Aeran Brent is tired of visitors asking about her store's name or snapping pictures of the sign outside.
Unfortunately, that's life for a small-business owner whose shop — Isis Bridal and Formal — shares a name with ISIS, the acronym of a notorious Islamic militant group that the United States is fighting in Iraq and Syria.
"I'm just like, 'Come on!'" she says. "I get what's going on, but can you see it's a store?"
Brent says she wants to rename her store, in southern California, to avoid any confusion with the group sometimes called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
"Isis" is part of more than 270 product, service or business names among active federal trademarks, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. But businesses are not required to register their names, so it is difficult to say how many companies use "Isis," which is also the name of an Egyptian and pagan goddess.
For those companies, the "Isis" name can be damaging. Branding experts say an unfortunate association with a name can scar a company's reputation even if the connection is coincidental.
Take Isis Collections Inc., a New Jersey company that makes weaves, wigs and hair pieces. CEO Phillip Shin says stores have told him that customers will put his company's products back on the shelf after noticing the Isis label. In the United Kingdom, he's heard that competitors have joked at trade shows about his business being tied to terrorists.
"It's so stressful," Shin says, noting that he has spent 20 years building the company's reputation. "I've lost all the benefit of the brand image."
Shin, who named his company after the Egyptian goddess, started removing the Isis label from some packages. But he's reluctant to give up on such an established brand. He says he wishes the U.S. and European media would stop referring to the militant group as ISIS.
Isis Collections has had no sales problems in South Korea, where the media only refers to the group as the Islamic State.
Another company, technology startup Isis Wallet, announced in September that it would change its name to Softcard. The joint venture involving AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless launched late last year with an app that allows people to use their smartphones while checking out at a store to get discounts and use credit or loyalty cards.
By June, company leaders were thinking about rebranding to avoid confusion with the militant group, which had taken over large swaths of Iraq and later filmed the beheadings of some U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
"However coincidental, we have no desire to share a name with this group, and our hearts go out to those affected by this violence," CEO Michael Abbott said in a Sept. 3 blog post announcing the new name.
Softcard, which also picked its original name to reflect the Egyptian goddess, partners with major companies like American Express. The startup's executives were worried about asking those partners to continue promoting a product named Isis.
"We didn't want to put anybody in a bad situation," says Cie Nicholson, senior vice-president of marketing.
Changing a brand or an established company name can be a costly and complex move. Just finding a memorable name can be hard because the best ideas are often taken or trademarked, says Allen Adamson, managing director of the branding firm Landor Associates.
"It's not just have a pizza lunch and quickly come up with an alternative," he says.
Softcard's name change makes sense to Joseph Lewis, a partner with the law firm of Barnes & Thornburg who specializes in trademarks. He noted that the company is new and still building its image. With the old name, they would have had to take the extra step of explaining that they weren't tied to the Islamic State group.
"Brands are owned by companies, but it's all in the public's mind and you can only control so much," he says. "They can control how it is presented, but they can't always control how it's perceived."
More established brands that don't deal directly with consumers may not take as much of a hit. Isis Pharmaceuticals Inc. has no plans to change a brand it has built over 25 years. The California company develops drugs and then partners with other companies to sell them.
It doesn't sell products directly to consumers, and its name doesn't even appear on any of the products it helped develop.
So far, only a few investors have asked company officials about the name.
"We've been around for a while," says D. Wade Walke, vice-president of corporate communications. "They can easily distinguish between us and a Middle Eastern terrorist group."
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The 16-year-old schoolgirls from Chorlton, Manchester, followed their brother who had also gone to fight in Syria. They are now married to ISIS fighters, and told a reporter for their local paper that they spend most of their time indoors, leaving only with their husbands. Both twins, the daughters of Somali refugees, had achieved excellent GCSE results, 23 grades A*-C between them at Whalley Range High School for Girls. A twitter account linked to one of the twins shows a woman in a burka, with an AK47. It appears the account has since been removed.
Khadijah Dare, a mother of one originally from Lewisham, has engaged in active recruitment of women for Isis. She left Britain in 2012 to live in Syria with her Swedish husband. Writing on Twitter under her name Muhajirah fi Sham, which means immigrant in Syria, Dare praised the killing of US journalist James Foley, saying: “Any links 4 da execution of da journalist plz. Allahu Akbar. UK must b shaking up ha ha. I wna b da 1st UK woman 2 kill a UK or US terorrist!(sic)”. In a recruitment video for the group, the 22-year-old can be seen firing an AK47, calling on Brits to come and fight. “Instead of sitting down and focusing on your families or focusing on your studies, you need to stop being selfish because time is ticking," she said.
Umm Layth was a prolific tweeter until she was identified in the press as 20-year-old Glaswegian Aqsa Mahmood. In her tweets, she urged Muslim men and women who could not come to fight to instead commit terrorist atrocities at home, praising the brutal murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, the bombing of the Boston Marathon and the shooting of soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas. "If you cannot make it to the battlefield, then bring the battlefield to yourself," she tweeted. Mahmood, who is now married to an Isis fighter, attended the prestigious Craigholme School and was studying radiography at Glasgow Caledonian University when she left for Syria. Her family reported her missing to police in November 2013. Despite praising al Qaeda terrorists and encouraging more attacks, her tweets betray her Westernised roots. One asks for someone to "make a Hijrah [pilgrimage] from Scotland already and bring me Irn-Bru.” She also tweeted with delight at receiving European food, including Pringles crisps and Nutella. “@UmmLayth_: Surely after difficulty there is ease *_* #5StarJihad pic.twitter.com/gp8RmWTuR9” yep only in #shaam— Umm Farriss (@UmmAnwar_) March 20, 2014
A close friend of Aqsa and a Brit of Somalian heritage, Khanssaa is described on Twitter as the "cook of the house" in Raqqa where several girls live. She tweets them offering up Nutella pancakes. Unlike many of the other girls who have tweeted about how their families disapprove of their mission to Syria, Khanssaa said she is following in the footsteps of her father who left her family to fight a holy war, though she does not specify where. My father left for jihad with 3 children under the age of 4 & a wife 9 months pregnant and brothers stay behind because its hard to leave..?— أم عبيدة (@Al_Khanssaa) August 26, 2014
With the black flag of Isis as her profile picture, Umm Anwar, who also goes by the name Umm Farris, is one of the four British girls married to an Islamic State fighters who has only recently been identified by researchers. She is believed to be based in Raqqa, and recently said she was surprised to discover a ‘Yazidi slave girl’ from Iraq in a home she visited. As well as retweeting praise for Islamic State fighters and the Caliphate, she mentions shopping and joking with her friends in the city while her husband fights. Shopping with @GreenBirds22 in raqqah and she goes "this is racist" pic.twitter.com/CJMxTD4jfC— Umm Farriss (@UmmAnwar_) August 28, 2014
Though much of her account extols the virtue of jihad, the third member of the British girl gang in Raqqa peppers her tweets with English slang, like ‘ain’t’ and calls her fellow ISIS wives ‘babesss’. Going under the name 'Black Banners' on Twitter, where her profile picture includes Osama Bin Laden, she suggested she is the second wife of a fighter She tweets about being “bored” in Raqqa and asks her friends repeatedly to meet up and visit her. Her twitter also includes retweets of beautiful pictures and Vines, including a sunset at the Golden Gate bridge, San Francisco, and a comedy sketch about accidentally dropping a cookie in milk.
A close friend of Anwar, the pair joke about their shopping habits on Twitter, arrange lifts, drink smoothies and cook each other food. Her background is unclear, but she hints that her family disapprove of her being in Syria, tweeting: “Your family will be the biggest test for you once you make Hijrāh. They're either with you or without you.” Much of her feed consists of retweets of local fighters and of Islamic sayings, as well as graphic pictures of the dead from Iraq, Syria and Gaza.
The fourth member of the group of girls in Raqqa, who calls herself Qad Af-Iahal Shuhada, has a son with her, and is believed to be from London or the south of England, having tweeted about leaving her Oyster card in the pocket of her abaya, a type of female Muslim covering, while she put it in the watch. A foodie, she recently retweeted a recipe for Vietnamese chicken with avocado and lemongrass spring rolls, then messaged her friend to tell her she was cooking for them. Other tweets include a picture of the girls out for dinner in Raqqa, eating hummus and pita with chilli and vegetables. Eating right now in raqqah mmm pic.twitter.com/fEKnO4cKjr— Qad Af-lahal Shuhada (@Umm_Talib) August 22, 2014
One of the most prolific tweeters amongst the women in Isis is a British 18-year-old who goes under the twitter handle @UmmKhattab, who has tweeted about previously being based in the town of Manbij, close to Aleppo, tweeting sunsets from the rooftops, but has recently moved to Raqqa. "Best thing ive done in my 18 years in this world is come to the blessed land of shaam and leave Britain the land of kuffar," she posted in June. And she tweeted a dim view of the UK's plan to strip returning jihadists of their citizenship. "Uk government are funny im not returning to ur dirty society which has no moral values y'all r all uncivilised and need islam to liberate u," she wrote. The black flag is not only limited to iraq and shaam in sha Allah it shall fly over 10 downing st— :) (@UmmKhattab__) July 10, 2014
Formerly a rock musician in a local band, the 45-year-old mother-of-two from Chatham, Kent, is believed to have converted to Islam to marry a British Isis fighter Junaid Hussain. The couple are reported to have moved to Raqqa, leaving her children behind. Her Twitter account under the name Umm Hussain al-Britani, contains threats like "You Christians all need beheading with a blunt knife and stuck on the railings at Raqqa... Come here I'll do it for you."