Establishing a unique position in people’s hearts and minds is hard enough but when you are trying to represent the essence of a country and its people, it can be extremely challenging to find common ground.
The UAE is currently in the final stages of choosing their nation brand and they have opted for a populist vote. The public seem love this idea but the design and branding community are understandably concerned this is diluting the strategic process.
Nation branding has been attempted by many, but few are recognised as getting it right. The UAE’s benchmarks for great nation brands are New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa and Holland (Australia doesn’t get a mention).
Having spent nearly seven years living, working and developing brands in the UAE, I am particularly interested how the UAE nation brand develops.
As a place, the UAE has a lot to celebrate. Within the past few decades, the sand swept nation has been rapidly transformed from rags to riches. A proud culture combines with vibrant modern cosmopolitan cities and a reputation as a leading tourism destination and business hub for the Middle East. However, the UAE is still plagued by out-dated or uninformed views that misrepresent the country.
There is a definite an opportunity to clarify the UAE’s identity and its role within the world.
In their nation-branding brief, the UAE describes this as a strategic communication tool to “show people who we really are and create a link of relevance and meaning to them”.
The whole process started nearly two years ago with a logo competition. Not surprising this yielded lots of logos, but no real result.
Apparently, the Ministry of Cabinet of Affairs realised they needed some guidance. Not satisfied with the logos from the competition, they approached a well known brand agency.
The agency then created a brand strategy and numerous design concepts. These were shared with the cabinet, Sheikh Mohammed and the leaders from all the Emirates – but they still could not agree on the ‘one’.
A shortlist of 5 logos have now been selected for the public to vote on.
The UAE people are being encouraged to “select the nation brand design that reflects the UAE’s global economic and political status and its diverse and attractive cultural and business environment, which make it a leading destination for tourism, economic, and cultural activities”.
The five logos being voted on
(click here to vote and see the rationale for the 5 designs)
The process is certainly garnishing much debate in the Emirates. The public seem to be pleased to be consulted. However, brand identity selection by populist voting is seen by many in the UAE’s design and branding community to complicate and water-down the process, rather than build community engagement.
Matthew Laubscher, Creative Director and Owner of M Creative Thinking, says “The reaction has been one of shock and horror. Some of this frustration is due to the process and what it reflects on the value of the design industry. There also some genuine concern that the UAE is going to be left with a mark that is rather insipid.”
The design discussion has become purely subjective. “There is also a lot of discussion around the fact that the identities are not a reflection of the UAE, lacking in depth and true insight. What is the UAE? There are a collection of individual stories that range from new energy to one of industrial diversification, tourism, shopping, beaches, desert, culture and the haven of the Middle East. So the real trick is how those stories come together for the collective or how you tailor to more targeted to sectors, customers or visitors,” says Laubscher.
Hermann Behrens, CEO of The Brand Union Middle East describes it as just a logo competition and highlights the complication of building a nation brand when the UAE has been previously shaped on the reputation of their cities, Dubai and more recently Abu Dhabi.
“”This is the classic logo job nothing else. There is very little behind the development in terms of where UAE wants to be positioned particularly relative to its two well-known Emirates (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) and there is also little evidence of how the UAE experience will be created and shared. Hopefully, this will come out in time,” says Behrens.
Despite a brand strategy being agreed, it appears that this is still not clear to many and is being disregarded for subjective and personal tastes.
Voting is open until 15th September, but the debate is likely to continue for some time.
One UAE based publication, Kipp Report, has their own tongue-in-cheek ideas on brand UAE suggesting it should be “a sticky pile of red tape? Confusing ‘dress’ code rules? Or with an empty drained swimming pool on The Palm?”. I am guessing Sheikh Mo would not be amused!
From Australia, we watch with interest and perhaps we can learn some lessons to develop a richer and more engaging nation brand for ourselves – beyond our ‘unlimited’ brandmark (which very few seem to understand or have embraced; see Peter Singline’s thoughts on a previous blog).
Until then, we as Australians, will continue to fall back on the tourism imagery of a sun kissed country of kangaroos, girls in bikinis, beer, endless beaches, rugged landscapes and a couple of sporting heroes.
Director of Brand Strategy