By Soren Billing
Managing expectations of clients has never been a problem for Gulf brand consultants.
Managing expectations of clients has never been a big problem for brand consultants in the Gulf. But increased competition and the emergence of a new generation of discerning consumers is rapidly raising the stakes. Soren Billing reports.
With the temperature outside in the mid-forties, the audience at Sea of Stars, a star-studded musical that premiered in cinemas across the Arab world last month, were already likely to bring a soft drink with them.
If they didn't, they probably bought one on their way out: the film was produced by PepsiCo International and the artists - five of the biggest names in Arab entertainment - are all sponsored by the beverage giant.
In this day and age, good quality is entry level. You need that to operate as a respectable company.
Pepsi could easily have built its campaign around some of the international stars already on its roster, which includes Beyonce, Pink and Shakira.
Instead it chose to speak directly to the region's burgeoning young population, many of whom don't drink alcohol. "Pepsi has always been able to bond with its customers like no other brand has," a Pepsi spokesperson said in a statement.
The campaign illustrates the growing importance of branding in the Middle East. The industry is benefiting from maturing markets, especially in the Gulf, where companies are vying for customers' attention and seek to differentiate themselves from the competition.
But in a market where many companies equate their brand with a logo, branding gurus may first have to educate executives about what a brand really is.
"We start talking to them, and suddenly they're just saying things like: ‘We don't like the colour', or, ‘The shape isn't right'," says Duncan James, director of strategy at The Brand Union Middle East. He then has to explain to the company that the problem with the brand can be anything from employing the wrong staff to a lack of investment in the retail experience.
"A lot of our time is actually spent not just doing the work, but educating clients about what a brand is," he says.
Predictably, destination and property branding are strong sectors for branding agencies. "You see so many brands out there, who stands out? That's becoming more of a challenge," says Michael Hughes, executive director of strategy at the firm.
Along with booming sectors such as property, consumer goods, an area traditionally dominated by Western imports, is also likely to see growth.
"A lot of companies are realising that the region has unique needs and you can't just literally import brands and slap the Arabic on there," James says.
In particular, industries that are unique to the region, such as halal foods, will have to strengthen their brands as competition heats up. "In the West, there is a market but it's a very niche market, whereas here it's booming," says James.
A case in point is Barbican, a non-alcoholic malt drink produced by regional beverage company Aujan Industries.
Last month it launched a series of TV commercials showing young, unscripted actors from the Gulf, sometimes in Western clothes, talking about their love of cars, shadow boxing in a gym and playing around on a mixed beach. Barbican is only mentioned in the last line: "This is Barbican. This is my life," says the actor.
For many Gulf consumers who are used to seeing their own in more traditional commercials explaining the many benefits of a certain product, this is a first.
"In researching opinions, it was found that Barbican consumers all shared a desire for self-expression, regardless of their geographical location, and Aujan immediately took this on board to tap into self-expression amongst, predominantly, young men in the Gulf," the company said at the launch.
The campaign followed a highly successful competition on the web where contestants were invited to upload video clips of their run-down vehicles, with winners having their wrecks transformed into flashy, customised cars.
Austyn Allison, managing editor of Communicate, a magazine for the marketing and advertising sector in the Middle East, says that campaigns that speak to Arab youth directly and that don't make them feel "like an afterthought" tend to do well.He sees the increasingly crowded real estate industry as the most obvious growth story for branding in the Gulf.
"All the branding in the Gulf hasn't been moving forward at the same rate. So some of it is quite crude and some of it is very polished," he says.
"If you don't have a building that's an actual concrete building that's there, then you can only sell on the branding and the promise and the lifestyle choice that people are making maybe three, four, five years down the line."
He is also, perhaps more unexpectedly, excited about branding in the banking sector. While banking brands in the rest of the world tend to have a fairly conservative, staid image that changes little over time, the Gulf's large expat populations have made it an exception.
All the branding in the Gulf hasn’t been moving forward at the same rate. So some of it is quite crude and some of it is very polished.
"In Europe, banks won't rebrand as often because people are afraid of change that involves their money. If they've always seen their money safe in the bank and they see their bank changing, they'll start to worry that the bank is going to start doing crazy things with their money," Allison says.
"Here, a bank will rebrand quite often because it knows that as these potential customers come in, they're only going to be hanging around for maybe three or four years."
James and Hughes of The Brand Union are especially proud of their work with Al Hilal Bank, Abu Dhabi's second Islamic bank that launched in June this year. Al Hilal entered a market that was already very crowded, raising questions over whether there was really room for another player.
"We've developed a brand that we see as very differentiating and quite daring in the sense that it's not a traditional Islamic bank. It doesn't look like a traditional Islamic bank," Hughes says.
Research showed strong demand for Sharia-compliant banking in the country but frustration with the customer experience offered by many banks.
One result of the branding agency's research was a branch layout it calls the region's first ‘financial mall'.
"Rather than walking into a bank it is much more open plan. There are kiosks where you can go and do your personal banking," James says.
The region's culture and mixed demographics can sometimes make research harder than in other parts of the world.
"We have a very cosmopolitan mix of people within our strategy and design teams," Hughes says.
Saudi Arabia's private culture means that one-on-one interviews are more common there than elsewhere, and men and women can't be part of the same focus groups. "Some of the dynamics there do change the results that you will get and how you can engage [the group]," Hughes says.
Jim Wallace, owner of independent branding firm Feel Brand Consultants, sees plenty of opportunities for smaller players in the branding sector, but says that he too has to spend a lot of time explaining to customers what a brand really is.
"A brand is an emotional bond that is born between a product or service and the consumer by a promise made and a promise kept," he says.
Wallace likens the consumer's relationship with the brand to that of a friend: getting to know somebody takes time, and trust is usually the last thing to come into the relationship.
A young market is therefore less likely to have a lot of strong brands.
Looking at property ads from companies like Emaar and Damac, Wallace says he would still base his assessment solely on the companies' reputation.
"I'm not making an emotional decision. I'm making a very functional decision, and that is not really a brand," he says.He goes so far as to say that quality is not a brand.
"In this day and age, good quality is entry level. You need that to operate as a respectable company."
Over the last year, the Gulf's branding sector has seen a spate of new start-ups, sometimes led by former employees at global companies who complain over a "factory" mentality at the larger firms, or who were simply drawn by the vast sums of money currently being invested in branding.
Ironically, the global firms often have the benefit of having a stronger brand. "With a big agency you get this perception of stability and security and a long history of performance.
"Customers are effectively buying into their brand in itself," Wallace says.
But even if business is booming, Wallace's own firm plans to stay small. "It's in our business plan," he says.
"I'm meeting clients and it becomes personal. Some clients respond really well to that because they feel a connection."
Looking further away, few in the industry feel that the region has bred any truly global brands.
But James of The Brand Union believes Emirates Airline is on its way to becoming a global player.
"They've linked their experience very well to their brand. It is quite a different brand experience from BA or any other competitors," he says.
"But if we were asked to overhaul Emirates, could we find some faults? Of course we could," he adds with a laugh.
Allison of Communicate magazine says Dubai itself is an impressive brand.
"Occasionally there are bad stories that go out about Dubai and things that make it seem less appealing.
"But by and large people hear about Dubai and they hear of it as the land of opportunity, and that's due to a very conscientious branding effort on behalf of the government," he says.