Local Heroes: Marketing’s ‘Unconventional’ Said Baaghil

image1You may have heard of Said Baaghil before, most likely on a comment thread where he’s thrown a literary grenade into the public on a subject related to branding in the region. An unconventional brand expert in every sense of the word (do you know any other Arab from this region who wears a bow tie, funky-design glasses  and multicolor sneakers?), Said has written extensively on branding and on brands, both globally and regionally.

I caught up with Said to ask him about his love for marketing, how the industry is changing and the advice he’d pass on to others about the industry.

Q: Said, why and how did you get into marketing?

I studied marketing in college but I realized my passion during my sophomore year. I was extremely active on campus, I was the founder of an international club to show diversity. My first passion was creative, something no one did I should do but I also realized that I needed marketing to understand the way forward. I was a below average student and kept a GPA between 2.0 to 2.2 through out my four years, I was less interested in what the professors had to say than I was interested on change and impact.

Q: How has the industry developed?

Well from the time I graduated till now, I would say tremendously. We focused on the marketing mix when my career kicked off but through the years the audience has evolved and marketing had to evolve with them. Today, we speak of brands that sum up the entire experience and not the marketing mix. While many markets evolved, our market [the Middle East] stayed stagnant. So marketing evolved globally, but everything remained as is here in the region.

Q: What’s the achievement you’re proudest of?

My son! As far as work, I have three. In my ten years in Saudi I was able to build two local brands and take them international in the consumer good and fashion retail space. I’m also proud of my brand as an Arab from my house in Khalddya who has taken on global marketing roles, both in the advisory and public speaking spaces.

Q: What would you advise your younger self to do and not do?

I’ll advise him not to follow the herd, but rather to find his purpose, follow his passion and chase his dream. Don’t fear your failures; they are just a test of time. So get up and evolve.

Q: How will the industry evolve? What trends should we watch out for?

We are in the fourth revolution, the digital revolution. Individualism in data is massive so personal brands will take off like never before. I think globalization is under threat as we see major nationalistic movements led by the U.K. And U.S.A.

The Real #EtisalatChallenge – Where are the eGlobe Cards?

Do you know about the eGlobe card and where to find it? Is this the real #EtisalatChallenge?

Do you know about the eGlobe card and where to find it? Is this the real #EtisalatChallenge?

It’s Gitex week, and its technology time. For those of you who don’t know Gitex, imagine tens of thousands of people talking about hardware, software and all things geeky. But I digress.

We’ve had our little bundle of joy and we’ve been lucky enough to have another addition to the family this month. To help her feel at home, we wanted to buy phone cards so that she could use the landline and she’d know how much she’d spend each time she’d call home (why not a mobile you ask? Well, landlines offer better voice quality, more stable connections and are usually cheaper).

After a little bit of research and a lot of shop visits, we realized that the VoIP calling cards which were being advertised at the start of the year by the two phone companies Etisalat and Du, Five and Hello! respectively, were no longer on sale (though you’d be hard pressed to find an announcement in the media).

Instead, Etisalat, the UAE’s largest phone company, was offering on its website a solution called eGlobe. To quote:

Use your prepaid, disposable Calling Cards for services such as recharging and renewing your Landline Prepaid (Maysour) account, Home Country Direct calls, Prepaid Internet, eVision pay-per-view, Hotspots, and more, in addition to national and international calls from any phone.

All well and good. But where can one buy them?

Buy Prepaid Calling Cards at
• Your nearest Etisalat Business / Service Centres
• Supermarkets, grocery and convenience stores, other outlets

So off I went. To the first store, where the response was, “What?” Ok, it’s a small store. Maybe they’ll have the cards at the local Co-op here in Abu Dhabi. “No, sir. We only have mobile recharge cards.” And then, after calling up the help line and getting no where, I marched off to the Etisalat shop, where, after ten minutes, I finally spoke to someone who knew about the eGlobe cards. “We have them with a chain called Fatima Stores…” So, off I went to the Fatima Store behind Dana hotel in downtown Abu Dhabi.

After walking around for a while, I finally found the shop. And what happened? “No, I’ve never heard of eGlobe cards.”

As the Thursday afternoon and evening passed me by and having driven, walked and talked in circles all of the afternoon and the evening, it dawned on me. What I had written about a couple of months back was a hoax. You launch a product on your website, and yet you tell none of your staff about it or sell it through your traditional distribution channels. It’s almost like one of those impossible game shows where the odds are rigged forever against you. The eGlobe card is the original, the true Etisalat Challenge.

Are you up to the task of finding the eGlobe card?

The launch of LinkedIn Arabic – Did LinkedIn miss a messaging opportunity?

If you're going to launch in Arabic where would you choose? Dubai or Riyadh? (image source: Reuters)

If you’re going to launch in Arabic where would you choose? Dubai or Riyadh? (image source: Reuters)

I love LinkedIn. It’s possibly my favorite social media network. LinkedIn has transformed how professionals network (and get jobs) online. No recruiter could do without LinkedIn.

The network has grown steadily in the Middle East since it opened up an office in Dubai back in 2012. Over the past three years LinkedIn has grown its user base from five to fourteen million. The UAE is LinkenIn’s largest market with two million users according to The National. The two largest Arabic-speaking markets in the region are Egypt, with a population of just over 82 million, and Saudi.

The Kingdom is, or should be, LinkedIn’s largest potential market. Saudi doesn’t only have a sizable Arabic-speaking population (28 million and counting), but it also has the spending power. Saudi’s gross domestic product for 2013 was just under 750 billion dollars. Saudi is home to some of the region’s largest corporations, as well as a majority of the country under the age of 25. Add to the mix high internet penetration and smartphone usage, Saudi is LinkedIn’s Arabic-language market.

However, when LinkedIn launched its Arabic-language site last week the management team chose Dubai as the preferred location. There was a guest advocate, in the shape of Noura Al Kaabi, CEO of Abu Dhabi’s twofour54. Bizarrely, LinkedIn’s press materials also included a press statement from Saudi’s Minister of Labor, which was carried extensively in the Kingdom’s media (the quote in full is below and is sourced from Saudi Gazette).

Eng. Adel M. Fakeih, Saudi Arabia’s minister of labor, said: “LinkedIn has been working with us to match talent in the Kingdom with the right opportunity, and with Arabic, this benefit can be rolled-out to a much wider member base.

LinkedIn will continue to be a useful tool for us as we use technology to communicate the need for nationals to up-skill themselves and take advantage of the strong economic climate and significant job-creation in the Kingdom.

Being a part of a global network also helps youth identify the key demand areas, and build their qualifications accordingly.”

Would LinkedIn have been better served by launching Arabic in Saudi, rather than in the UAE (where it could be argued that the lingua franca is English). Would this activation have been more in line with the message that LinkedIn was trying to convey, namely that we are now in Arabic and we want Arabic speakers to use our service.

It’s a small observation, but it seems that LinkedIn missed an opportunity to push home a message through a launch that was misaligned with its target audience. Saudi isn’t the easiest country in terms of getting things right on the ground, but if you’re going to do something then, as the saying goes, if it is worth doing then do it right.

And for more details on LinkedIn in the Middle East have a look at the infographics below, which are in English and Arabic.

A tale of two CRMs – Emirates and Bahrain Air

A couple of days ago was a very special day. Many years back something of immense importance occurred and I popped out into this world. I’m so proud of this day that I tell each and every company that I come into contact with online through their forms pages. My favourite firms out there are the airlines, who want me to repeat my birth date each and every time I think of flying with them.

Well, that special day which only comes once a year neared and I was pleasantly surprised to receive a host of name customized emails from businesses I have dealt with reminding me it was my birthday. I’d used Bahrain Air a couple of times, most recently at the end of May in 2012. I was impressed that they’d set up the feature (it isn’t too hard to automate the process if you have a good database and e-marketing tool) and that they’d not only sent it to my own email but also my wife’s email which I’d booked for the same trip.

Thank you Bahrain Air for the kind thought!

Thank you Bahrain Air for the kind thought!

And then there was another airline, the airline which we were traveling on that very day. I first traveled on Emirates in 2003 and love the airline. However, did the good people remember this ground-breaking day? Unfortunately they didn’t, despite me reminding them every two weeks when I travel between Dubai and Bahrain. No card, no happy birthday. There was a boarding reminder however (does that count?).

Technology is a wonderful business leveler. I was impressed by an airline that is low-cost and that has a fleet of four planes. In contrast Emirates has at least 190 planes and spends ridiculous sums on marketing every year, which Bahrain Air certainly does not. That Bahrain Air was able to make an impression at such a low cost says wonders for their marketing team, unlike the good people at Emirates. Now if only they were able to offer an added incentive to travel with them, a call to action such as a small discount, I’d probably have gone and booked immediately.

As for Emirates that day, even the world-class persuasive powers of my wife weren’t enough to get us an upgrade (it’s his birthday she said with a stern voice). And to top it off, the in-flight entertainment system wasn’t working. Oh well, at least we were spared from the 15 minutes of advertising that the airline is now showing in-flight.

At least I didn’t see this on my in-flight with Emirates… (Photo credit: Themetapicture.com)

Paris Hilton and the holy city of Makkah – where’s the synergy?

This is one of the few images that I could find of Paris which would be suitable for this blog. This isn’t her attire for the store’s opening however.

Socialite and party-lover Paris Hilton. And the holiest city to all Muslims worldwide, Makkah. These two don’t often find themselves in the same magazine or TV programme, let alone in the same sentence.

However, all of that has changed with the launch of Paris Hilton’s fifth store in Saudi Arabia. And yes, you guessed right. The store will be in the holy city of Makkah.

Ms Hilton tweeted about the opening with a picture of the store. She also added that this was her fifth store in Saudi Arabia out of a total of 42 stores worldwide. Seems we just can’t get enough of Paris Hilton over here.

Unsurprisingly there’s been a fair amount of reaction within Saudi itself. The news was first covered in Saudi by the national newspapers and has quickly been picked up by international outlets including CNN. The CNN piece, which you can read here, neatly sums up the differing reactions to the store’s opening.

The commercialization of Makkah isn’t recent. For years the city has been transformed by a host of high-end shops, stores and malls. It’s very different in another city I love dearly. Most of the old city of Jerusalem (Al-Quds in Arabic) has resisted change, and is all the better for it in terms of its spirituality and warmth.

Returning back to Paris and Makkah, what does a woman who has been embroiled in a sex tape and enjoys her party lifestyle have to do with Makkah, the holiest city in the world to over a billion people. Dare I say, this is slightly different from a high-end brand such as Gucci in the sense that Paris Hilton the person (and her lifestyle) embodies the brand. Will the news engender a debate about what is happening to a city that means so much to so many people. Makkah should be cherished and conserved. I for one hope it does. In the meantime, if you are in Makkah and you’re in desperate need of a bag do remember Paris Hilton (and say astaghfirullah while you’re doing it).

Makkah is most associated with Islam, spirituality, belief and forgiveness

PS as a PR stunt I’d have to give Paris Hilton and her team top marks for the online reaction as well as the media coverage.

Is talent enough? Does the #Gulf have enough #creative #marketing #talent?

This week I wrote a fun piece for the UAE-based internet news portal Kipp Report rebutting arguments put forth by the head of creative marketing and advertising agency Leo Burnett.

I’m not going to repaste the stores word for word but you can find both pieces linked here. You can find my piece, Is talent enough, via this link. The piece by Kamal Dimachkie, executive regional managing director of Leo Burnett – UAE, Kuwait and Lower Gulf, can be found here.

What I’d like is to hear from UAE and GCC nationals who are either working in this sector or who have a passion for advertising, branding and marketing. What are your thoughts on this subject? And what would you like the industry to do to encourage local talent?

And for all of my friends, family and everybody else out there in the blogosphere I’d like to say Ramadan Kareem! We’re a day into the holy month but it’s never too late to express our blessings for this month. My wife designed the visuals below (and she’s a GCC national! Go figure…)

Ramadan Mubarak to you all!

What do #brands do with #franchises when consumers get #socialmedia angry?

A couple of recent events, both personal as well as public, have highlighted the challenges facing brands when it comes to franchises and customer service. Social media has given consumers the ability to interact directly with brands in ways which were never before possible. Today’s consumers expect a response from brands’ social media feeds, be it on Twitter or Facebook.

So what do brands do when they’re not in full control? How do brand communication teams deal with a consumer who is angry at a franchise? It’s an interesting question, especially for us consumers and comms professionals here in the Middle East.

A number of high profile examples have brought to light the limited scope for communications between consumers here in the Middle East and brands from locations outside of this region. The best case study would be the #noshaya Twitter-led campaign against the Kuwaiti-based retailer M.H. AlShaya. The call to boycott the company’s stores back in December was a response to AlShaya’s decision to stop providing cash refunds to customers throughout its stores.

AlShaya owns tens of franchises across the Gulf, including Top Shop, BHS, and H&M. It’s by far the largest retailer in the Middle East and thousands of Saudi consumers took to social media to vent their anger at AlShaya’s decision (for the full reasons behind the boycott please see this previous blog post).

After only a couple of hours of the campaign going live online activists started messaging the retail brands directly.

https://twitter.com/#!/Maialshareef/status/143021336778903553

Activists sent hundreds of messages to the official Twitter accounts of retailers who had franchise agreements with M.H.AlShaya. While I may be wrong (and I hope I am) I didn’t see a single response from these retailers. These retailers weren’t helped by promoting their own refund policies on their websites, most of which were much more generous that AlShaya and included cash refunds on returned products – the activists’ key demand.

Another consumer-led campaign which hit the headlines this week relates to a nightmare incident in Saudi involving a Toyota Landcruiser which was stuck in cruise control at a speed of 210 kilometers per hour. For those Arabic readers out there check out this harrowing news piece from Al-Hayat newspaper. #ToyotaCruiseFailSa has been a top trending hashtag in Saudi for the past two days.

Out of all the car brands in Saudi Toyota probably has the best reputation for reliability and customer care. Does Toyota rely on its distributor Abdul Lateef Jameel to step in a repair the public relations damage done (so far, there’s been little word from the distributor) or do they step in themselves to reassure Saudi drivers? The response of one Toyota Landcruiser owner is typical of those trending the topic on Twitter.

The Arabic translates as, “I haven’t used the cruise control since buying the car because of this story.”

To ask again, when do brands step in to protect their brand value? How or what do they agree with their franchise and distributor partners as to who is responsible for what? Social media has changed the communications sector in ways that few could have envisaged. One short but interesting article online has found that consumers who contact the brand via social media are much more likely to expect a response to their queries. Check out The State of Social Marketing 2011 – 2012 by Brian Solis

I wonder how many of us in communications are taking note of what is happening around us before the same thing happens to the brands that we are entrusted with?