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09 December 2023

Optimism, dedication and commitment make the brand

By Rami Eljundi



The Brand Union’s CEO Simon Bolton and Abu Dhabi Managing Director Toby Southgate discuss their role as part of Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 Brand positioning is a marketing technique used by government departments and private companies to create an image for their services and products in the consumer’s mind and make them stand out. It is just one of the services offered by The Brand Union, an international agency, with offices in Dubai and a new Abu Dhabi branch opening March 1.

The company – owned by advertising giant WPP – has worked with leading companies such as American Express, Bank of America, Masterfoods, Unilever, Motorola, Credit Suisse, Corus, Deloitte and Vodafone. In Dubai it helped to brand Royal Mirage, the Madinat Jumeirah and Dubai Festival City. Now the agency is keen to play a key role in the execution of Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, the government’s development strategy that will market the emirate as a leading global destination.

In this wide-ranging interview with Emirates Business, The Brand Union’s worldwide CEO Simon Bolton (pictured above) and Abu Dhabi office Managing Director Toby Southgate discuss branding, rebranding and brand positioning. They explain how Abu Dhabi could position itself as a distinct brand in the region and the world.

What does it mean for The Brand Union to open its third largest office in Abu Dhabi after New York and London?

Abu Dhabi has a long-term vision, set out in the 2030 plan, for the future of the emirate. It is very keen to engage with other agencies to understand the importance of branding. They want people to know that the brand of Abu Dhabi is about understanding the future of the city and the emirate and benefiting from it. So we are embedding ourselves in this completely.

How do you see your company’s name reflecting what Abu Dhabi is looking for in branding itself?
Bolton: We used to be called Enterprise IG, which sounded like a car rental company. Most companies have an enterprise division and we believed our clients were confused. We renamed ourselves The Brand Union in 2007. The brand is the heart of our business and union stands for the union of our network but also union with our clients. This business is part science and part art. What we try to do is to fuse the science and art to create great well-class brands. We call that brand mastery.

Have you faced any challenges expanding into Abu Dhabi?

We have seen nothing but enthusiasm and positivity and support. We want to take brands that are established in the UAE and make them global.

What are your expectations for the new office?

Bolton: Ten years from now some of the world’s greatest brands will come from this region and The Brand Union will have been involved in this process. Globally, Dubai contributes 10 per cent of our revenues and we hope to double that amount in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi is launching its own branding initiative – why do you think The Brand Union could make a difference to this?

We are the first global branding agency to establish a full-time presence in Abu Dhabi. We have 21 offices in the world – Abu Dhabi is the newest. This is a very exciting time for us since less than four years ago we were not in the UAE or the Middle East. Three years ago we came to Dubai and now we are opening in Abu Dhabi.

Which sectors do you intend to focus on?

Property will be one of our priorities. There is a tremendous potential to attract investment. In the past people used to fly over this region but now it is becoming a hub. You have conventions, business services and property. What you could also see is more tourism. We had a talk with Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) about promotion and it was quite interesting to receive that kind of wisdom. 

What makes the UAE interesting in the eyes of The Brand Union?

Southgate: In Europe, what is interesting about this region is not only business but also tourism. Tourism in Abu Dhabi is moving towards culture and heritage rather than pure destination and leisure trips. Look at the Louvre, the Sheikh Zayed Museum, etc. Plus, TDIC is recognising and engaging with world-class architects on such projects. Abu Dhabi has a cultural element in its branding.

And how will you bring your expertise and experience to Abu Dhabi?

We want to work as a long-term partner with the very best brands in the world and help those in Abu Dhabi to build their profile on the international stage.

The eyes of the world are on this region and on Abu Dhabi in particular and will be for the next three decades. We could assist in mobilising and globalising brands that could emerge from Abu Dhabi.

This coming year three Abu Dhabi-based organisations – Etihad Airways, Mubadala and Aldar – are sponsoring Formula One teams. Formula One is the most watched sport around the world. These corporations are proud of their heritage and this will be the first step in their brand development programmes.

You formerly worked in New York – what motivated you to leave there and come to the UAE?

Southgate: I made a conscious decision to come to this region and to come to Abu Dhabi in particular. New York does not have the same levels of optimism, dedication and commitment to the future as Abu Dhabi – there is so much happening here. But what really caught my attention were the headlines in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times last November that said Abu Dhabi had become Citigroup’s largest shareholder.

But Citigroup needed someone to provide cash because of the sub-prime crisis. The group had found itself in a similar situation in the mid-1980s.

Southgate: True – but in cases like that intervention used to come from other parts of the world. It was different this time because it came from the UAE and from Abu Dhabi. So seeing those headlines contributed to me deciding to make the move. There was a huge market bounce in reaction to the news from Abu Dhabi. 

Several companies are rebranding themselves but others seem to lack focus in their advertising tactics and strategies – why?

Bolton: This is a controversial point. Look at the newspapers and you notice they are full of property advertising. The potential for brand differentiation between properties is really incredible yet all the advertising is, I would argue, transactional. Brand identity is the real challenge at this stage and that is what they need to focus on.

I recall what the chief marketing officer of Unilever said: “There are three laws of branding – differentiation, differentiation and differentiation.” Down the road, some brands that have been built up will need to sustain themselves, so the important thing will be not just advertising but brand positioning.

What do you see from outside Abu Dhabi that those within the emirate do not?

Bolton: We see the globalisation aspect. We have more than 500 people and can bring global experience to the local market. We are going out of our way to understand and absorb the implications of Plan Abu Dhabi 2030. We are also going to be growing along with our clients and partners. Planning in Abu Dhabi is very strategic.

Southgate: I see much more longevity in Abu Dhabi than anywhere else in the region.

The Middle East is often linked in the media with turmoil and instability. How could branding play a role in shaping opinions in the international arena?

Bolton: It is about changing perceptions, that is the objective. Everybody is committed to getting there. It is a very long process but Abu Dhabi is not looking at the short term.

Simon Bolton

Worldwide CEO, The Brand Union

Simon Bolton was born in London and has a BA in history and philosophy. He started his professional life at Ogilvy and Mather in London where his first accounts were for Avon and Spillers dogfood. He later moved to American Express where he integrated communications assignment across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. In 1995 Bolton became the regional director for FCB Worldwide in Southeast Asia. In 1999 he was appointed President and CEO of FCF in San Francisco where he managed key clients such as Amazon.com, AT&T, Blue Shield, Compaq and Panasonic. He then became CEO of J Walter Thompson for the UK and Ireland. In 2006 he joined The Brand Union as global CEO.

Toby Southgate

Managing Director, The Brand Union, Abu Dhabi

Toby Southgate was born in London and was educated at Millfield school and Edinburgh University. He headed the client services team at Navyblue Design Group, one of the UK’s top agencies, where he worked on branding with international clients. In 2005 he moved to New York where he supervised the launch of US operations for a UK-based brand and design consultancy, Third Eye Design – creating a multi-million-dollar business inside 18 months. He then joined The Brand Union and moved to Abu Dhabi.