Does WikiLeaks damage the brand image of wikis?

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Over the past few weeks, the world has been consuming the newest set of revelations via WikiLeaks. The uproar caused by the release of the first set of diplomatic cables from a batch of 251,000 in WikiLeaks' possession is enough to take your breath away.

A disclaimer: in this post it is not my intention to analyze the positive or negative consequences of the actions of the WikiLeaks organization—there is plenty of that coverage, just check your favorite news reader every five minutes or so to see the latest.

Instead, I want to explore the impact that the WikiLeaks brand name is having/will have on brands closely identifying with the word "wiki", and analyze whether WikiLeaks will impact the acceptance of collaboration and transparency initiatives within corporations.

My feeling? These are potentially dangerous days for wikis, collaboration, and transparency in the corporate world.

What makes this case particularly interesting is that, according to Wikipedia (of course), as of this month the WikiLeaks website isn't even based on a wiki anymore.

One of the many dangers in brand naming is that the name you choose eventually becomes too narrow to describe what your organization does. Another danger is that as things change, your name no longer accurately reflects the organization.

The latter seems to be the case for WikiLeaks. But what makes this example rather unique is the combination of an inaccurately-branded organization with a universally-used term like "wiki."

Because of some of the controversy surrounding WikiLeaks, I could certainly see situations where risk-adverse corporate leaders might reconsider using wikis or brands with the word wiki in the name.

The organization with the biggest brand risk is the biggest wiki brand of all, Wikipedia. In fact, I found multiple pages on Wikipedia attempting to make it clear that there is no relationship between Wikipedia and WikiLeaks, which is a pretty good sign that there has been confusion.

From the page: Wikileaks is not part of Wikipedia:

The site WikiLeaks, which publicizes leaked information, is not in any way affiliated with Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Foundation. It is an entirely separate website run by people who have no connection to Wikimedia.


"Wiki" is a generic word that anyone can use; it is not a brand name. The term was already in existence prior to the advent of Wikipedia, and the Wikimedia Foundation claims no ownership of the term in any way.

Another article on Wikipedia entitled "Repercussions of the WikiLeaks cable leak" was just published yesterday and includes the following:

The controversies over the ongoing United States diplomatic cables leak by WikiLeaks are having a noticeable impact on Wikipedia and Wikimedia, due mainly to the widespread confusion between Wikipedia and WikiLeaks that has lingered since the setting up of WikiLeaks almost four years ago...

This article goes on to describe a recent example of Glenn Beck confusing WikiLeaks and Wikipedia on his show and recounts a story of fallout from the brand connection in the German Wikimedia chapter.

Outside of Wikipedia, I've only seen a few articles so far mention potential dangers that WikiLeaks represents for the acceptance of wikis, collaboration, and transparency in the corporate world.

One interesting analysis appeared in Elliott Masie's Learning Trends Newsletter just a few days ago:

The release of confidential US State Department memos, emails and reports by WikiLeaks is having a potentially chilling effect on corporate collaboration strategies. Organizations are asking if the shift towards widespread internal sharing - including collaboration sites with content, context, personal perspectives and harnessing the “wisdom of the crowds” - could backfire and end up in the public release of embarrassing information.

Apart from the national security and criminal aspects of the recent leaks, this incident is creating a huge “MOMENT” in the deployment of internal document and collaboration sharing. It can become a “teachable moment” or it can become a “contraction/restriction” moment, where concerns about information leakage, brand damage and even legal liability shut down the shift towards greater collaboration.

I think Elliott is right on.

For brand leaders, WikiLeaks may end up being an important lesson highlighting the risks of using a prominent generic term as part of your corporate brand name. Despite Wikipedia's protests that "wiki" is not a brand name, it is a major part of their brand name.

But beyond the brand lessons, I believe we are witnessing the beginnings of what may become a larger crisis for wiki-based brands as well as efforts to increase transparency and sharing within organizations.

Do you see it differently or think the dangers will pass quickly? Please share your thoughts.

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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)


This thought had crossed my mind too, but a little differently. Occasionally I wondered why it was called WikiLeaks--I didn't realize the site had originally been wiki-based, although I assumed there had to have been a wiki involved somewhere along the way.

I would imagine that for those who are going to assume a connection, the damage is probably done. I'm envisioning a scenario in an office where someone says, "We could use a wiki for this!" and the ignorant manager growls, "You mean like from those WikiLeaks people? We can't use their software!" Ideally Ignorant Manager then listens when Savvy Employee explains that they have nothing to do with each other. But I also know that's unfortunately not really how it always works out.

Excellent observations. I had go back and find a definition of "wiki" to make sure I understand, however. I may be your only reader who wasn't sure, but try not to assume too much about your readers. Regardless, your thoughts were compelling enough to a) get me to read them, b) look up "wiki" and c) post a comment. Good for you!

I've realized that using my own name for my consulting business put my name as brand at risk, not to mention suggest that there is only one point of view available when you get in touch with me. I'm in the process of discovering an identity than can evolve along with my experience and ability to provide value for my clients.

Thanks again for writing. It's always helpful.

Do bears eat cellphones for breakfast? Nope, and even if a bear somewhere did that, it has nothing to do with bears in general. Wiki is a technology and has nothing what so ever to do with the content published somewhere using wiki technology.

Also, like the story says: "as of this month the WikiLeaks website isn't even based on a wiki anymore".

Hi Grizzly!

My thought is that there are two potential impacts here:

1) brands with the term "wiki" embedded in their name might see some issues from people assuming they are connected to WikiLeaks (even if the only connection is the word "wiki"). Here's a good list on Wikipedia of Wiki-based brands that may see some impact:

2) organizations considering collaboration or sharing initiatives may hesitate to move forward based on fear of stolen secrets caused by what they've seen play out with WikiLeaks. Elliott Massie does a nice job articulating this risk in the quote I've pulled out above.

Wikis within organizations that aren't branded publicly as wiki-based probably will see less trouble, unless risk-averse executives notice that this technology makes sharing/transparency easier and eradicate them because of reason #2.

Wikileaks has NOT published 250,000 documents as reported by some of the press. Of the 250,000 documents they obtained, they have published only about 1200 of them. And all of the documents published by them were published by the 5 partner newspapers first. If we want to limit the damage from being associated with a wiki, we can start by spreading the truth. Anyone can go to one of the mirror sites and see that there are only 1236 cables available. All of these have also been published by mainstream media. Yet no one is attacking them. This article makes some good points:

Thanks Gary, for pointing this out. I've made a change to the first paragraph that should correct the error.

Wikileaks started as wiki, the fact is that we (people) don't have time, knowlodge and care for it. If time they started to try make it more accessible for us, in a "news" way.
*Any file uploaded in wikileaks can be downloaded and used by ANY OF US! But good lucky reading and making sense out of 250000 cables.
*You can download as well the so called "nuclear pill"

All you need is move your ass, stop complaing and do something! :)

Seems like the masses like to be stupid and controled by the gov't... very depressing.

Wiki is NOT a brand, and no profit-based marketeer can make it so. It is a powerful technology and is part of the Internet tools that have the potential (if Corporatists and corrupt politicos don't ruin access) to finally put freedom of speech back into its necessary place to protect our fledgling, struggling representative Republic -- where major media journalists have completely FAILED!

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