The meteoric rise and fall of the Kony 2012 phenomenon was about as strange and alienating as any Internet-bred phenomenon is, even if it felt special while it was happening. What sets it apart from Lana Del Rey, planking, bros icing bros, or any other collective fascination that quickly turns to self-loathing and thinkpiece fodder, is that Joseph Kony really is a warlord who really rapes and kills and keeps an army of children — his offenses were against humanity, not good taste. Stranger still was the man who put himself at the center of the story, Jason Russell, head of Invisible Children. His approach evinced a sort of obsession with branding and virality that seemed to supersede any interest in the actual issue underlying the campaign: Joseph Kony himself.
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It was, ultimately, an experiment in marketing and branding: can we make this small-time warlord the most infamous man on the planet? U.S. Congress, U.S. Armed Forces and Uganda would be forced to do the rest. But these meteoric rises to prominence can lead to problems for anyone sharing a name with an object of hate or adulation. Ask the other women named Sarah Palin out there. Even companies that are directly responsible for their reputation will re-brand to shake negative associations. Remember Blackwater, the private security contractors who caused so much trouble in Iraq? — they’ve changed their name twice in the last three years. Now they’re called Academi.
But what if your company committed no crimes against humanity? You just wanted to make some apps for banks? And you happened to share a name with a warlord whose brutality was overshadowed only somewhat by his viral fame?
Meet Kony Solutions, a multinational software company that creates mobile app development platforms. Kony builds and manages mobile apps for banks like Capital One and Huntington Bank, and has a proprietary technology called “Write Once, Run Everywhere,” which allows apps to function on more than 10,000 different devices using just a single codebase. They launched a new product called Kony Mobile Banking specifically for the financial services industry. It does mobile check deposits, payment approvals, account management and mobile payments.
Also, it shares a name with a now-infamous Ugandan warlord, and the viral marketing campaign launched against him. How did this happen? And does it even matter?
What’s in a name?
The short version of the story, and perhaps there is no long version, is this: Raj Koneru, the company’s founder, was nicknamed Kony in college, in India. When he founded his company in 2007, he gave the company his nickname, too. But Kony was in the headlines at this point, his Lord’s Resistance Army having wreaked havoc in Central Africa for two decades. Did Mr. Koneru not use Google?
He did, according to Sophie Vu, Senior Director of Marketing at Kony Solutions, who agreed to answer my questions about the unfortunately-named company. But Joseph Kony didn’t stand out:
“Remember back in 2007, a search only showed that Kony was the call sign for a several popular radio stations, a little-known African warlord, and several other businesses in other industries. Hardly anybody had heard of Joseph Kony back then.” — exactly Invisible Children’s gripe — “It’s a little like naming your child Harry Potter back before J.K. Rowling — who could have known?”
True it is a little like that, in that this would have been unforeseeable. But a child named Harry Potter might be quite popular due to the happy coincidence — he won’t have a real-world analog who is a vicious monster.
But Google, at once all-seeing and thoroughly blind, knows little difference between Kony Solutions, Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign, and the man Joseph Kony himself. No one at Kony Solutions had seen the video on the day it took over the Internet, so when its site got a 100,000 visitor spike in early March of this year, Kony’s IT staff assumed the source was nefarious: a Distributed Denial of Service attack. But the source of the traffic soon became clear. “Our Twitter handle got overrun for a time by misdirected postings,” said Vu. “There is still a fair amount of irrelevant traffic on our Twitter feed and occasionally a misdirected Facebook post. But the numbers have fallen off precipitously in the last few weeks.”
Indeed, Kony 2012’s Cover the Night campaign, on April 20, 2012, failed to make Joseph Kony the most famous man on the planet, and it has not led to his arrest. The trending topics on Twitter that day, if my memory serves, mostly had to do with smoking weed, because that’s what the date 4/20 is known for among young people. Besides, the story was already so derailed by Russell’s San Diego hysterics — apparently in response to the scrutiny his organization faced after achieving viral success — that it wasn’t likely something young people would be caught rallying behind.
The extent of Kony Solutions’ engagement with Invisible Children has been this: Kony forwards misdirected emails showing support and offering donations. Also, it collaborated with Invisible Children to clarify the name confusion on Twitter and Facebook, said Vu. It hasn’t had a significant impact on Kony Solution’s business. Nor, tragically, the other Kony’s.
Kony Solutions brand equity has not been crushed by the coincidence, it seems. One imagines that, as a non-consumer-facing company, this wasn’t such a crisis. Still there might be a lesson in here for those interested in branding issues. There is really no way to predict what bizarre trends will take the Twittering masses by storm. In 2007, it certainly would have never occurred to me that the name Kony would become synonymous with so many things: the horrors and human costs associated with the near-constant civil war in so many African nations, Americans’ tendency towards what Teju Cole called the White Savior Industrial Complex, and lastly, the Internet’s Lennie Small-esque inability to care about something without destroying it.
Now, all of that is attached to Kony Solutions’ name, for better or worse. If there is a lesson here, it’s that, as you pick a name for your company you should probably avoid associations with any and all monsters, no matter how low they appear on Google’s results. Otherwise you might have to make your Senior Marketing Director answer questions from a journalist who can smell click bait a mile away.
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