The UAE’s airlines, Etihad and Emirates, signed on Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Aniston, respectively, as their brand ambassadors earlier this year. Kidman faced a fair amount of backlash from the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) for being associated with Etihad, which has allegedly discriminated against its female flight attendants, especially considering that she has been the United Nations Women’s Goodwill Ambassador since 2006. Although Aniston’s appointment hasn’t faced any such criticism, it does raise the topic of locally born brands flying to foreign territories to find a face to represent their identity. We ask the industry’s experts what they make of it: Alex Malouf, vice-chair at MEPRA; Evan Kearney, chief strategy officer at Memac Ogilvy Dubai; Yousef Tuqan Tuqan, chief innovation officer at Leo Burnett/Publicis Groupe MENA; Simon Hudson, CEO at Brandstr; Penny Couchman, managing director at Da Vinci Marketing.
Does it make sense for homegrown brands to associate themselves with international ambassadors?
It can make sense if the brand ambassador increases the equity of the local brand. If it makes me, as a consumer, reconsider the local brand and associate the positive values that I feel about the ambassador with the brand, then it makes sense for the local brand to sign up that particular international brand ambassador, with the proviso that there is a return on investment and that the relationship is long-term – Malouf
If we had local celebrities with global appeal, then they [brands] could consider using them, but we don’t. A global brand needs to appeal to a global audience. Loads of global companies use celebrity brand ambassadors that aren’t from their home countries. Nissan uses Usain Bolt. Turkish Airlines uses Kobe Bryant. Half the companies in the world use Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, including companies they’ve [the celebrities] probably never heard of themselves – Kearney
When it comes to brands with a global presence – whether it’s airlines, sporting brands, soft drinks or fashion – the geographical place of origin does not matter. In the case of Emirates and Etihad, the chosen ambassadors represent the type of traveler rather than nationality. For example, Nike chose Tiger Woods because of his golfing appeal, not because he is American. [Similarly], Emirates has chosen Jennifer Aniston because she has played many characters in different movies and sitcoms that people of all ages can relate to – Hudson
I do not consider Emirates or Etihad to be local brands, although they are based in the UAE. Both recognized, early on, that in order to be successful they would have to become iconic global brands, not “Arab” brands. [So] the recruitment of internationally recognized celebrities who represent their brand values can only help their cause – Tuqan
As a global brand it absolutely makes sense to sign internationally recognized brand ambassadors. While Emirates and Etihad are homegrown brands, they’re not purely local brands. Their marketplace is a global one; they just happen to be born in the UAE – Couchman
In the case of Emirates and Etihad, is the appointment of these brand ambassadors working in their favor or against them?
With Etihad, it started going sour but, since then, [it] seems to have swung back into neutral territory. I don’t think the mere presence of a celebrity is either a positive or a negative. It’s what you do with them that matters. In the case of Etihad, Nicole Kidman adds nothing to the campaign because there’s no idea behind it. Brands need to realize that using a celebrity does not substitute for an idea or actually having something of substance to say. It’s not an easy way out of actually having to do some work – Kearney
Etihad’s partnership with Nicole Kidman makes more sense to me than Emirates’ partnership with Jennifer Aniston. Etihad is still, in some ways, a challenger brand and recruiting an A-list celebrity such as Kidman makes sense as it expands its global network. Given Australia’s strategic importance to Etihad, the recruitment of an Australian actress only reinforces that. However, Emirates’ decision puzzles me. Emirates has spent billions over the last 25 years building a strong and recognizable brand, primarily through sponsorship of the world’s most iconic global sports. The selection of an actress like Jennifer Aniston – who has limited global recognition and renown – does not, for me, advance the Emirates brand in any meaningful way – Tuqan
Time will tell… The choice of both airlines is fascinating in that they’ve chosen well-established female movie stars. For Emirates, in particular, this is a deviation from its standard practice of sports sponsorships. If Emirates is focusing on the US market, then it would make sense because Aniston is better known in that market due to her work on the TV show Friends. It’s important to bear in mind the impact that a brand sponsorship could have on an actress due to a potential mismatch. Kidman was criticized in the US for working with Etihad by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (AFPA) because the association’s president claimed that Etihad had “discriminatory labor practices and deplorable treatment of female employees”, which was at odds with Kidman’s role as a UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador – Malouf
Considering Emirates’ and Etihad’s sponsorship strategy, so far, both brands seek opportunities that engage and activate local experiences, which also have an international appeal, in each target country. For example, Etihad sponsors the F1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that not only supports the local market, but also has an international following. Should Etihad’s brand ambassador, Nicole Kidman, attend the Abu Dhabi event, she would fit in perfectly in the relationship between sponsored opportunities and brand ambassadors – Couchman
Airlines such as Emirates and Etihad would have put a lot of effort into choosing the right person that best fits their brand. The two key factors in my opinion are the age and gender of the people chosen. We are in a world where women are fast becoming key figures in global business and both airlines have recently announced exciting new additions for the business traveler, so I believe it is a great choice. Appointing a woman such as Jennifer Aniston is a solid move as it shows that Emirates is current and backs the power of today’s women in business, so it should work in Emirates’ favor – Hudson
More broadly speaking, what are the pros and cons of local versus global ambassadors?
The major difference between a local and global brand ambassador is reach: a global name will give a brand more reach across more markets to touch more consumers. However, the downside is the cost. A global name’s cost will be significantly higher than a local brand ambassador, although this may be partly offset by standardizing the messaging and associated production costs. The upside of working with a local brand ambassador is greater relevance to certain markets and their consumers. For example, would a global actor work as well in Saudi as a Saudi television celebrity or sports star? The stronger and more distinctive the local culture, the more it makes sense to go local – Malouf
Depending on the strategy, a local or regional business that is clear on the needs of its audience will benefit from obtaining a regional ambassador at a lower cost, compared with an international star. Moreover, the regional ambassadors will be closer to the market in areas such as language and culture. However, their appeal may be restricted only to the region. For brands that are working in a global market, a global brand ambassador may not be as close to the regional market, but they would hopefully make up for that in the alignment and aspirational nature of the brand. Although, I have to say that it’s not too hard to feel connected with George Clooney as the brand ambassador for Nespresso – Couchman
To find local brand ambassadors who represent a brand’s values and shine globally is the dream of every Middle Eastern brand. However, the few icons we are able to hold up are completely overexposed to the point of being clichéd – Tuqan
There are no pros for a global brand that is using a local ambassador whom 99 percent of the world doesn’t know. The cons are all associated with linking your brand’s reputation to someone else’s actions. If your ambassador gets in trouble with the law or decides to run for President and make a load of highly questionable remarks along the way, it rubs off on your brand. The real question here should be about the pros and cons of using a celebrity brand ambassador altogether, never mind a local versus a global one – Kearney
When it comes to brands with a global audience, it’s not about whether the ambassador is local or international, but rather about how the message is delivered. The pros and cons come down to the strategy used to deliver, who they have chosen and why – Hudson
So, in conclusion, how should homegrown brands strike the balance between working with local versus international ambassadors?
Homegrown brands should choose ambassadors that work best with their consumers and intended audiences in terms of brand alignment and positive brand sentiment. The decision of whether a global Hollywood name is a better fit than a regional name needs to be taken by the brand based on its desired outcomes. There needs to be some authenticity in the relationship between the ambassador and the brand, no matter if they’re local, regional or global – Malouf
Homegrown brands that want to be seen as global brands and not “Arab” brands – which is what I believe these airlines wish to achieve – would be better served through the use of international brand ambassadors – Tuqan
If you want to act local, then matching a local ambassador will provide a strong return for your brand. If you want to think global, then your brand needs to act global. Interestingly, the tagline for HSBC: “The world’s local bank” is no longer [relevant] as the market has moved on and it has become difficult for it to deliver on this tagline. It is a big promise to think global and act local. Brands need to be very clear about the proposition they are making to their customers and, more importantly, deliver on it consistently – Couchman
With global travel being more accessible, it’s about how brand ambassadors – local or international – showcase themselves online. For a brand such as Emirates that has a superb track record of choosing the right ambassador, the challenge isn’t if they have chosen the right person, but how to communicate their message effectively and engage the world – Hudson
If it comes down to homegrown brands with a global appeal choosing either regional or local ambassadors or international ones, then, I’d say an international one from their home country. However, I’d like to pose another question. Should homegrown brands with global appeal go with local agencies or international ones? Why do Emirates and Etihad feel that Australian or American agencies are better equipped to handle their creative requirements than local ones? Honestly, [there is] nothing in the creative output that warrants it. I’m pretty sure a local agency would’ve been able to instruct Nicole Kidman to drape herself over a bed and read aloud from the Book of Advertising Clichés. Did they need to go all the way to Australia to get that? – Kearney