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22 February 2024

Branding a city based on cultural USP

When it comes to the USPs of Brand Dubai, it is ahead of others in the region. (EB FILE)

By Reena Amos Dyes

As the competition for global investments and consumer spending gets fiercer each year with countries vying with each other for their share of the pie, they are becoming conscious of the fact that they need to define their unique selling point (USP).

Defining one's USP and standing out from the crowd are becoming even more important in the present economic climate.

More and more countries in the Middle East are going in for professional branding exercises these days and Emirates Business spoke to a few branding experts to find out the objectives behind these exercises and the challenges they faced while creating a brand identity for these countries.

Olivier Auroy, General Manager of Landor Associates, who have created identities for Saudi Arabia, Al Ain, Jordan, Sharjah and Oman, explained some of the objectives behind the major branding campaigns.

"Sharjah wanted to attract more investments and Oman wanted to diversify its economy, and adopt a policy of sustainable, comprehensive economic, social, and environmental development."

"In the case of Saudi Arabia, the objective was transforming an economy and transcending domestic and international opinion. Saudi Arabia was embarking on an initiative to develop a tourism industry almost from scratch. Outlined in a 20-year plan, it would create 2.5 million jobs in a demographically challenged country and become a catalyst for social, economic and environmental improvement," said Auroy. "It would add $4.5 billion (Dh16.5bn) value per year. It would also help to shift negative perceptions – domestic and international – in a difficult and misunderstood region."

Michael Hughes, Executive Director, Strategy and Engagement, The Brand Union, said: "Abu Dhabi took a very different approach with the creation of a clear brand that is linked to a strategic and co-ordinated approach to become a contemporary expression of an Arab city.

"An integral part of the Abu Dhabi brand and the 2030 plan is a focus on fostering the emirate's culture and heritage."

So what were the challenges they faced while branding the different countries in the GCC and how did they overcome them?

Auroy said: "Although Oman is blessed with beautiful natural resources and a rich cultural heritage many outsiders have an unclear impression of it.

"Some potential investors perceive it as slow and highly bureaucratic. We were asked to create an identity for Oman in line with its national strategy. We identified four key burgeoning sectors to focus on: tourism, information technology, education, and investment. The goal was to lure the right type of tourists, simplify business laws to attract foreign investments, invest in education to nurture a skilled work force, and make information technology a priority. We also hoped to foster Omani national pride. Our challenge was to develop a comprehensive branding initiative for Oman that not only branded it as a destination – but as a nation."

Auroy said: "Landor held a series of brand and innovation workshops to share ideas and engage with participants across different business and government sectors. This resulted in ideas for new initiatives such as promoting eco-tourism and green industry. Brand Oman is poised to gain widespread national acceptance and the attention of the whole world.

"In the case of Saudi Arabia, we needed to change the perception and make people understand that Saudi Arabia is also a place to visit and to discover. We all know the holy places and the capital, Riyadh. Who knows about the green and engaging regions in the south of the country? We therefore focused on the variety and the unveiled beauty of the country and create an identity around the 13 main regions of the country. They formed a contemporary designed palm tree that bridged the tradition, the national pride with the future of the country."

Jordan suffered from its position in the Levant, in a region, synonym of conflicts and political disturbances. The branding experts decided to talk about the people and the colours of Jordan.

Auroy said: "Jordan is also well known for Petra but what about the other sites of Jordan. Petra could not summarise all the heritage and potential development of Jordan. We decided to work on an identity, slightly more abstract but still giving the brandmark its cultural and historical touch. The main challenge came for the fact that there was no well-prepared implementation team in place and nobody was ready to make the brand live. That's the key learning: a good destination branding works only if there is an implementation team ready on the client side."

"Sharjah, for example, had a slightly outdated image and was willing to attract more investments. How could we match the heritage of the emirate with its new ambition? Our strategy, summarised by 'revive', meant to build a bridge between the rich cultural heritage of Sharjah and its promising future. The chosen identity is a revisited Islamic pattern with more vibrant colours. It keeps the identity alive but it shows an evolution."

The experts explain the things that have to be kept in mind while branding a country.

Auroy said: "The first step is to define, who are we talking about? Branding a country always requires a good level of knowledge and a deep understanding of the culture and tradition of the place. It always starts with an immersion phase where we try to capture the mood and the feel of country, to understand what would be the country's main attraction in order to understand what could be its main assets. While we were branding Oman we met the Omani people, listened to them and tried to figure out what could make them proud and also, what could modernise the image of their nation.

"The second step is to figure out who they are competing against. For Sharjah or Oman, for example, competition came from their neighbours [Abu Dhabi or Dubai]. We must always answer the following question: why would they choose a country and not the other? What will make this place more attractive? How can we be perceived as different and relevant to our audiences?

"Third, a country has to define the core message. You need to choose a direction and stick to it. Oman is about 'natural growth', while Sharjah is about 'revive'.

"Once the message has been decided, you need to stick to it. All your actions [promotions, events, initiatives] should deliver on that core promise," said Auroy.

A country needs to be consistent all across its communication channels. This is why the destination brand unit is so important.

Because it will make sure that all actions are coherent and relevant. It will be the guardians of the brand and it main ambassador all across the country.

Hughes said: "Branding a country or city is challenging as it means capturing all the complexities that make the place special and truly different from anywhere else. However, there have been some great examples of country or city brands, primarily for tourism purposes, such as those created for Australia, New Zealand or New York [I Love NY]. These brands have not only been very successful in driving awareness and excitement from tourists but have also evoked a sense of pride from the residents to take ownership of these brands.

"However, even Australia has made some classic mistakes. Prior to returning to the clichéd images of beaches, the outback and kangaroos they tried to represent the real Australia with real Australian humour. After much controversy and falling visitor numbers, the campaign 'where the bloody hell are you' had to be dropped. The lesson being that although it appealed to Australians and those who are familiar with the country, it was lost on the majority of their core audiences. In particular, first time visitors from countries where English, and especially Australian English wasn't their first language!

You can't brand everything but when it comes to marketing a place or destination. You need a clear point of difference and there is a lot of competition out there. A campaign idea is great but you need to build long-term brand-driven growth – a reason to keep believing. You need to find that big idea – why is it so special and why should they care? Then, you need to beautifully craft this and ensure consistency through a differentiated and unique personality that will enable long-term brand value," said Hughes.