With the new year comes the start of the corporate battle to be recognised as the biggest, simplest or most authentic brand in the UAE. Already, the pressure companies in the Emirates are facing to outdo one another, and the marketing cache they are trying to build through announcing various victories, is growing.
During the past week alone companies including Sharp, Emirates NBD and Al Islami Foods have sent out press releases noting their triumphs in recent rankings within the UAE. Other companies such as Emirates Airline and Emaar Properties, which oversees Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa, have also been cited lately as some of the best brands in the UAE.
"Good brands have a lot of focus," says Grace Yacoub, the chief executive of Zaman, a consultancy in the UAE that launched The Most Authentic Arab Brands contest last year. "After they define what they stand for, they make sure they deliver on their promise." But businesses making a concerted effort to boost awareness of their brands are in for a more challenging time this year than last. First, while social networking sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are still growing in popularity, brands are finding it increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd within these online portals.
"Most [social media sites] are relatively new, but have quickly become saturated," says Paul Louzado, the executive director for the branding consultancy Siegel + Gale in the Middle East. "The first challenge is to understand which channels are of value and find a distinctive voice to cut through the noise," he says. "The second challenge is getting to grips with vast volume of content out there that is related to your brand but is outside of your immediate control."
Over the years, branding has evolved from simply issuing press releases and hoping to grow market share. Now companies employ executives in roles such as "brand head" or "brand guardian" and look at overall reputation management as well as developing a distinctive personality for their businesses.
At PSA Peugeot Citroen, one of Europe's major car makers, Jean-Marc Gales was employed as head of brands until leaving for another opportunity this month. He was hired in 2009 as the second-most senior executive at the company in a bid to take the French brand upmarket, according to Reuters. Certain sectors in the region could also benefit from an in-house brand strategist. "Many are well overdue for overhauls prompted by their own industry challenges and opportunities," says Mr Louzado.
More major players in the Gulf's oil and gas sector are shifting their focus to alternative energy - but they should market and change their image accordingly, he says. He also notes several retail banks have been criticised by customers, who are "generally underwhelmed by the level of service".
Both Emirates Islamic Bank and Emirates NBD were among the top performers as the clearest brands in the region, with concise communications and efficient transactions, according to Siegel + Gale's brand simplicity index, which was updated this month. Buying goods from online portals has proved tricky in the region because of the lack of an efficient postal delivery system. Yet as the appetite for e-commerce shopping grows, sites such as Cobone.com and Boutique1.com in the UAE are trying to improve the process.
Souq.com, which offered a cash on delivery option in a move to address local security concerns, was the highest-ranked online retailer last year among companies in the Middle East, at number 22, according to Siegel + Gale's brand simplicity index. The group-buying site GoNabit.com, which has since relocated to LivingSocial.com after it was acquired, came in at number 53. "Online has always moved rapidly, but this year we expect to see some serious homegrown players emerging," says Mr Louzado.