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:

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.!/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?

When actions speak louder than words – Gulf Air’s Straight From The Heart and several hundred sacked employees

For over a month now Bahrain’s national carrier Gulf Air has been running a touching, powerful marketing campaign. Named ‘Straight From The Heart’, the campaign uses both print and multimedia to feature ordinary people who use and rely on Gulf Air, not just for their flights but also for hotels, cars and insurance. Basically, Gulf Air is saying it takes care of its customers and all of their holiday/travel needs.

The campaign is featured all over the island, on billboards and in print, at Bahrain’s cinemas and online and targets as many customer segments as possible in terms of the persons portrayed in the adverts themselves. There’s the Bahraini banker in his thob and guthra, the European male executive, the young female professional, a well-known Bahraini actor and comedian and a local footballer. In the print adverts they each describe a personal experience they’ve had with Gulf Air. It’s a powerful campaign.

There’s just one problem. You could say that Bahrain has been going through a rough patch of late. Ever since February, since protests broke out, the island has gone through a political and economic crisis. Gulf Air has not been spared. To quote from an article in today’s Sunday Times, several hundred employees have been fired from the airline for a variety of reasons.

“At Gulf Air, the national carrier, 250 employees were dismissed for posting comments about the demonstrations on their Facebook accounts and other minor signs of support for the protests. Despite repeated promises that they would be reinstated, including one by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, many have still not got their jobs back.”

As a government-controlled company it appears that Gulf Air has terminated people who objected to the government clampdown on protesters during February and March. From what I’ve been told by people at Gulf Air is that all of those who were fired were Shia Muslims (the government and the Royal Family are Sunni Muslims, while most of the protesters were Shia). Some seem to have been targeted for termination simply because they were Shia, rather than because they’d voiced their concerns about the political situation and crackdown in Bahrain. In total 250 out of a total of 2,000 ground staff were laid off.

As part of the reconciliation process initiated by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, all those who were fired due to reasons related to the protests were supposed to be rehired. Rather than being reinstated, they’ve been ignored by the airline. During a speech televised live on Bahrain TV during the first night of Eid, King Hamad promised all those who had been fired that they’d be taken back. Only after this speech did Gulf Air take action. Fifty people were reinstated, on the proviso that they could be fired at a moment’s notice without legal recourse.

Instead of reappointing the people they’ve gotten rid of, Gulf Air has apparently hired replacements. According to my sources they’re mainly Indian, Sunni Muslims who are earning half of what their Bahraini predecessors took home at the end of the month. Meanwhile the sacked employees and their families are taking legal action against Gulf Air.

The point of this blog is to talk about communications, about marketing and consumers. I’m not going to talk about the politics of what happened. However, I will ask this. In Bahrain, what’s your largest customer base? They’re probably Shia and Bahraini. The population isn’t large either – there’s less than a million Bahrainis. I’m guessing most Bahraini nationals will know someone who was fired during or after the protests.

If you’re looking to build brand equity, alienating your largest customer base by firing several hundred staff isn’t a smart idea. Running a brand building campaign based on emotional values and the tagline Straight From The Heart while all this is happening isn’t what I’d deem to be appropriate either. As always, actions speak louder than words. In the case of Gulf Air, their actions are deafening enough to lose them a good deal of customers as well as money. No advertising can undo the harm done, only common sense.

Empowering women in Saudi through Glowork

Despite the size of the Kingdom and the importance of the country both in terms of its GDP and population, it’s not often that I get excited about anything online over here in Saudi. Recently, one initiative which I’ve been fully behind has proved that there are people out there who understand the power of the internet and who are determined to harness it for the good of progress in Saudi Arabia.

I was introduced to the team behind Glowork before its official launch. Put as simply as possible, Glowork is the first employment website dedicated to women looking for work in Saudi Arabia. Remarkably, there’s never been any similar initiative that I’ve been aware of in the country despite the millions of women over here both in employment and wanting to work. This is even more surprising considering that the majority of Saudi university graduates are females. There’s a wealth of talent out there that few companies have tapped into.

The team at Glowork have worked flat out to build awareness about the site among all the women out there online in Saudi as well as with employers. They’ve identified a niche and they are matching women with companies who they may not otherwise have been able to connect with. The likes of Panda, Microsoft and KPMG are today using Glowork to advertise positions for women in Saudi Arabia.

What is also striking is that Glowork’s marketing people are not using conventional advertising to promote themselves. Instead, they’ve gone online and are busy posting updates on Facebook and tweeting about new positions. This approach has allowed the site to build up a loyal following among thousands of women in the Kingdom as well as enable these women to interact with those behind the site and learn about the recruitment process.

We’re still a long way off having women being an integral part of the workforce in Saudi Arabia. However, sites such as Glowork will make a huge difference to all those women looking to start their careers in Jeddah, Riyadh and Al-Khobar. When you think that there’s over ten million women here, that’s a huge market to tap into.

Kudos to Glowork’s founders for being both the first into this space and for how they’re looking to reach out to women through social media. I hope others learn from your efforts. And if you haven’t checked out the Glowork site then go there, now!

Washing your dirty laundry in public PR style

As someone who’s been around the proverbial communications block, I’ve always been taught never to air any grievances in public. The thought of picking a fight with a journalist or a publication is always a no go, no matter who is right and who is wrong.

While few things seem shocking following events over the past six months, a couple of articles in the Bahrain media were eye openers in terms of how regional governments, media and public relations firms are communicating with each other in the public domain. The first was a stinging article in Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News related primarily to the decision by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile or FIA as it’s also known to cancel this year’s Bahrain race.

The author suggested that Bahrain’s loss of the race, which is estimated to bring in several hundred million dollars to the local economy, is partly due to a lack of action by lobbying firms hired by the Bahraini government. The below from the article on the 10th of June suggests that only companies with a vested interest should be hired to support and defend Bahrain. For those interested the fully story is hosted here.

“Certainly Bahrain should share part of the blame for innocently allowing both international media and human rights organisations to twist the truth. For years they have been fed a dubious diet of information. However, we have relied on individuals like Lord Gilford and public relations organisations such as Bell-Pottinger (whose staff deserted the kingdom en masse as soon as trouble started). They have milked the country’s financial resources for a long time, yet failed to deliver any positive result.

From now on we hope such tasks will be undertaken by organisations with true local links, knowledge and understanding, as well as a genuine love for Bahrain.

The defamation of Bahrain was started by so-called native opposition elements, therefore only local, loyal media and public relations companies with a vested interest in the future of this country can be relied upon. “

What is striking about the above paragraphs is how the author attacks those agencies hired by the government to lobby on its behalf. Gulf Daily News is a pro-government newspaper.
In response the founding partner of one of the agencies mentioned, Gardant Communication, replies to the article with a short but succinct letter published on the 15th of June and which can be read here.

Lord Clanwilliam argues that he’s on Bahrain’s side and that he’s been criticized for his support for and defense of Bahrain

“When I defended Bahrain on Al Jazeera news channel recently, calling it a beacon of democracy, I had no idea what events would follow, nor how much I would subsequently be attacked for my loyalty by the British gutter Press.

I am proud to defend a country I love, but it would be helpful to have the support of that country’s Press instead of unsubstantiated criticism.

Finally, Anwar, we have known each other 15 years, please learn how to spell my name correctly.
The riproste from the editor is carried below the letter. In summary, the editor attacks the Lord and his firm for a complete lack of action in relation to its lobbying contract for Bahrain (the firm is actually hired by the Embassy of Bahrain in London).

“However without in anyway wishing to be personal, we do not believe that you have represented Bahrain successfully and that you have given the opportunity to opposition elements to steal a march on us by allowing them to influence the international media virtually unopposed.”

To top it all off, the Lord is attacked again in the letters page on both personally and professionally the following day by a reader. The letter is still hosted on GDN’s site.

“This is to you, Lord Clanwilliam. Simply adding the word “Lord” before your name doesn’t make you one. You have to go a long way to achieve it.

In the report ‘Overtaken by lies?,’ the only inaccuracy was one letter missing from your name – for which GDN Chairman and Responsible Editor Anwar Abdulrahman apologised. Apart from that, all other matters were correct.
Abraham Samuel (bijji)

What is astounding about all of this for me is that these views are being aired in public at all. Having worked in the region for this amount of time I don’t believe that the initial piece and slight towards the agencies employed by Bahrain unless it was sanctioned by a government employee. Gulf Daily News is a pro-government newspaper.

What follows is a further tirade which is both personal and professional.

I don’t understand is how this benefits anyone. If the agency/ies have not done what they were hired to do then release them. Attacks on people who are supporting you will not encourage other agencies to flock to your support . If I am working on a client account it doesn’t do much for my motivation to be hammered. I can imagine that those agencies who were attacked in the article and particularly the founder of one of them is even less enthused about fulfilling their duties towards the country.

The loss of this year’s formula one to Bahrain is a major political and financial blow. The race was estimated to be worth up to 500 million dollars to the island’s economy. However, if you are unhappy with your agency my advice is to show it in the simplest and most effective of ways and change your agency. Don’t wash your dirty laundry in public.

Is your organization listening or talking to anyone?

I attended a fascinating event this week in Riyadh (that’s not something I often say). The Saudi Brand and Communication Summit offered attendees a chance to discuss and share their own communications and marketing experiences. While there do seem to be companies out there who listen to their marcomms staff, the feeling I got was that companies need to do much more if they want to reach out both to their customers and employees.

A number of presentations were excellent. Possibly most impressive was Colin Hensley, Former General Manager of Corporate Affairs & Planning, Toyota Motor Europe, who talked about his experience of the recall crisis that affected Toyota last year. Equally impressive were Piers Schreiber, Vice President, Corporate Communications & Public Affairs of the Jumeirah Group who was discussing how to position a luxury brand across multiple markets, and Olaf Brinkmann, Group Communications Executive Manager at Saudi-based electrical manufacturer alfanar when talking on business to business comms. The irrepressible Saudi-based marketing consultant Said Aghil Baaghil shared his views of what Saudi companies think of marketing (this man certainly holds no punches when he describes the lack of understanding among Saudi business owners towards marketing as a discipline).

Each and every one of the speakers stressed on the basics, namely that a brand isn’t just a slogan or a logo. A brand is your company’s vision which has to be lived by every single employee in the firm. While the speakers were probably preaching to the converted what was striking was how all of them mentioned the same challenges: getting management on board; explaining to executives the benefits of effective communications; trying to find local talent.

Having worked in marcomms for a fair few years in the Kingdom I can relate to their frustrations. All too often companies, even multinationals, simply go out and sell. They’re rarely interested in educating customers, to create pull marketing that’ll result in the customer approaching them. Even on an individual basis, executives are unwilling to talk externally to the media. I was once told (only recently, I may add) that we don’t want to attract too much attention, it may get us noticed by the wrong people. It can be even more frustrating working with marcomms people outside of Saudi, who don’t understand the difficulties we go through in getting anything done over here.

Communications and marketing can and do do wonders for a company’s perception, positioning and profits. Some of the examples shared by the speakers were remarkable. Jason Ong, Area Director, Middle East & Africa at the Singapore Tourism Board explained that visitor numbers to Singapore increased by approximately fifty percent following the roll-out of their last marketing campaign. While it’s always a struggle to quantify return on investment for marcomms activities, a brand that sells products such as Apple, Nike, or Nokia is priceless.

As communicators the main problem we face is understanding. Why spend money on marketing or communications, I was often asked when I was on the agency. It’s simple. My job is to sell your firm, both internally and externally. As individuals we aim to make positive impressions on those we meet. We should do the same as companies. Communications and marketing are not wishy-washy undefined disciplines. They’re roles that are essential to the well-being and growth of any company.

I’m looking forward to next year’s Saudi Brand and Communications Summit in Riyadh. Why? Partly because of the insights of the speakers. Also because I enjoyed networking at the event. I’ll be most interested in hearing if we’re making any progress in getting our management to understand why marketing and communications are so important. Fingers crossed we’ll make headway here, but as cynical as I am I’m not holding my breath for any epiphanies between now and then.