In focus: The soft power of brands in the UAE

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From Emirates to the Rugby 7s, the UAE’s brands are a crucial tool to build trust and understanding of the country

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when someone mentions the UAE?

For those abroad, chances are the answer is Emirates airline. Even if they know little of the country, they may well have seen Arsenal play at London’s Emirates Stadium, ridden the Emirates Airline cable car over the River Thames or simply heard that the airline’s service is perhaps better than that of their national carrier.

That, Crescent Enterprises CEO Badr Jafar tells us, is the power a brand can have.

“A brand like Emirates represents not just an incredible growth journey, becoming one of the world’s largest airlines, but beyond that it represents innovation, hospitality, efficiency and reliability,” he explains. “For someone who might have no clue of what the UAE is and represents, what sort of impact do these brand values have on their perceptions of the country? It will undoubtedly be a very positive one.”

Emirates is just one of the UAE brands profiled in a new book published by Jafar and ITP Media Group entitled Born in the UAE: 50 Great Brands. According to Jafar, the brands profiled in the book – which range from giants such as ADNOC and DP World to non-profits and events – are a ‘small window’ into what can be powerful tools for the UAE.

“There is a broader opportunity that we have as a nation, but also as companies and individuals, to use our brands and the products and services that the brands represent as a way of communication, building bridges and generating affinities with us, our nation, people, culture and values,” he says. “This is way beyond the economic benefits of having successful brands and businesses.”

Brand diplomacy

The soft power of a country’s firms – which Jafar terms ‘brand diplomacy’ – are a key aspect of winning the hearts and minds of foreign consumers, even without them knowing it. As an example, he points to the United States, whose products are ubiquitous the world over.

“The vast majority of youth around the world have a strong affinity with what the US represents through their daily experiences coming into contact with US brands. That could be through using iPhones, searching on Google, Uber-ing, munching away on a Big Mac or sipping on a Coca-Cola.”

America’s brands, he adds, are more than the companies the country has given birth to. They are also its notable personalities: “We mustn’t forget people brands, such as the George Clooneys or Lady Gagas of this world. These are people brands. They carry American flags with them, whether they like it or not. They are seen as products of the American Dream.”

“Similarly, we have a huge opportunity to nurture and help our own people brands, or in other words, our cultural ambassadors, to build bridges and create bonds across the world.”

Hidden potential

Similarly, Jafar adds, the UAE’s brands are more than its large companies. The book’s brands include a number of non-profit and educational institutions, as well as events and ‘experiences’ such as the Dubai World Cup, Sharjah Biennial and Alserkal Avenue.

“There’s no doubt that our brands have the potential to lift the image and view of what the UAE and the wider region has to offer in a way that is in my view, more powerful than any other”

Other entries, such as Fujairah’s Al Badiyah Mosque – the oldest in the UAE – are priceless representations of the country’s rich heritage that are yet to be widely recognised abroad.

“That brand is not necessarily well-known, but the point is that it has potential. If you look into the history of that mosque, you will realise it could easily be a top 10 ‘must visit’ if you come to the region and want to visit historic sites.

“Unless we identify that brand as having that potential, it will go unnoticed. It will be a best kept secret, until we bring it to the fore. Within each emirate, there is that huge untapped potential.”

Regional brands: from local to global

On a global scale, however, widely known Middle Eastern brands such as Emirates remain few and far between. Brand Finance’s yearly report on the world’s 500 most valuable and strongest brands, for example, includes just three UAE companies – ADNOC in the 206th place, Etisalat in the 226th place, and Emirates in the 329th place. Saudi Arabia’s STC also made the list, in the 284th place.

“We’re a region of 400 million people and growing,” Jafar says. “Yet, if you go to any major city or high street in the world outside our own markets, whether in Shanghai, Paris, New York or Mumbai, you’ be hard pressed to find a single brand that is strongly identifiable with our region.”

Bringing more brands to the global stage, he adds, will reap enormous benefits for the UAE.

“We really need to get over, as business people, our mental block that somehow people around the world don’t need our stuff because they have their own stuff,” he says. “There’s no doubt that our brands have the potential to lift the image and view of what the UAE and the wider region has to offer in a way that is in my view, more powerful than any other.”

“At a minimum, strong and successful brands build respect. But then, respect leads to curiosity. The more they get to know and understand, the more they trust. And trust is at the core of all resilient relationships everywhere.”

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