Battle of the Ises: What to Do When Sharing a Name With Jihadists

An Oxford realtor named ISIS is just the latest to act amid a bizarre branding debacle facing G-string designers, luxury condo developers and other unsuspecting companies around the world.

First came Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL), then Islamic State of Syria and al-Shams (ISIS) and then simply IS – all enough to give you a case of acronymic whiplash. Of all the initialisms, it’s ISIS that’s causing the most trouble for businesses around the globe, far beyond the terrorist group’s de-facto state in swathes of Iraq and Syria. From the dreamy sandstone quadrangles of Oxford and the acclaimed chocolate factories of Belgium to the steamy shores of South Florida, scores of companies, institutions and products have been placed in an odd predicament: how to preserve their reputations while sharing a name with one of the world’s most brutal militant groups?

By the river of ISISland

For some, the potential for reputational harm has prompted swift rebranding. Just this week, ISIS Estate Agents in Oxford, England – a family-run business that opened just a couple of weeks ago and is dubbed after the local River Isis – announced its plans to ditch its name. (The river’s name is said to be derived from Tamesis, the ancient Latin name for the Thames, of which Oxford’s Isis is a part.)

Explaining his decision to adopt ‘Wallers at Oxford’ instead, ISIS Estate Agents’ founder and director Rowan Waller told Haaretz that, while “on a local level, people are saying, ‘don’t worry about it, it will blow over,’ … I suspect the problem with Islamic State will be around for a long time to come, and from a business point of view, it’s not an association you want people to make.”

Waller is also mindful of respecting Oxford's multi-cultural composition: “A lot of the market here consists of Asians and Muslims,” he says. “I need to think about my clients, and if I was Muslim, I wouldn’t want a big sign on my front lawn reading ‘ISIS.’”

The decision to rebrand comes despite his spirited campaign to convince media outlets to stop using the term ISIS, emailing and tweeting to Britain’s leading newspapers requesting they use ISIL or IS when referring to Islamic State. Despite his efforts, major outlets, including Haaretz, are still using the acronym.

A peculiarly Oxford problem

Waller’s predicament extends to a long list of other businesses in Oxford, which up until recently saw not a drop of controversy in drawing branding inspiration from the town’s picturesque river. Another confirmed case of name changing is a hair and beauty parlor that, up until July, went by the name of Isis Hair and Day Spa.

“Given the recent events in the political stage, we are thinking of changing our name,” they posted on their Facebook page on July 9, “[and] we're thinking of Ice's Hair and Ice Spa. Please let us know what you think?”

Then, in another post less than two weeks later, the waivering salon shared photos of their new signage, which includes a chalkboard that reads: “We’ve had an identity crisis, we’re changing our name to Ice Hair. Still the same old faces & ugly owners.”

But why ‘ice’ – aside from the fact that it preserves at least the sound of the first half of the original ISIS? Conveniently for the owners, they already have another salon 10 minutes drive away called Ice Hairdressing.

Other Oxfordian establishments named Isis include the famous university’s commercialization arm, Isis Innovation Limited, and a student newspaper, Isis Magazine, once edited by the current British treasurer (neither of which have indicated that any name change is imminent). There’s also the Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant and tavern called Isis Farmhouse (“we’ve had no problem whatsoever”), as well as an Isis Flowers & Events, Isis Creative Framing, Isis Fluid Control, Isis Canoe Club, Isis [Mental Health] Centre, and even an Isis Rescue and Repair Center, catering to the town’s distressed automobiles. 


An unassuming river runs through Oxford. Photo: Dreamstime

Florida luxury condo project caves

The unlikely ISIS naming storm is by no means limited to Oxfordshire. Across the Atlantic, a planned luxury development in West Palm Beach named ‘ISIS Downtown Condos’ – offering 200 apartments with waterfront views over 16 floors – has taken the rebranding route, changing its name in August after launching its marketing campaign earlier this year. The project’s new name? "3 Thirty Three Downtown," after its address at 333 Fern St. (which is incidentally the number used to symbolically represent the demon Choronzon in the pseudo-religion of Thelema).

No official explanation for the name change has been provided by developers Kolter Group, a rebranding operation that still appears a work in progress. While the logo at top left of the project’s website sports the development’s new name, “Formerly ISIS Downtown” is written in red underneath, not to mention that the site’s URL still contains ISIS, as does the sign on the architectural rendering. On Facebook, no trace of the old name can be found (at least on their new page, whereas their old one contains a post dated August 8 that reads: “ISIS Downtown is now 3 Thirty Three Downtown - Like our new page”).

The app formerly known as Isis Wallet

Joining the condo project in forfeiting its ISIS brand is an American mobile payment platform backed by the country’s three largest wireless carriers. After launching as Isis Wallet in November of last year, the app – which allows users to make payments while out shopping by simply tapping their smartphone screens – changed its name to Softcard in July, in a clear bid to, well, soften the impact of sharing a name with a barbaric terrorist outfit. As CEO Michael Abbott said on his company’s website: “However coincidental, we have no desire to share a name with this group and our hearts go out to those affected by this violence.”

For Softcard’s rebranding efforts, see the app’s website, with the following (rhyming) announcement emblazoned across the screen: “Isis Wallet™ is now Softcard™. It’s a different name for the same great way to pay. Download the app today.” The careful observer, however, will notice that, like in Florida, the rebranding is not totally complete, with users still being directed to paywithisis.com.

Apologies, but we’re keeping our Isis (lingerie line)

That said, not every ISIS is running for the hills of rebranding. Back in Britain, underwear and sex toys powerhouse Ann Summers – which counts gags, handcuffs, nipple clamps, blindfolds and entire bondage kits among its products – caused no small cloth of controversy by launching a new line called ‘Isis’ just days after the release of the brutal video of U.S. journalist James Foley’s beheading by Islamic State.

Yet despite criticism, including accusations of supporting terrorism, Ann Summers is digging in and keeping the name, though the adult retailer did release a statement clarifying that its new line of crotch-clinging thongs, suspenders and plunge bras was named after the Egyptian goddess of love and fertility, and was merely a case of unfortunate timing: “It wasn’t until all the PR was done for the portfolio when the name meant something else. It was too late to change it.”

The decision to retain the loaded name is on vivid display on Ann Summers’ website, where consumers have any number of Isis products to choose from, including the Isis Babydoll, featuring “ivory satin cups with black eyelash lace detail, in a deep plunge style that uses removable pads for a sexy, uplifted cleavage”, and the Isis Brazilian, with its “ivory satin front and black mesh back.”


Goddess Isis never saw it coming. Photo: Dreamstime.

The feistiest opponent of all

And while Ann Summers is apologetic, one angry nuclear non-proliferation think tank is not prepared to give an inch. Founded in 1993, The Institute for Science and International Security wrote a post on their website entitled “Needless Collateral Damage,” which offers a decidedly pointed, well-researched case for why we should retire the ‘Bad ISIS’ from our vocabulary, including this very poignant statement: “The use of ISIS to describe a murderous anti-feminine terrorist organization is incongruous when considering that Isis is an Egyptian goddess, whose mythology includes motherhood and bringing life from death.”

Good ISIS then proceeds to call for media outlets and NGOs to instead use IS or any number of acronymic alternatives for Islamic State.

The question remains whether the institute’s fellow embattled Ises will follow its lead and demand that Bad ISIS be wiped off the face of our lexicon, or whether more will wave the white flag and re-brand. Still others could take their cue from the likes of Oxford University’s Isis Innovation Ltd. and simply approach this entire acronymic saga like water off a Tamesis duck’s back.  

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