Rebranding for ‘soft power’ – examples from the Gulf

Aramco is looking to spend millions on promoting itself (image source: Twosmokingbarrels)

Now is a good time to be in the branding business, at least here in the Gulf. A slew of governments and government-owned assets are launching brand campaigns. At the beginning of the month, the UAE government announced that it’d be launching a national competition to create the first brand entity for the UAE – seven Emirati artists from each of the country’s seven emirates would work to design a logo and slogan to market the country in campaigns abroad. According to The National newspaper, “Once unveiled [the new brand] will be used widely by government departments and in marketing and adverts.”

The aim of the UAE brand is to reflect a truly Emirati character abroad, which will be based on four values. These valies are ‘giving’, ‘tolerance and openness’, ‘credibility’ and the ‘leadership values’ of the country’s founding fathers.

The second brand launch of note was by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, better known as ADNOC. The UAE’s largest oil firm launched its first ever national branding campaign last week, under the tagline ‘energy for life’. The 95-second video commercial which fronts the campaign was shot by Emirati director Ali Mostafa and shows the young Emiratis in areas such as aviation, science, exploration, space, the arts and sports. The new video is below (it’s subtitled in English), and will be shown across the UAE soon in cinemas and on social media.

The third example is from Saudi, Saudi Aramco in particular. The world’s largest oil and gas company, which launched its IPO this month, will, according to the Daily Telegraph, “splash out nearly £200m on a global marketing blitz next year, as the richest company in the world steps out from the shadows and tries to elevate its public profile. The oil behemoth’s huge advertising push will follow its long-awaited flotation next month when it starts trading publicly on the Saudi stock exchange.”

What’s fascinating about these three examples, and others, is how these brand campaigns are being used to build and project soft power. Look for example at the ADNOC video, which features art, humanitarian aid and sports; this isn’t your regular branding campaign for an oil and gas company. Likewise, with the UAE’s national rebranding campaign the focus is on Emirati values – it’ll be fascinating to see how this unusual approach to nation branding resonates with people outside of the region, especially as emirates such as Dubai and most recently Ras Al-Khaimah have built themselves up as tourism destinations in their own right.

Saudi Aramco’s marketing blitz is the most interesting of all. The company is listing in Saudi Arabia, and it hasn’t announced plans to list outside of the Kingdom. According to Reuters, “the Saudi government will face a one-year restriction on selling more Aramco shares following the domestic listing, according to the sources, meaning any overseas IPO is unlikely to be held in 2020.”

The concept of soft power was the American academic Joseph Nye, who served as a senior official in both the state and defence departments. He believed that various concepts such as culture and communications could direct the decisions/behaviour of others without the need for military force. Soft power influences others using intangible concepts like culture, ideology and institutional norms. And it’s a concept that’s usually talked about, and wielded by, governments. Companies don’t talk about soft power (though they do care about reputations).

And that’s not all. Given that both ADNOC and Saudi Aramco are primarily B2B, it seems these exercises are means to create brands that are based on and aligned with a governmental approach to building soft power. But given they are brands whose businesses are based on oil and gas, will this approach to reputation building work with a Western public who are openly agitating for a greener, more sustainable future?

As always, thanks for reading. And let me know your thoughts.

Purpose Marketing: Nada Dairy’s Ad for Saudi National Day Backfires

Nada’s attempt to mix politics with branding have backfired

I’ve spoken previously about the issue of purpose marketing in the Middle East (mainly the lack of any local brand engagement on big issues such as gender equality and sustainability). One popped into my timelines this week. Sadly, it’s an example that will be long remembered for what went wrong, rather than right.

Nada Dairy is one of the largest manufacturers of dairy products in the Gulf. The company decided to create a video in the run up to Saudi National Day this week. The video attempts to draw a line between the Kingdom’s new cultural policies, and those which were promoted several years ago (this is putting it crudely). The video depicts traditional views as backwards.

The issue with this political stance is that you’re clearly alienating a significant number of consumers. The Kingdom isn’t a democracy, but consumers are free to choose whichever brands they want. And this video has demonstrably hurt Nada’s reputation. Boycotts of its products have been trending on Twitter all this week, and the news has even led to boycott calls in Kuwait.

Nada’s response was to “apologize” for the video (which has been pulled from its feeds). The company also states that it recognizes and respects all views. The statement (which is the first image in this post) may not be the end of the issue, given the strength of the online responses. What is clear is marketers must think long and hard as to what positions they take on societal issues and causes, if they want to both be a supporter of societal change as well as a company that builds a loyal consumer following. If Nada’s management believed in these principles, then the brand has to stick with them. No one will believe in a brand that flip-flops on a societal stance.

Has the PRCA become MENA’s industry association for communicators?

I’m going to start this post with me eating my own words, and those words were written in 2016. The London-headquartered Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) had just started its operations in Dubai, and I’d criticized them for not engaging with the local association, the Middle East Public Relations Association, and for not being in tune with what the local market needed.

Three years later, I’m happy to say I was wrong. The PRCA MENA chapter has launched a number of big, inspirational initiatives, such as the MENA awards, the Cannes Young Lions for aspiring communicators in the region to present at the world’s biggest marketing event, and even Arabic-language initiatives such as NextGen Arabia to mentor local talent.

What has surprised me about the PRCA MENA has been its ability to expand into the region’s key markets. The organization has chapters both in Egypt and Lebanon, two countries which are the feeders of markets like the United Arab Emirates. The PRCA has moved quickly to establish itself as an entity that is locally based across the region. What has also impressed me is the PRCA’s willingness to reach out and work with other groups.

Where does this leave MEPRA?

For a decade, the Middle East Public Relations Association was the only representative body for communicators in the region. When the PRCA opened up shop in Dubai, my hope was that competition would drive MEPRA forward.

At that time, I was on the MEPRA board and was pushing for geographic growth and more partnerships. Back then, there was a chapter in Qatar, and my hope was that we’d open up in Saudi and Jordan or Lebanon.

Three years later, there’s no chapters outside of the UAE (the Qatar chapter closed down). There are partnerships in place with the CIPR, which is benefiting MEPRA members with additional training options. However, I’d have liked to have seen wider agreements with other organizations to promote certification and best practice sharing (there’s an agreement with the Arthur W. Page Society, but I don’t see how this benefits the mass membership, given Arthur Page is focused on senior practitioners).

I have full confidence in MEPRA’s chair and vice-chair, and I was glad to hear of their plans to do more in Saudi this year. But it’s also clear to me that decisions made to make MEPRA stronger after the PRCA MENA launched in 2016 haven’t resulted in more agility and the ability to get things done quickly.

The region needs a strong local body, and I hope that MEPRA becomes a regional association that is present in the major markets across the region. At the moment, the PRCA seems to have become a membership body that is present where most of the region’s communicators are. And that can only be a good thing as we look to bring the industry together and raise the standard of our profession.

Saudi Gazette and the end of print for the Gulf’s papers

The Saudi Gazette has been a print paper for four decades. Going forward, the paper will be digital only.

It’s started. The first major paper in the Gulf has shifted to digital only. Last week, the English-language daily Saudi Gazette announced that it’d be printing a paper copy for the last time. You can see the full announcement here. I’m also quoting from the article.


This is the last hard copy of your favorite newspaper.

No, this is not a requiem for Saudi Gazette. We are not saying Adieu.

We are greeting you with “Hello tomorrow!”

This, in fact, is a new dawn for the newspaper.

Change is the law of nature. Those who do not keep pace with change lag behind.

The newspaper industry has also undergone a sea change in recent years. News no longer breaks on the pages of newspapers.

The reading habits of readers have also changed. They scan headlines on the go and read what interests them at the time and place of their convenience.

While journalism will not die, print is definitely in its death throes. Many big banner newspapers have ceased publication.

In the US more than 500 local newspapers closed between 2004 and 2019. In the UK, some 245 newspapers have ceased publication since 2005. In Canada some 27 dailies have stopped printing.

These include big names like The Independent, The News of the World to name a few.

So in keeping with the times, Saudi Gazette too is going totally digital. This will give us a better and faster platform to keep you abreast of the developments taking place around you and around the world.

We are no longer restricted by column length and width. Now the canvas is wide open.

As we focus on digital dissemination of news, we assure you of exclusive quality content.

The references to Western media who have gone online only are, to me at least, misleading. We’re in a different market, where advertisers are spending less online than their counterparts in the UK or the US. Consumers here are increasingly wanting digital offerings, but they’re not paying for these services, unlike papers such as The Times or the Washington Post. And would the region’s readers pay for the content that the local papers are producing?

For the majority of newspaper publishers in the Gulf, print still makes up the majority of their revenues. And print matters as well when it comes to recognition. No self-deserving publisher in the Gulf would forego print if they had the choice (there’s long been talk of that number of UAE-based publications would go digital only).

I wonder who is next. Now that the Saudi Gazette’s publisher Okaz has crossed the Rubicon of announcing that they’re dropping print, who will be the next print to go online only. And what will this mean for their editorial. If a Gulf newspaper can’t make ends meet with a paper edition, there’s no way they can afford the same editorial staff with digital-only sales offerings.

My feeling is that this also reflects the views of certain individuals in government, who want to invest primarily in a single publication as a means to get their message out. While there’s still plenty of money which is being invested in publishing by these individuals, there’s less interest in media plurality. It’s neither helpful to promoting certain narratives, nor is it lucrative.

What does it mean for the PR industry? At its best, more focus on improving online media outlets, including more accurate numbers when it comes to readership and reach. At its worst, it means fewer journalists to work with as online-only publications slim down and focus on translating news from Arabic to English and vice-versa.

I love the Saudi Gazette, and I’ve worked with many of its staff. I hope that they are able to find a way to thrive in this new environment, both editorially and financially. As for the rest of the media industry, expect more digital-only announcements sooner rather than later.

Clients, Non-Payments and Slow Growth – Is it time for the Middle East’s PR Industry to work together?

A couple of stories broke over the past couple of weeks in the Middle East’s PR industry. This wouldn’t be unusual if it weren’t summer, when little happens. The first piece was the news of additional job losses at Edelman Middle East. The second was the restructuring of FleishmanHillard in Saudi Arabia due to final losses. And the third, which didn’t register in the media, was the closure of a one-person PR agency in Dubai.

There are two issues at play here. The first is management. Edelman’s layoffs aren’t a one-off; the company has made repeated redundancies over the past couple of years, and I feel for all those who joined what is the world’s largest independent PR agency, only for this to happen. Edelman has struggled in the UAE and the wider region, even after the purchase of one of the country’s largest privately-owned agencies, Dabo & Co, in 2015.

The second issue is payment, or a lack of. To quote from the Gulf News piece on FleishmanHillard:

The non-payment of fees, apparently due to a lack of invoicing clients, has impacted their operations forcing the company to reduce their headcount in Riyadh.

The issue also caught the eye of the head of one of the largest agencies in the region. Writing on his LinkedIn feed, Sunil John shared his view on the need for cross-industry action to address non-payment, particularly by governments.

SunilJohn

Slow to No Growth

Let’s give a little context to the PR industry across the Middle East. Over the past two years economies in the Gulf have struggled. Saudi has been in recession for a number of quarters. The UAE’s economy is growing slowly. The fastest growing economy over 2017 was Qatar, with a GDP growth of just over 2 percent. While this may not look particularly bad for those in Europe, many of us in the region can remember a time a decade back when economies were growing double-digit. Slow to no growth is the new norm in the region, and we (and management outside of the region) have got to get used to this, and budget accordingly.

Government Spending Grows

Ironically given lower government spending over the past two years on the back of falling oil prices, the driver of PR spending has been government. Saudi in particular has been spending heavily to transform its reputation globally. I’ve seen a host of medium and large agencies flock to Riyadh to work on Saudi’s Vision 2030, as well as other projects. Political circumstances have resulted in significant sums being spent in both London and Washington. For agencies starved of growth from business, government spending has been a boon.

Payment Terms and Governments

The challenge with government accounts is payment – both payment terms and collection. Government accounts are rarely small, and I’ve heard of terms that can be as long as six months. That’s a long time to wait for payment. And then, there’s the issue of payments being made on time. In my knowledge, it’s rare for a government to pay a bill on time. And if they don’t, what’s the recourse? There’s no higher authority to appeal to, no court you can go to. You chase and chase and chase. And hope you get paid, sooner rather than later.

Is Industry Action Going to Happen?

Sunil John’s call to action is interesting, but it’s not new. I and others have discussed the idea of having non-payment lists with industry bodies such as the Middle East Public Relations Association several years back. My heart desperately wants the large agency heads to come together to agree on what action to take when it comes to black-listing accounts (the WPP agencies could easily take the lead, given the size of their business here). But, despite the hurt the industry is going through, my head say this won’t happen. For every agency that drops a non-paying account, there are ten lining up to pitch. Everyone thinks they can do better on payment.

Sadly, I think there’s a bigger issue at play which doesn’t just affect the PR industry (to give you an example, Saudi’s construction industry has faced payment delays of up to 18 months). The answer is collective action. And it’ll require true leadership from everyone on the agency side, as well as leaders on the client side calling out this behavior. Is anyone ready to make the first move?

Zain Ramadan’s ad, the MBC ban and how politics & business mix in the Middle East

This week Zain put out its Ramadan ad. The Kuwait-based telecommunications company has a reputation for mixing politics into its messaging during the holiest month of the year for Muslims. The company’s advertisement last year, which took on the issue of extremism through a portrayal of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks, became a viral hit in the Arab World.

This year, Zain’s timing is impeccable. The topic of the video is Jerusalem. You can watch the video below (it’s subtitled and includes a couple of nifty cameos by global leaders such as Angela Merkel as well as Donald Trump). There’s also a good description of the video and its context provided by The National’s Naser Al Wasmi. Already there’s been two million views of the video in less than two days.

Zain’s stance on political advertising is unusual. While there’s been a movement in the West for companies to take a stand on political issues that were once deemed to be off-limits (for example, immigration in America), companies in the Middle East rarely speak about wider societal issues.

While Zain’s latest Ramadan video may prove popular with many (Zain has operations in eight countries in the region, including Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon), there’s been reports in the Kuwaiti press that the MBC Group, the largest satellite television station, has banned the airing of the ad on their stations during Ramadan. MBC, which is Saudi-owned, banned the airing of Turkish soap operas in March of this year, a decision which surprised many given the popularity of Turkish dramas across the Middle East but which must be viewed in light of recent Saudi-Turkish relations.

Zain’s Ramadan ad is a rare example of a Middle East business taking the brave decision to use its media voice to take a stance on a political issue. But as has been shown by MBC and other voices online, it’s neither easy nor simple to take on a political issue in a region which is already politically divided across multiple fault lines.

Creatives, PR and Media – Where are the Gulf’s Faces to Watch?

There’s many young faces to watch in the Gulf’s creative, public relations and media industries, but if you’re looking for Gulf nationals on the agency side you’ll be sorely disappointed. The industry must find ways to solve this issue of diversity and inclusion.

I’ve enjoyed reading about the future of the region’s marcomms sector over the past couple of weeks in Campaign Middle East. The publication has listed the ‘ones to watch’ in the creative, public relations and media sectors. The people featured are an impressive bunch, and just reading about their abilities, potential and experiences at such a young age (they’re all 30 or under) is inspiring.

I was struck, however, by one detail. I didn’t see anyone I recognized as a Gulf national. There was so much talent from countries such as Egypt and Lebanon, but no one from Saudi or the UAE.

For anyone based over here, it’s probably not a surprise that there’s not enough diversity and inclusion in the marcomms industry/function, especially on the Agency side (this listing was Agency-focused). While there are Gulf nationals working agency-side, especially in Bahrain and Saudi, there’s certainly not enough.

How Can We Attract More Nationals?

The marcomms industry isn’t alone in struggling to attract enough young national talent – only one percent of the Emirati labor force is employed in the private sector, compared to 60 percent in government. But the landscape across the Gulf has shifted in a number of countries. Governments in Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia are heavily promoting the idea of nationals applying to the private sector. More nationals are also eager to try new fields, particularly in the creative space. Here’s my suggestions on what each party must do to change perceptions and encourage diversity and inclusion.

The Industry and National Misconceptions

Let’s begin with the agencies and private sector firms who hire (the client side). We’ve got to break down the misconceptions and stereotypes around nationals, focusing on two key points. First, there’s the issue of work ethic; for far too long, there’s been a view that Gulf nationals don’t want to and won’t work the longer hours that the private sector asks of them (governments traditionally worked from 7 or 8am to early afternoon). Second, there’s compensation; Gulf nationals have often earned more working for the public sector.

I’m not going to be naive and pretend that these issues don’t exist. In Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE there’s a high differential between private and public sector pay for nationals, as well as additional benefits such as longer vacations.

However, we’ve already seen a shift in Bahrain, Oman and Saudi, where it’s common to find a national working in marketing or comms on the client side. To their credit, some agencies such as Gulf Hill and Knowlton have always looked to hire local in these markets (they had a large roster of Saudis some years back, and they’ve also hired a number of Bahrainis). In these markets governments are both telling their nationals to look towards the private sector and reducing the compensation differential.

For many in the private sector, they’ve not even put in the effort to test if the old stereotypes are true. There’s nowhere near enough engagement with universities across the region, not enough internships for nationals, and little in the way of mentoring. These are low-cost activities, which both agencies and clients should be undertaking. At the very least, they need to look for local talent, so they can benefit from insights that only nationals can bring to the table.

Governments and Talent Development

The private sector is only one half of the challenge. The other is governments.  Understandably, the region has long sought to develop its own talent. The number of nationals working in the marcomms function has risen rapidly, at least on the government side. It’s understandable that many nationals, particularly in Qatar and the UAE, would want to work in the public sector – pay in these two countries is, generally speaking, much higher. Plus, there’s a preference for locals, meaning there’s less competition for positions.This has become a double-edged sword. There’s more marketing and communications jobs in government, pay is better, and there’s less competition for these roles. What this has led to is young nationals being advanced into senior roles, often when they’re not yet ready or experienced enough.

If governments are serious about developing local talent, they’ve got to change this approach to public sector hiring and instead focus on long-term development, in partnership with private sector firms. This could include funded internships, either at home or abroad, as well as engagement with industry associations such as the IABC to promote certifications and long-term career mapping (I’ll share more about this soon). What’s clear is that national communicators who have worked only in one sector are missing out on all the potential learnings and development the other can offer, including the ability to work with and learn from other nationalities and culture (diversity and inclusion is also an issue on the government side).

Advice for Young Gulf Nationals

My advice for any young Gulf national is simple. Go and explore the private sector, understand the training and development it can offer you, and ensure you’ve tried every single option before you go into the public sector. If you’re after a challenge and you’re passionate about what you do, the money and position will follow. But if you want to be the very best you can be, and learn from a wider group of people from around the world, then moving into the private sector will be the best thing that you can do.

Likewise, we need you. We need the industry to be more diverse and inclusive (this equally applies to the public sector, where there aren’t enough expats working today), we need your insights and knowledge, and we need your understanding of the local culture, behavioral psychology, and awareness of how the Gulf’s local communities are changing. Today, we don’t have enough of this on the agency or client side. And it’s our loss. This scenario needs to change.

If you want to talk more, message me. I’m always giving my time to universities, to talk about the profession and help you understand your options. I’m happy to answer any question you may have, and point you in the right direction.