Big Arab brand names set to go global

While no Arab companies made it to Brand Finance's top 200 list, the UAE is fast becoming home to firms gaining recognition.

Emirates is among the top five most recognised brands in the GCC. Opportunities exist for newer brands such as Mecca Cola, an Islamic take on Coca-Cola, that can strike a chord with the 1.4 billion Muslims around the world.
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Although no Arab companies make it on to Brand Finance's top 200 list the Middle East and the UAE in particular is fast becoming home to firms gaining recognition - and marketing power - around the world, Ben Flanagan writes

Every year, the UAE's top brands are listed in a glossy hardback book.

Big names such as Emirates, Dubai Duty Free and Masafi are regulars in the rankings, which are put together by the local arm of Superbrands, a global organisation that describes itself as "the independent authority and arbiter of branding excellence".

But some have questioned whether Arab brands are really that "super". Brand Finance, which compiles rankings of the world's top brands by value, claims the most expensive name worldwide is Walmart of the US, which is worth US$41 billion (Dh150.58bn). The next most expensive brand name is Google, worth $36bn and Coca-Cola at $35bn.

Yet the value of the region's top brand, Emirates Airline, is relatively low at $3.5bn - which means Arab companies do not make it on to Brand Finance's list of the top 200 global names.

Mike English, the director of Superbrands Middle East, however, says there are proper world players in the region.

"I would challenge the often expressed view that there are no truly global brands of Middle Eastern origin," he says. "Emirates Airline is hugely influential in every market in which it operates and stands a real chance of becoming the most recognised travel brand worldwide in just a few years."

So are Arab brands super, or little more than average? Here, The National asks four regional experts for their opinions.

Gautam Sen Gupta

The managing director of Brand Finance Middle East

Your immediate response would be to say that, if the world's number one brand has a $40bn value, then the leaders in this part of the world are way behind, because the highest value here is $3.5bn. In factual number terms, that is right. But look at the heritage. Look at how much time it has taken Middle East brands to get to that $3.5bn and look at how much time it has taken worldwide brands to get to $40bn.

I look at Emirates as a superbrand. It is a brand that a lot of people relate to around the world - it is an airline that flies to a huge number of destinations. There is a huge number of people on the planet who are aware of Emirates. Look at the manner in which the Chinese brands are coming in. Who would have believed five years ago that a Chinese bank or steel company would hit the top 100 brands and then rapidly rise through the ranks? You're beginning to see the Indian brands do it, for example Tata. What's to say that brands here are not going to do that? There are currently no Arab brands in the top 200 - but who is to say they are not going to be there in the next two or three years?

Abed Bibi

A managing partner at Wolff Olins in Dubai

Every time I visit a client in the Middle East, I ask myself why we are so late to the brand party that's been going on since the early 1900s in the West and, more recently, in the East.

While western economies have been giving birth to hugely successful global brands over the past century and developing economies in many parts of east Asia have slowly but surely begun de-commoditising their output, the Middle East seems to be stuck in a void in the middle, holding vast resources but very little brand equity.

The guardians of the few Arab brands are not here for the long term. This is not necessarily because some expatriates view the Middle East as a pit-stop for their careers, or a get-rich-quick region. But it is because the laws of the land don't welcome expatriates who want to stay here, such as when people lose their jobs and - soon after - their visas.

We've spent trillions of dollars building the tallest, biggest and fastest but in our fervour we might have forgotten to really inject true meaning and relevance into these grandiose schemes. It's been too much about us and less about what it brings to our culture, what it matters to our people and what it means to the region and the world.

How can we challenge ourselves to create global brands for the future generation, brands loved the world over, that we would proudly work for and say are "made in Arabia"?

Hermann Behrens

The chief executive of The Brand Union Middle East

What is a superbrand? The word is flawed for two reasons. First, superbrands implies invincible and all powerful but these types of brands don't exist today.

Brands are fragile, they take decades to build but can be destroyed in an instant. Second, the official Superbrands annual survey in the Arab world has little credibility as brand-strength barometer, so I would prefer not to use the superbrand phraseology in case it's linked to the survey.

But if we can define a global "power brand", then over the last few years we have seen the emergence of power brands led by Emirates Airline, then Al Jazeera, Aramex and Patchi.

Arab power brands have shown that there is business merit in creating ones that celebrate their Middle Eastern origins and a strong Arabic world view. What separates Jumeirah from any other hotel brands is the unique Arabian ethos of hospitality. Patchi is different from other chocolate brands with its take on Arab opulence and haute couture.

New opportunities exist for regional brands that are built around Islamic values and strike a chord with the 1.4 billion Muslims around the world. These are typically challenger brands that have taken on western heartland values and icons and have re-imagined these through the lens of Islam. Mecca Cola, the Islamic take on Coke, is now being extended across global markets including France; Fulla is the doll of choice over Barbie for many young Muslim girls.

The Middle East is no longer a distributor of global brands. It is becoming an originator of power brands.

John Brash

The founder and chief executive of Brash Brands in Dubai

Every market has its local heroes. Masafi stands out as a brand that engages, that delivers its promise and ultimately bonds with its customers.

But not everything travels well. Not every brand has the adaptability and relevance to succeed elsewhere.

You could say there are three categories: already there; getting there; and have potential.

Emirates is one brand that's already there. It's proof that the Arab world can compete on a global stage. They have done exceptionally well and they continue to clarify there positioning and get closer to customers as time goes by. They are a global airline in the modern sense of the word, as authentically cosmopolitan as Dubai.

Getting there are brands such as Bateel, Aramex, Mubadala [Development] and Etisalat. They're all strong performers with global potential. Dnata is another, it has been sure-footed in its global expansion and acquisition strategy.

The have potential category is perhaps the most interesting. Axiom, Mashreq, Gulfcraft and The Address need just a little finessing, along with the ambition, to be able to transport local insight and innovation to capture the hearts and minds of customers everywhere.

The Middle East is a great place to start a global brand. The world's superbrands are already here and they set the benchmark. Service expectations are very high. The diversity of population here, too, forces every company to begin with a global mindset. Just as with the Far East before it, I predict many more global brands will come out of the Middle East in the near future.