How best to brand a murky, weaponized, extragovernmental organization?

Posted by Rob Walker on September 28, 2007
Posted Under: War

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you’re starting a business that happens to be more or less an extragovernmental army. Your employees will be weaponized, trained to kill, and available for hire. Your accountability will be murky at best. In fact the whole organization would be kind of secretive and vague. It sounds a little scary. A little sinister. A little dystopian sci-fi.

What would you call your organization? Wouldn’t you want to go for something reassuring? Sort of the way that lobbying organizations adopt innocuous, feel-good names? Maybe you’d go with something like Blue Sky, or Sunshine, or Tranquility. Something that would suggest to anyone who heard about your organization in passing: “That sounds pleasant. Nothing to worry about there!”

Would you, under any circumstances, call your organization Blackwater? Maybe it’s just me, but that name kind of suggests, I don’t know, sinister bad guys in a sci fi movie. That seems bad for PR. Especially when your organization becomes involved in a deadly firefight that mushrooms into an international incident. Don’t you think?

On the other hand, I guess it makes for cooler merch.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

Image-softening is good for some brands, but I think that if you’re running an international mercenary organization, maybe upping the sinister level isn’t the worst idea. Being in a business that, for the time being, operates both in highly volatile situations AND outside the dicates of national or international law is pretty guaranteeing some negative outcomes. One way of approaching that would be to soften the image – but another would be to be as sinister and dark as possible, so when the (more or less inevitable) civilian deaths happen, it isn’t a PR catastrophe but more a, “Well what’d you expect?” kind of situation.

In a sense, the occasional termination of civilian targets with extreme predjudice reinforces Blackwater’s brand image. Think of their target market – who among their potential clients are going to be less likely to hire them if they show they err on the side of engagement?

Written By jkd on September 28th, 2007 @ 2:05 pm

I totally agree with you, murketing. My wife and I were just discussing this very thing the other day.

“Halliburton” didn’t start off with bad associations. It sounded like a sturdy, dependable brand. It had to EARN its evil connotation.

“Blackwater” tells you right off that it does its work on the Dark Side.

I like jkd’s take on sinister branding. Paul Krugman’s NYT op ed column today mentions a few other professional mercenary corporations currently working for our government in Iraq–looks like the sinister imagery is not uncommon in the category–Zapata (a bit loaded), Aegis (opaque and creepy) and Triple Canopy (kinda scary, kinda fun).

Written By contrary4percent on September 28th, 2007 @ 3:46 pm

When Blackwater launched in the mid-90s, it was always mentioned along with it’s British equivalent, which had a less ominous name: Sandline International. But the winner of the private army name game was Sandline’s predecessor, the euphemistically ominous Executive Outcomes.

Written By mike d on September 28th, 2007 @ 8:58 pm

When I hear of “Blackwater” the military contracting firm, I can’t help thinking of “Men with Blackwater Die”, in Beryl Markham’s memoir, “West with the Night” (which BTW has the world’s best cover blurb, from Ernest Hemingway). When you’re sending mercenaries off to exotic locations, you probably don’t want to be associated with a deadly complication of malaria ( ). But the target audience probably doesn’t get the reference.

Written By Janet Swisher on October 4th, 2007 @ 11:23 am


  1. | Is > Than  on October 8th, 2007 @ 3:17 am
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