GCC countries have been making their presence felt on the global map and international media with increasing frequency in recent years. This limelight has only strengthened with Dubai’s Expo 2020 win and Qatar’s FIFA controversy. This has also led to countries becoming self-conscious and investing in nation branding – a tool used by countries to protect and promote their brand image and reputation in the global and regional arena. Helen Rankin, chief growth officer (UAE) at Cheil MENA, participated in a panel on country branding at the Trade and Promotion Organization (TPO) Conference in Dubai in November. This month, she sits down with Communicate to discuss the topic of nation branding.
How would you say nation branding has evolved in the GCC region? Would you say that it has gone through westernization and returned to local heritage in recent years?
While the notion of nation branding may have become more visible, I would suggest that the brands have remained consistent. A brand is recognized by the values it protects and, specifically with nation branding, culture is the foundation for that brand. Cultures rarely change quickly; instead it evolves gradually between generations.
For example, Dubai has always been a successful international trading route with a culture that welcomes and accommodates foreign trade and travellers. In the 1900s, this was demonstrated by its adoption of the Indian Rupee as the official currency. When the country moved from trade to business, the use of English as the primary language was not an attempt to westernize Dubai, but instead another demonstration of facilitating trade and creating a harmonious work-life environment.
Since the 1950s, many countries in the region have crafted, and shared publically, clear vision statements to maintain this consistency across generations. Current examples include Abu Dhabi Vision 2030 and Dubai Plan 2021.
There has been quite a lot of debate on Qatar trying to emulate Dubai’s vision and branding. What is your take?
How far back do you go? Was Dubai copying Kuwait? Is Qatar copying Dubai? I don’t believe so. When I worked in Dubai 20 years ago, it was still widely unknown outside of the region. The opening of the world’s first 7-star hotel, Burj al Arab changed that by cementing Dubai firmly in a strategy for tourism and leisure and strengthened its brand value of Arabian hospitality.
Conversely, Qatar’s transformational enterprise was the Al Jazeera news network and its commitment to report uncensored news within the region. This was also true to Qatar’s core brand value of maintaining impartiality within the region, diplomacy and a history of regional mediation.
Qatar’s brand reputation has been heavily tarnished by the FIFA allegations. Do you think the country can come back from such a PR and brand bungle?
Most likely no significant or irreversible nation brand damage has been created by the FIFA allegations although it may likely delay their chances of a successful Olympic bid.
How has brand Dubai evolved over the past few years, considering all the milestones and its positioning as a cosmopolitan hodgepodge of cultures as well as the Expo2020 win?
The nation brand of Dubai has remained consistent for the past 200 years, at least. While it may have taken advantage of different mediums to convey its brand, the core values it protects have remained unchanged and it has always pursued and successfully delivered megaprojects.
In 1978, Dubai World Trade Centre opened and was the tallest building in the region for 25 years; and today you have the Burj Khalifa. In 1979, Jebel Ali Port opened and is still the world’s largest man-made harbour, just as Al Maktoum International Airport is today the world’s largest passenger and cargo airport.
Do you think that brand Dubai is sometimes more about grandeur than it is about collective culture?
Dubai could be considered a curator of cultures. As a nation it seeks to protect and celebrate the unique diversity of rituals, faiths and arts of the 200+ nationalities that peacefully co-exist here. It is also part of its culture to inspire progress. Dubai’s megastructures and the UAE’s recent mission to Mars are more examples of this.
How does nation branding in the region stand vis-a-vis elsewhere in the world, especially given the fact that the region as a whole, as a brand, would fall more on the conservative end of the communication spectrum?
I see many similarities between GCC countries and the emerging markets of Eastern Europe. They share an optimism for future possibilities, stability and convenience, which are desirable traits for both trade and leisure.
As you recently spoke of Korean culture intertwining with pop culture with the likes of K Pop, what is your take on the recent Sony hacking scandal?
How would you position Saudi Arabia versus the UAE as a brand, as many talks have also been recently highlighting the kingdom’s efforts in building “cities” for education and healthcare, similar to Dubai’s previous efforts in the same arena?
Throughout the GCC it is commonplace for traders to cluster together – think of Bank Street, Computer Street, etc. – so it’s not unusual for this pattern to continue. Urban planning is usually dominated by logistical demand although there are occasions when culture influences decision-making. Compare the chamfered corners of the Eixample in Barcelona with the concrete New Towns of the UK and the respective culture of that time can be clearly seen in both. Therefore, to differentiate between each country is to ask ‘why’ not ‘what’. Will the Healthcare City be a cluster of highly skilled specialists similar to Harley Street in the UK, or is its focus on quality, affordable healthcare for all.
What do you think the challenges are for nation branding in the GCC region?
GCC countries share the same challenge as nations outside of the region: a fundamental misunderstanding of who they are and the need to overcome stereotypes. Whilst speaking at the Trade and Promotion Organization Conference it was suggested to me that the same nation brand could not be used to attract businesses and tourists. This is a clear example of confusing the ‘who we are’ with ‘what we do’.
How do you believe the growth of social media, citizen journalism and crowdsourcing helps and hampers nation branding?
A brand struggles when it lies and those lies are shared. In the always-on era it could be argued that it is faster and easier to expose those lies. It could also be argued that as information is gathered and shared so quickly, there is little time to evaluate and understand what we are seeing and experiencing. Therefore, a nation should understand itself and inject who it is into everything it does.