WikiLeaks: The outlaw brand turns to spin and merchandising to cement its rebel status

WikiLeaks shot to fame less than a year ago when it published thousands of classified U.S. documents. Its leader, Julian Assange quickly became a cult hero to some, and a dangerous traitor to others.

Now, WikiLeaks and Assange need to consider how their nascent outlaw brand is to be managed to build-up loyalty and advocacy in the public’s mind, and how to keep negative perceptions at bay. They need this “brand” to help them stay in business, and to help them be well-positioned during legal fights.

Like any brand, WikiLeaks needs to manage perceptions among its proponents, its distractors, and its fence-sitters.

The proponents are a source of income and positive advocacy for WikiLeaks, and need to be coddled and brought deeper into the brand.

The distractors need to be kept at bay, so as not to sway opinion too far away from how WikiLeaks wants to be perceived.

The fence-sitters may like the idea of freedom of speech, and transparency of government, but may not like WikiLeaks methods. They need to be swayed.

One of the ways WikiLeaks is both raising money and broadening its rebel brand has the brand hawking coffee mugs, bumper stickers, messenger bags, laptop sleeves, umbrellas and baseball caps and of course, T-shirts.

Yep, you heard me, WikiLeaks is selling branded schwag through a branded online store.

Sales are a source of revenue, and an opportunity to transition WikiLeaks into folk hero status.

Merchandise is emblazoned with Assange's image. One shirt shows the Australian dressed as the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. "Viva la Información!" it says. "Free Assange," says another shirt, and still another T-shirt shows Mr. Assange gagged with an American flag, over the caption, "The truth is not treason."

The company who produces the merchandise says "WikiLeaks is an emotional proposition: People love it or hate it. For those that love it and wish to show support for WikiLeaks by wearing a T-shirt, it is a good proposition."

One branding expert quoted in a article sees a potential risk involved in the merchandising effort--Maureen Hinton, of Verdict Research Ltd. in London, says WikiLeaks needs to be careful not to be seen as selling out.

The group is about "being a bit subversive," she says in the article. "Turning that into a global brand...sounds a lot more like cashing in with the general establishment rather than being subversive."

But that’s why a brand needs to be managed—to identify and manage the risk and reward of behaviors and perceptions.

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