What’s in a name? Rebranding as a PMSC Strategy

J. Andrew Carter, Jr. 

The branding and subsequent rebranding of business entities that engage in employment or contractual relationships with public governments is of particular interest due to the utility of public taxpayer money in the arrangement.

The increasing allocation of government contracts to third-party, private firms in the military and security provision has not only generated an emerging market for defense products and services, but has also established some of the biggest transnational firms operating throughout various jurisdictions in a multiplicity of international contexts.

Corporate branding is one of the most fundamental marketing strategies employed in business

Branding is an iconic and essential function of all corporate identities in the private sector. Corporate branding is one of the most fundamental marketing strategies employed in business, often encompassing a name, trademark, slogan, or design that seeks to distinguish a corporate entity or product.

While there are many conflicting perspectives on how to market certain businesses, services or products, branding can be a utility to reflect corporate ideals, measured in its ability to accurately identify a product or service to its target audience, establish a level of professionalism and differentiate its placement in potentially diverse markets. Effective branding, in this regard, is often a difficult task faced by entrepreneurs in innovative or up-and-coming industries. Having said, branding is multifaceted in the sense that “rebranding” or changing the public image of a service or product can act as a lucrative tool when employed by corporate administrations amid stagnant business cycles, new management or even facing corporate crises when negative connotations become associated with a firm, service or product. Utilizing rebranding as a superficial marketing strategy may enable a firm to evade public scrutiny, especially when faced with irreconcilable controversy or legal indictment.

The majority of private military and security personnel are ex-military or former combatants trained by conventional militaries

Private military and security branding is a multifaceted endeavor. Advertising security services can prove to be a problematic task due to the ethical, law-abiding yet militant approach necessary in guarding or protecting assets in potentially dangerous or compromised environments. Frequently, private military and security brand marketing is luring, often encompassing military jargon, acronyms and symbols to the likes of former commanders, admirals and armed forces personnel (in fact, the majority of private military and security personnel are ex-military or former combatants trained by conventional militaries).

Further complicating private military and security branding schemes is the appeal to potential clientele, which range from individuals or corporations in need of asset-protection to victims of extra-jurisdictional crime or injustice seeking additional security solutions outside the scope of the protections guaranteed by states or public sector security services. Firms in the military and security sector face the complex burden of conveying credentials, licensing, compliance and credibility to a target audience within a given jurisdiction that implies control and safety.

The private nature of military and security companies enables firms to engage in simultaneous contracts with both private and public sector clientele, further intensifying the notion, or undertone of seriousness due to the high level of responsibility required in the ability to protect or safeguard physical or financial assets through various rudiments in security provision. However, a professional reputation in the market, also known as successful branding, is the ultimate product of time and experience. In addition, the marketing of security services encompasses local outreach initiatives since security provision demands a regional specialization and aptitude. Firms seek to capitalize on this competence and are thus motivated to utilize local languages and incorporate native approaches to security in the branding of their own services or acquisition of security forces in new markets or foreign jurisdictions.

Brands such as “Triple Canopy”, “Control Risks”, “Gardaworld” and “G4S” dominate the private military and security marketplace, substantiating a considerable share of public sector contracts spanning across various markets. Together, the four aforementioned private firms have apparent corporate branding strategies that seek to evoke a perceived degree of professionalism, accompanied by logos, slogans, press kits, and brochures detailing their corporate mission, history, and a summary of services and affiliate partners. Many supporters and critics of the industry alike acknowledge the innovation of private military and security firms, even crediting the private sector as a whole to be the epicenter of competence and expertise. The ability to project professional, corporate strategies through branding, as visible in the websites and catalogs of all four firms, can be a major proponent of success in the allocation of contracts for products and services with both private and public sector clients.

After one corporate brand is established by a military or security firm, what are the benefits of changing names, slogans or corporate ownership?

Private military and security firms, like many other private sector markets, undergo mergers, acquisitions, administrative restructuring and rebranding schemes. While major security empires such as the Constellis Group (the parent company of Triple Canopy), Control Risks, Gardaworld and G4S actively acquire more business units, start-up firms and competitors, the private nature of the military and security sector also has its drawbacks in terms of public accountability, often occurring in the form of subsidiaries and affiliate businesses.

While some companies are fully integrated into the corporate structure of these private firms, others remain a unique entity whose brand and trademark are also included in merger or acquisition negotiations, which transfers ownership of the intellectual property to the parent company. This ownership and independence can be considered strategic due to the ability to create an avenue of obfuscation in complicated subcontracting arrangements as well as eliminating public accountability with a certain brand, potentially contributing to the architecture of impunity. Accreditation, compliance and certification-granting institutions often do not consider previous business units, former brands or partnerships before the submission of their application membership. Furthermore, firms undergoing rebranding processes often preserve its administrative oversight, consultants and personnel. While credibility is intrinsically linked with history and experience, the brand of a certain product or service is of little importance to its consumers that are seeking a certain expertise.

One of the most notorious examples of private security rebranding:
The case of Blacwater USA

Blackwater USA (later marketed as “Blackwater Worldwide”), a private military and security contracting company founded in 1997 by Al Clark and Erik Prince in North Carolina. The company championed US government contracts to implement security services around the globe, which began as early as 2000 when additional security was needed in Yemen following a bombing of a US maritime tanker. Following the onset of the Iraq War in 2003, Blackwater was a major recipient of multi-billion dollar contracts for training, patrolling, diplomatic protection and special operations services in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Between 2003 and 2009, the observatory on Private War and Human Rights Shock Monitor registered over 200 cases of human rights violations committed by Blackwater personnel

For instance, Blackwater personnel were involved in various, widely reported incidents including a 2004 ambushed convoy and the murder of four Blackwater personnel in Fallujah, and another in 2007 which purported the murder of 17 unarmed Iraqi citizens in Nisour Square. The negative portrayal of Blackwater following international media reports of the ensuing legal investigations resulted in federal prosecutions and the revocation of operational licenses negatively impacted the reputation of the company. By February 2009, Blackwater announced a rebranding campaign and corporate restructure, resulting in the resignation of CEO Erik Prince and a formal makeover to “Xe Services LLC” despite retaining the same services offered by its former brand. By December 2011, the new administration of Xe Services announced yet another name change to “Academi,” which was seen as another method to clean up the leftover Blackwater connotation and further limit legal liabilities. Academi continues to operate as its own brand despite its acquisition by the Constellis Group where Academi augments the realm of services offered by other business units, such as the Olive Group and Triple Canopy among others.

Despite the numerous controversies committed by Blackwater personnel and the public discontent with its business practices and ethical approach to government contracting, Blackwater and its affiliate companies continued to be the recipient of government contracts, notably as a subcontractor for other private security firms.  Blackwater affiliate business units also registered to former CEO Erik Prince include Greystone, Raven, Constellation, US Training Center, GSD Manufacturing, and Presidential Airlines, which. Affiliate companies to Blackwater-Xe include XPG and Paravant, which was a common subcontracting entity of Raytheon, a major contracting firm for the United States government, hired to establish and oversee training activities of Afghanistan and US military personnel.

Outsourcing and contracting specialized services from the private sector to provide operational support does have its drawbacks

The increased utilization of the private sector in military and security provision is hailed as a phenomenon that exponentially augments the capacities of public sector defense. Notably, accountability measures are the most vulnerable for abuse. Unquestionably and perfectly within their legal parameters, private sector military and security firms are able to rebrand and change their corporate image at any moment they deem necessary. This complicates and distorts the corporate culpability necessary through the provision of security and military contracts on behalf of both public and private sector actors.

Whereas public sector forces operate around the world under strict provisions of the international legal system, the private nature of contractors provides a shield of corporate protection for internal changes and restructuring, especially if and when the private firm is operating on behalf of a public actor. Instead, accountability can be completely sidestepped through internal corporate actions such as the acquisition of other firms or wholesome rebranding.

Having said, increased transparency in operational licensing has the potential to alleviate the negative externalities of rebranding in the military and security sector. With more information on business affiliations of different actors in the security supply chain- management, oversight boards, partners, subcontractors, and associated business units- it would be easier for civil society and government to distinguish culpability for illegal activity. Arguably, any applicable regulation and supervision regarding corporate licensing and branding of the private military and security industry should be implemented and mandated by public sector actors and applicable to firms operating within their jurisdiction. However, this directive could be considered a complicated endeavor and potential conflict of interest due to the implied allegiance through the contracting of private sector security firms by governments. Incorporating notions of transparency in corporate licensing frameworks can ensure the proper governance of the private military and security sector and lead to better, more accurate human rights records.