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BRAND LEBANON [Interview in ArabAd by Jad Haidar]

Published ArabAd magazine – August issue
Interview conducted by Jad Haidar

Brand Lebanon?!

© DeLevante

“The Paradoxically Complex,” is the term, John Maeda, President of the Rhode Island School of Design used to describe ‘simplicity’. That statement cannot possibly have made more sense, when referring to Lebanon, specifically identity. The country’s nationals, are all familiar with the term, intimately so, yet only when it comes to matters external to ourselves. As people inhabiting a minute geographical space, we certainly excelled at two fundamental truths. The first being how little about ourselves we managed to learn. The other, is how far we came by capitalizing on the civilisations that previously inhabited the region. This in turn completely removed us from ourselves!

Now, try branding that.

Discussing this very subject with Ibrahim Lahoud, Director of Strategy and Brand Communication at BrandCentral was refreshingly enlightening, as he cut straight through the clutter, outlining what needs to be done and where we should start. “Nation branding is about defining a nation, namely us. If you ask a European or an American what a nation is, you get a straight answer. However when you ask that question here, it’s total schizophrenia, in the sense that on the one hand, there is us, and on the other, there is the nation. A total separation, a typical bi-polar disorder and I love it!”

In other words, there is no separation between one and the other, though that only applies anywhere but here. Lahoud entertained the notion of having Brand Lebanon before moving to an example, which literally destroys the brand saying, “As a foreigner, you step out of Beirut’s International Airport. Getting to where you want to go from here, you hail a cab and are greeted by an older man with nothing other than a single golden tooth in his mouth asking for $70 to drive you to Dora. That taxi driver just ruined the whole brand!”

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, though still too far off, it nonetheless is there. “The leverage here is that thin layer, which contrary to common belief, is not the intelligentsia, rather the Net Generation for whom technology is second nature. They are the only ones headed where Lebanon should be, and are, by association, the ones taking the country there. The remaining population is divided into the ‘stagnant’ and the ‘negative-active.’”

If we are serious about branding the country, his reasoning went, then it is that generation we should be empowering. After all, one of the key elements to branding a country are new age tools, which so happens to be what this generation masters. “Your blog, website, Twitter and Facebook accounts can easily reach the whole world. The good thing that foreigners know about us comes from these platforms, the content of which is also being generated, in great part, by these youngsters,” he said.

Another case in point, when it comes to nation branding, which he explained is the toughest aspect in branding, entails having the right consultant and the right client attitude. The hierarchy in any corporation is comprised of management, namely the top executives or the ‘Untouchables’, and beneath those are the staff, which very-well represent the nation’s people. After delivering the work to the executives in the highest echelons of power, they in turn absorb it, and then bleed it down to the whole organisation, instructing their underlings of the new direction things will take as of now, like it or not!

“If we extrapolate, why this is not happening here, the answer would be because we never hired consultants, and if we did, where are the plans and who has been briefed on this? This is what other countries did. We make fun of Americans saying that most of them are ignorant to the world outside, though regardless whether that is true or not, the first thing that any American does after building a home, is erect the US flag. That is nation branding.”

Though assigning blame does more damage than good, and despite the fact that this is something we as a people do quite well, the matter in hand is obviously a shared responsibility, as it literally relates to one and all. Lahoud explained that people do what they can, when and if they can, which he in turn is doing by communicating ‘Brand Lebanon’ through his blog. “When I go to pitch, people are aware of my blog and express their admiration for the ideas and content therein. Here, you could say that at least, our industry’s flag flies high throughout the world. So in a way as a business, we did contribute. However, it takes two to tango.”

Assuming that what was mentioned above were the first step, the problem facing an individual such as himself, is in step two, which involves pitching the idea to the responsible government official. “Now image I want to suggest ‘Brand Lebanon’ to the minister responsible for such communication. If I am lucky to get to that door, I would be more than lucky to have someone answer when I knock. Furthermore, assuming that I am granted audience, what chances do you think I have that my suggestion will be understood? Regardless, and for the sake of argument, suppose that this minister did understand, he in turn will have to brief his underlings on that matter so as to rally proponents, opponents and influencers…This is definitely where matters come to a halt.”

© 2006 – Latuff

The main problem here, despite the fact people have the ability and the tools to make a change, is the absence of real motivation to do so because we ourselves have no conviction in the country we live, and it all starts there, his reasoning went. Then again, perhaps focusing on Lebanon’s strongest selling points would help in achieving that main objective. Only problem with that, is our inability to agree on a single solution that would profit one and all. So instead of strengthening that union, we are tearing ourselves apart. “The problem is that we are not using diversity because we’re introverts. This is why tourists love to travel to India, where they get to experience the traditional alongside the modern. We on the other hand, have problems in selling that notion, as that, always comes within a political frame. After all, diversity is not cohabitation. Diversity is in our culture, which becomes apparent when you spend a day in a southern village and then spend the evening at a coastal city up north. This goes to show that though tourism is our biggest industry, all we are doing is slowly killing.”

If that weren’t bad enough, not making full use of the resources available to us is the other detrimental factor, which has slowly turned this ‘touristic hub’ into a seasonal one, mimicking promotional sales, thereby deconstructing what could have been ‘Brand Lebanon’. “Lebanon has become nothing more than a tourist destination for Arabs in summer. Here I ask why is it that the rest of the seasons are omitted? Do we hibernate during that time? Also, why is it that we do not have winter music festivals, yet come summer, the best musicians perform at different venues all at the same time! If you have such an industry, you do not season-alise it, you de-season-alise it instead. By doing so, you turn Lebanon into an all-year-round touristic destination thus tripling or quadrupling your intake, as well as doing so in terms of exposure.”

Talking about taking advantage of what exists, as opposed to creating something, is a wealth of archaeological sites scattered throughout the country. However, no other site has drawn more buzz, than the infamous Gemmayzeh street. Yet regardless of all the generated hype, which spans the globe and was instrumental in categorising the country as the number one go to destination last year, little planning went into organising businesses there. “Gemmayzeh street, put Lebanon back on the map, yet the biggest problem we have there is that there are no rules to regulate the influx of visitors! We also have archaeological tourism and outdoor tourism, none of which have been given serious consideration. Still another is the 210 km coastal stretch where anyone planning to go swimming, will not only have to pay a minimum of $20 but will refrain, once there, from jumping in because the water is too dirty. You ask me what has all this got to do with Brand Lebanon, I tell you this is Brand Lebanon.”

Taking a minute to compose himself, as the topic obviously infuriated him, Lahoud went on to explain that the real problem is not that of being unaware of the problems facing us, rather it’s about running away from responsibility. “It’s the little things that make or break a branded nation. If you look at what was done in the U.A.E., government build a gigantic touristic site in the Middle of the desert. Sure one would argue that they have the money to do so. Then again, we already have the touristic sites but have failed to make money!”

Emphasising the necessity of agreeing on a ‘brief’ to commence the nation branding plan, is an inescapable reality. “We do not create brands, as they already exist. We simply dress and lend them meaning. So long as Lebanon is not unified, then there really is little we can do in that regard.” Referring to the ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ slogan, that reality springs to life, as does the contradiction. “Watching that ad, the first thing that jumps out is the brand, which is followed by selling the tactical. In Lebanon however, these tacticals are the master brands!”

Concluding, he suggested a very simple strategy, which has tremendous potential. “The basic branding elements, call for a unified signage system for touristic and archaeological destinations in Lebanon. Printing leaflets to distribute to visitors arriving at the airport would be a very good first step. You could also distribute these to leisure outlets, which in turn would help tourists identify landmark sites and touristic attractions. After all, these tourists are the ones carrying your brand. If this is done, then the communication industry will package the brand beautifully, but give me something to package, else all I would be selling right now is hot air.”

By Jad Haidar



Interview with Communicate Magazine

1. Branding experts tend to agree that there are only a handful of famous personalities who lead their brands in the Levant, and in Lebanon in particular. Do you agree? Why/ why not?

Yes I agree, but this is just a detail. I think that we have to understand the reasons:

We are small geographies where not too many large brands can thrive. It is a fact that most (if not all) the brands who have personalities leading them, are large organizations, or at least became one.

We are unfortunately a rather indifferent population. Whereas in the West, everyone knows Steve Jobs for instance, very few people in Lebanon know who stands behind big brands, unless he or she have their full name in the brand!

There is an important reason behind that; people simply don’t care about the efforts the brand is doing to position itself in their hearts and minds, and the best substantiation for that is the flourishing of the counterfeits and fakes industry.

Most of the brands created in Lebanon or the Levant revolve either around existing formats, (such as fast food), or carry themselves famous international brands, which help establish the master-brand (such as fashion and accessories). The secret of the people behind brands is innovation, and unfortunately, so far, that’s one rare ingredient.

Last but not least, there are only a handful of famous personalities, simply because there are only a handful of new, “un-inherited” brands, or ones that were built on the vision of people, and managed to make through the years.

2. Who do you think is the personality that mirrors its brand so perfectly well in the Levant and what do you think of this association between the brand and its leader?

As far as I am concerned, none, and trust me, I am not happy about that answer.

3. What in your opinion are the pros and cons from associating the brand leader with his brand, especially in Lebanon?

Globally speaking, it depends on what that brand leader did for the brand and mostly what are his future vision as well. I don’t really know how much these apply to Lebanon. I hope people will forgive me, but “brand” is not sales, marketing, products, location, salaries, public relations, advertising, expensive cars and Armani suits… Brands are like a religion, where you, the leader is the servant of this brand. Moreover, we always have a tendency, especially in Lebanon and the Levant, to forget “who” made the brand, and we constantly have to be reminded that the customer made brands what they are. People behind a brand become brand leaders only when they understand that factor and act upon it. Once more, Steve Jobs is worshiped, if he’s sick, Apple’s stock tumbles, and users go crazy. Name me just one one similar case in the region.

4. Lebanon is known to be a fertile ground for building great brands, and there are countless success stories that attest to that. But why do you think many of the CEO’s of those brands opt to stay behind the scenes?

They don’t opt to. They’re simply left behind by the brand itself that just swooshed past them. That CEO has to be, or become, the precursor, the brain behind the brand. He or she has to be the sole influence, the guru staff and clients look at with respect (not fear by the way). Creating a brand is simple, making it famous is even easier. Just pump in a big advertising budget, fill the media with the brand name and voilà.
The question is, does it make the brand powerful? Does it make the person behind it the personality, the custodian of that brand?

So, I guess we have to go back to the original definition of “great brands”.

5. What do you think are the criteria that can guarantee a successful association between a brand and its leader in this part of the world?

Simple: CEOs get busy managing the organization, whereby they should be managing the brand.
God knows how sure I am of that. As a branding expert, I spend half my time persuading companies executives to invest in their brands, and the other half arguing about what we charge and why a fresh university graduate cannot do it!


May 2020

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Reason To Believe by Ibrahim N. Lahoud is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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