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Branding Lessons From the Middle East

  |  April 28, 2011   |  Comments

Digital marketers have much to learn from the rapid and fundamental shifts in power. Consider these four takeaways

Recent events in the Middle East have demonstrated the power of mass movements and the emergence of new media tools in the digital age. Now more than ever, social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr can bring people together with astounding consequences.

Beyond the headlines, digital marketers here in the U.S. have much to learn from the rapid and fundamental shifts in power in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries throughout the region, especially in regard to branding. From my creative and strategic branding perspective, here are a few takeaways.

Create a Movement

All social movements have their origins in real, tangible needs, such as freedom from autocratic leaders, true opportunity to provide a better future for children, and the ability to freely express opinions without going to jail. As marketers, we share a similar yet less political goal of creating movements centered on brands. However, too often we see examples of brands that try to create social movements solely by talking about themselves. Some use social media as a billboard to slap messages on. But this is a flawed strategy. Technology's importance resides in its effectiveness in addressing needs. It's really about connecting, about focusing on consumers' interests, passions, and concerns and creating conversations that become movements that create real value for consumers and brands.

Use Social Media to Establish Relationships

Social media is an extremely powerful tool, which is why the Egyptian government cut access to Facebook when it realized the impact it was having. Brands seeking to leverage these platforms can look to the protesters in Egypt, who successfully used social media to quickly communicate their thoughts to large audiences, share ideas and opinions, and most importantly, galvanize their supporters to action. This dynamic conversation spoke to the power of relationships, not messaging.

By communicating clearly and directly, and providing unexpectedly fresh stories and experiences, brands can engage and establish strong bonds with their customers. Until that happens, no one really cares what you say.

Never Underestimate the Power of Youth

During my travels to the Middle East, and particularly to the Siegel+Gale office in Dubai, I have learned that Arab youth are every bit as digitally savvy as their counterparts in the United States. Almost 65 percent of the population is under of the age of 30, and they are using new media tools to connect and be heard, in more ways than one. A recent example is Anayou, a first-of-its-kind online space built for Arabs and by Arabs that incorporates the best elements of social networking and e-commerce.

In the United States, marketers are keenly aware that the Internet is a uniting factor for younger people. But brands must understand that in the online world everything moves very rapidly, and it's very difficult to remain hip and cool for very long. The best digital campaigns are those that can recognize changing situations and adapt quickly to what's happening in the market. Companies must be willing to take advantage of new online opportunities as they arise, and not be afraid to fail.

Utilize Multiple Tools and Channels

What is clear from the Middle East uprisings is that one way or another, important messages will find their way through a community - if one channel is blocked or unavailable, messages with power will flow freely to others.

Similarly, consumers will access information they want in whatever way is readily available. In our increasingly interconnected world, there are many channels of communication, including social media, traditional media, advertising, and whatever comes next. The bottom line is that brands must reach their customers on their own terms and time. Creating a broad digital footprint by integrating with various touch-points and channels generates traction and allows brands to stand out among the clutter.

The protests in the Middle East have broad implications, none more important than the ability of a determined group of people to connect with each other and effect real change. Marketers should take careful note.



Howard Belk

As Siegel+Gale's chief creative officer, Howard challenges our design teams across the globe to breathe life into brand strategies. He believes that powerful identities bring humanity to brands and generate belief in their essential promise. "Doing this successfully for organizations that operate globally," he notes, "requires supreme simplicity."

A prominent figure in the industry, Howard has led global branding programs that span virtually every business sector, receiving international recognition and numerous awards. He sees an extraordinary future for organizations operating at the nexus of social changes in health, energy, education, technology, and communications. His work includes programs for Pfizer, ConocoPhillips, Aramco, AARP, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, SAP, Tata Consultancy Services, Qatar Telecom, Allstate, and Bank of America.

You'll see Howard frequently quoted by the business press regarding branding and design issues, or speaking at professional conferences on topics that range from brand building's foray into areas like product development, human resources, community service, and customer experience, to how smartphones and touchscreens are opening new ways for people to interact with brands.

Earlier in his career, Howard founded a marketing services agency that was acquired by Omnicom in 2001. He also spent time at Interbrand, where he was a group director in their headquarters office.

Howard earned a bachelor of fine arts at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, where he later served as a guest professor. He completed Omnicom's Senior Management and Graduate Management Programs at Babson College in 2007. He sits on the Board of Directors of apparel manufacturer Kahn Lucas Lancaster.

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