally with this audience? That’s where the social media strategy needs to focus.

Large organizations often lose touch with the power of connecting their brand with customers emotionally. “There is a vast gap between top management in big companies, and the creative field and consumers,” Gobé said in Womens Wear Daily in 2007. In the war with ISIS, the West doesn’t need more technology to win over the hearts and minds of young people. It needs to revisit its brand and dig deep to find how that brand can fill the emotional void for many young people around the world.

Michael J. Keating, president
mjk@verticalincorporated.com