There are few cities in the history of the world that have undergone the kind of dramatic transformation Abu Dhabi has inside such a short period of time. From a product-branding perspective, Abu Dhabi's success is comparable to the rise of Crest—a toothpaste brand developed in 1955 that eventually morphed into the multi-sku line of products that it is today, but in the timeframe of just two decades.
It wasn’t until 1958, when oil was discovered, that the dramatic remaking of the economic, social and cultural life of this island city went into hyper-drive. Up until the middle of the 20th century, the richest families in Abu Dhabi lived in mud huts, nice mud huts, admittedly, but mud huts nonetheless.
In 1958, the population topped just 15,000 residents. Fast-forward to today and the city’s estimated population of 1.6 million is expected to balloon to three million by 2030, according to the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council. The humble roots of this exploding city are not ignored by the OBAD.
“Prior to the mid 1960s, Abu Dhabi was a poor (yet proud) society of people who lived off pearls and fishing,” notes the OBAD’s website.
Today, the prosperous ruling elite—enriched by petrodollars—live in palaces and sprawling villas amid expansive shopping malls and the world’s most expensive hotels. It’s a shimmering coastline city that rises from the desert like an image of Oz. So, how has the city of Abu Dhabi decided to brand itself on the international scene? And is it working?
The OBAD approached the branding initiative by defining the competitive market. It noted the challenge of destination marketing and of creating a brand that isn’t “wallpaper.”
“In the UK market alone there are more than 120 destinations busily marketing themselves,” the site notes. The OBAD carefully refined its audience to “Cultural Seekers,” or people who “see travel as a way to enrich themselves, always seeking new experiences in new countries and they have enough money to go wherever they choose…This group of luxury travelers are worldly and early adopters—the avant-garde of any trend.” After defining this segment, OBAD conducted face-to-face workshops in the UK, Germany and France.
Using an inverted pyramid, the branding process involved funneling down the various product features (desert, Bedouin, dates and coffee, mosques) functional benefits (year round summer, sun and sand), emotional rewards (authenticity, relaxation, pride) consumer values (confidence, adventure) brand personality (wealth, legacy, understated) and, finally, the summing up of all this information into a single word that defined the brand of Abu Dhabi: Respect.
To engage residents of Abu Dhabi in the branding process, the OBAD held a photography competition, which asked for submissions that “capture the sprit of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi,” and received more than 2,000 photos.
But promoting Abu Dhabi as a brand has been externally focused as well. The effort to gain attention on the international scene is already paying big dividends. Amid a looming recession, American media companies recently announced plans to open operations in the island city, a move that will undoubtedly drive more attention to the booming region. CNN, HarperCollins, Random House, the British Broadcasting Corporation, The Financial Times and Thomson Reuters Foundation, will open up offices in a new 200,000-square-meter campus dubbed the Abu Dhabi Media Zone.
The development of the media zone follows another significant media investment—a US$ 1 billion deal with Time Warner’s Hollywood studio Warner Brothers. This isn't the only major investment in media by Abu Dhabi recently. Another arm of the government signed an unprecedented US$ 1 billion deal with Warner Brothers to make video games and movies with that company. Yet another US$ 1 billion was spent to finance a film company. And to increase its cultural cachet to tourists, Abu Dhabi even convinced the Louvre and Guggenheim museums to open up branches in the city—it is,of course, supporting the Western cultural outposts with billions in investment.