Passionate about writing and producing, Ali spoke with brandchannel about the publishing industry, branding in the region, and all this Dubai “madness.”
BC: Are there any absolute no-nos that brands should avoid at all costs when entering the UAE market?
Many, and for various reasons—religious sensitivities, cultural sensitivities, as well as "wrongful" associations in language. An example of the latter is when a certain well-known confectionary/chocolate bar brand was introduced a few years ago: The name was a blatant swear word. Needless to add, it was not on the shelves for long.
So, in effect, it’s not so much no-nos as understanding the country or region prior to committing to a launch. To know if the region will be receptive to an otherwise successful brand in other areas of the world.
BC: An estimated 85 percent of the UAE’s population is foreign. How does having such a wildly diverse cultural population change one’s marketing approach?
It makes for an interesting scenario, with wildly different approaches to marketing and PR. Various languages, diverse backgrounds, different beliefs and age groups tend to enforce their own limitations as well as allow for campaigns that target wider demographics.
A simple example was when I was headhunted for a job as a creative director (a long time ago). The main aim was to spearhead a TV and print campaign for a ladies' hair shampoo to be newly launched in Saudi Arabia. Limitations at the time (which thankfully have changed) were that you could not show a woman bathing, nor her skin, nor any actual shampooing of her scalp or hair… so what approach could one take?
I chose a loose and long strand of hair held up in a lady’s hand with a voice-over. Restrictive boundaries? Yes. Creative solution? Maybe. But I got the job offer (which I refused due to their “uncreative” offer!)
BC: The UAE is becoming the business center of the region. How does this effect UAE brands?
The UAE has been for the longest time a media hub, taking the helm from Lebanon due to the latter’s sad instability. In this it serves the regions of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan (the Gulf and Levant). But it’s noteworthy that Lebanon remains a media source playing a pivotal role across the region. Most advertising heads are Lebanese by origin and the caliber of work that the country produces remains above par. However, most advertising agencies as well as the international media arms are in Dubai.
In the past all the countries above, inclusive of the UAE, did not come close to the ad spends in Saudi Arabia. But recently the UAE, headed by Dubai, has overtaken the spending of Saudi Arabia. Brands such as Emirates Airlines, El Ethiad Airlines, Jumeriah International, DP World, as well as the property sector headed by Emaar and Nakheel, have now all successfully established their brands beyond UAE borders.
The UAE has become a crossroads of both home-grown brands and “imports.”
BC: In the Atlantic essay “Are We Not Men,” Jon Zobenica posits that every magazine “survives by suggesting that you need what it offers.” So what do you offer that your Dubai readers need?
Maybe it’s to offer what people didn’t know they needed in the first place. There was, and still is, a gap of quality in print media when it comes to specific genres and categories. There are dozens of auto and women’s fashion magazines in both Arabic and English, yet very few sports, men or medical titles. The answer from publishers seems to be to fill a gap in order to be the “first” into the sector; but this is done regardless of editorial integrity or any great design. That is changing. There is a soon-to-launch daily English newspaper and other new channels and titles.
Readers in Dubai are interested in finding out what’s happening in their city and its surroundings, as well as staying connected to what’s happening abroad. Prospective readers can find internationally licensed titles, the usual international powerhouses and the locally produced magazines. The key, at least in my book, is that since we’re all multinational, multilingual and with various tastes, no one person will read one title alone. It’s a daily newspaper here, a tabloid there, a free magazine at the office and two that you may buy for your wife. Maybe a book when you get to bed, if, of course, you’re not still reading your wife’s magazine.
It’s a young industry. Magazine auditing was only started a few years ago and is still not full force. When was it launched in London? 1952? But things are changing.
BC: One of the big corporate bandwagons in the US publishing industry is blogging. Yet blogs don’t seem to be anywhere near as huge of a concern in the UAE. Any particular reason for this?
I have seen blogs carrying Arabic ad banners. My belief is that it’s only a question of time. Check in a year from now and I can assure you it will be a totally different story.
BC: Is Dubai a different business environment than, say, in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah or Ajman?
Very much and unbelievably so. [Ajman] is the “least privileged” of the three when it comes to the business environment, Abu Dhabi has suddenly in the last couple of years woken up to the notion of large enterprise. Both the Louvre and the Guggenheim Museums will have permanent fixtures on a newly man-made island there. The Abu Dhabi Media Zone is heavily investing in both talent and endeavors such as the New York Film Academy, the Sorbonne, and the Formula 1 extravaganza.
BC: This question is a little convoluted, but bear with me: What the US consistently hears about Dubai is that it is this completely madcap place of absurdist island construction, indoor ski slopes, wealth, at-odds cultural values, and unchecked ambition. So, inevitably, if an American consumer were ever introduced to a UAE brand it would follow that he or she would project all of those associations onto the brand. Is this an advantage or disadvantage?
Matisse once had a showing of his paintings in a gallery in Paris, and as is the norm, a pompous, high-end audience was the first invited. A woman stood before the grand master himself and a painting of a woman. She raised her arm with her unattached rimless glasses said in a high voice, “Monsieur, this woman’s arm is simply too long.” The artist turned to her and in equally high tone said dryly, “But madam, this is not a woman; it’s a painting of a woman!”
Dubai is not out to make the biggest, tallest and best quite simply to boast about the fact that it can. When his Highness, Sheikh Maktoum, was recently interviewed on “60 Minutes” he was asked outright the very same question of why he was building this and why that, and the answer was as accurate and direct as one could deliver: “Why not?”
But think about it: If the word “Dubai” was uttered in Iowa one or two years ago, it would have been received with a blank stare. But now if an American consumer is asked of Dubai, regardless of if the term makes connections to the above, it’s a recognized place. It has a brand now. It is on the international map in the mind. This in turn reflects back to opportunities for growth in tourism and industry, such as ours—media.
Super popular Disney cartoon character “Kim Possible” proudly boasted in a recent episode that she was on an assignment in Dubai. That says it all.