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Spy Games

license to brand
by Chris Grannell
April 5, 2004

The UK's homeland intelligence agency – MI5 – is about to launch a public-facing website providing information on terrorism. That a notoriously secretive organization even has a website is in itself a sign of the times – but in a world where just about everybody has a website promoting just about anything perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us.

What makes this development all the more interesting is that, according to the Financial Times, “MI5 plans to use the cachet of its brand as a strategy to encourage businesses and the public routinely to access its website.”

Clearly MI5 has realized that one of its most powerful assets (aside from the standard array of listening devices, mini-submarines, and poisoned umbrellas) is its brand. In fact, of all government departments, it seems fairly clear that MI5 and its offshore equivalent MI6 are likely to arouse far more passion and excitement among the general public than, say, the Department for Work and Pensions.

Many will be surprised to learn that MI5 has a brand – but that it does is hard to deny. And yet there’s not much of a logo, no advertising campaign, only a small PR program, and very few spokespeople or celebrity endorsers.

So let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the characteristics of this famous brand. It has some fairly clear objectives in terms of protecting national security, and has a reputation for success in both the detection and prevention of serious crime. In terms of its character, adjectives like exclusive, mysterious and intelligent immediately spring to mind, and it certainly seems to be a category killer among its international competitors. MI5 director general Eliza Manningham-Buller (C to those who prefer the mystery) acknowledges that MI5 has been gradually developing one of the most powerful brands in the “business.”

Without doubt, MI5 is widely viewed as a premium product within its sector, but its brand is very different from that of, say, Cadbury or Coca-Cola. MI5 is by its very nature a secretive organization – and in this sense it is more like a corporate or investor-facing brand. But here other organizations should take note: in a networked world where information flows freely, one can’t remain hidden for long.

The strange case of MI5 demonstrates that organizations do not always choose whether to have a brand. Any organization or business about which people have opinions and perceptions by definition has a brand. But no brand is an island – and it cannot be isolated from the world around it.

Long gone are the days when CEOs of large conglomerates or investment vehicles could simply duck the question by saying “Well we’re not a brand, we’re just a holding company.” In cases like these, it usually means that the organization has decided that it won’t actively promote itself – and while this might be the right strategy in many places, it certainly doesn’t mean that the entity is without brand.

Perhaps MI5 is lucky – public perceptions of it tend to be indifferent-to-positive, rather than negative. But there are countless examples of other organizations that have failed to manage external perceptions – with disastrous consequences for their brands. Brands exist in people’s heads, which means that your organization can have a brand even if you haven’t paid someone for a fancy logo.

With the launch of its public-information website (which comes complete with cartoons and Flash programming), MI5 has clearly opted not only to manage its brand, but to actively exploit it within the public arena. This reflects a popular line of reasoning used by brand owners: namely that once you accept your brand is going to appear in the public domain, then you might as well use it to further your goals.

But the cachet of the MI5 brand is not without its limits. Here is a brand whose very essence is about secrecy. And the very act of being more open to the public through the web (or other communication channels for that matter) works against that mystique. As with other organizations, MI5 needs to ensure that its approach to brand management does not come into conflict with the essence of the brand itself.

In choosing to promote (and not merely acknowledge) its brand, there are many competing considerations for the organization to weigh. For example, it is fairly clear that if MI5 were to license its logo to a branded goods manufacturer, the potential value of the income generated would be outweighed by the damaging trivialization of the brand. However, in the particular instance of a public safety website, if the end justifies the means (in this case, providing an online portal for terrorism information), then we must assume that any harm to the brand counts as acceptable collateral damage.

Meanwhile, one wonders how long it will be before MI5 makes an appearance on one of the many league tables of powerful brands alongside the likes of Coca-Cola or BMW. What MI5 has achieved without any promotional marketing is probably worth many millions if only it could be tapped. Perhaps the “public information” website is only the start.


Chris Grannell is a marketing consultant.

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