Aveteran of the communications and marketing field with over 25 years of experience, Joe Ayoub successfully managed Proctor & Gamble’s brand communications for years before taking on the task of managing and restructuring the Intermarkets Agency Network’s offices in Kuwait and Lebanon. He then founded Spidermonkey Communications in 1999 in partnership with the WPP group. Ayoub recognized the need for Levant-based companies to adopt the concept of strategic guidance, and created BrandCell consultancy in 2008 to develop key local and regional clients’ branding strategies in the service, retail and media sectors. Executive recently sat down with Ayoub to get his views on strategic branding strategies in the Levant region.
E Can you explain your conception of ‘strategic branding’ being used or abused in the Levant?
Branding as a philosophy is nothing new. But people use the name for a zillion different descriptions: from describing a corporate identity logo to delivering a complete brand strategy. Unfortunately in the Middle East and in Lebanon specifically, the understanding of the importance of strategic branding, as opposed to design branding, is extremely low, even though the impact of having a good brand strategy is extremely high. This we have seen in the West when it comes to names like Starbucks or Apple. You see that they have crafted a strategy around their brand and they consistently try to improve it and deliver on it time and time again. In Lebanon that delivery, when we are talking about the service industry, is extremely erratic. There is no consistency. Not because the people are not up to it or not qualified, but they don’t have a sort of ‘brand guideline’ to follow that will ensure the right ‘key messages’ that they have to communicate day in and day out to their customer, are being done in a very consistent way which over time, will build this effect.
E Why do you think there has been reluctance in the region to embrace the concept of strategic branding as central to a marketing strategy, and instead focus on disparate messages similar to those we witnessed during Lebanon’s recent elections?
The issue is not that they are reluctant; the issue is that they don’t understand it. This is a role that someone, a consultancy or a specialized agency, is supposed to educate its clients about. The election issue is a very good example of how you see the segregation of incoherent messages within an extremely short period of time.
You see the difference when you look at the West if you followed Obama’s campaign or Sarkozy’s campaign. They take one message and they keep hammering it home over and over. They are adamant to remain focused on a particular point because their strategy is that this is the weak point of their opponent and they have to hit at it. In Lebanon they tend to react to things. If one party launches a slogan or a key message, all they care about is how they are going to respond to this. So they are distracted by their own strategy and the same extends to businesses. If someone claims something about his product and I sell a similar product, I tend to think: ‘There must me something good about this, let me do it. Why should I bother and strategize and dig for my own benefit? Let me consider that we are in the same category and benchmark.’
E What would you advise entrepreneurs in the region to do in order to reap the benefits of strategic branding?
Unfortunately, you cannot teach an old dog new tricks and it costs much more to fix something that is broken or radically wrong than to do it right from the beginning. Entrepreneurs normally don’t have a lot of money because they are starting afresh and have scarce resources. But at the same time, they have the opportunity to do things right as long as they focus on bringing something new to the table. Today, entrepreneurs have to clearly define what business they want to be in.
Even if they are in Information Technology and they want to sell computer solutions, [strategic] branding will help them define whether they are in the business of selling software, hardware, total solutions, supplying material or whether they are a niche brand or a mass market brand. They need to define their territory clearly and then they need to define how they want to position themselves within the competitive landscape and, most importantly, how they are going to translate this into their daily work.
E So what should they focus on?
Entrepreneurs have an important asset they can bank on — their personalities. I really encourage entrepreneurs to put their personal branding up front. They probably don’t have a lot of money. But if they have a charismatic personality, a clear sense of purpose for their company and a long term vision, then they should communicate it. We all know Richard Branson. What sells the Virgin brand more than Richard Branson? What sells Apple’s brand more than Steve Jobs or the stories people circulate about him on a daily basis in the news? Entrepreneurship by definition is a very personalized business and [entrepreneurs] should not be afraid, if they have all these qualities, to brand themselves first.
E In markets where branding is fully developed we have seen brands such as Starbucks employ methods such as store clustering and below-market price cutting to push out smaller niche companies, small to medium enterprises and start-ups and thus limit avenues for entrepreneurship. What do you think about this argument, and how can you preserve the ability of new businesses to enter the market space and at the same time push
branding to the limit?
In a free market economy you have to accept the laws of this free market. You have to accept the laws of supply and demand and, at the same time, that the best man wins. This is a cycle. Before Starbucks there were others that were famous. Probably the small private neighborhood coffee shop and then Starbucks came and standardized the whole thing. In five or 10 years we might see that standardization is no longer en vogue and probably more authentic local neighborhood touches will become extremely important once again. Branding doesn’t come out of the blue. Branding is a natural reflection of what consumerism is all about. It is about understanding the psychological needs of consumers. Branding is like a human being. A brand is born, it is young, it reaches a maturity stage after a period of growth, and then it could reach a decline or death stage. So we have to look at the brand as a human being. We give it a name, we give it packaging or a dressing like you dress a child; you give it certain values the same way you educate your children, and then you put it on the market as an adult. Then it has to perform. Either it will perform or it will underperform and be left out of the market. If their customers start to feel that Starbucks is overdoing it and it is in a monopoly stage, it will be the customer who will stop it first. No law or anti-trust law can do as much as the veto power of the customer and we have to trust our customer. What will dictate things is the consumer’s own perception of what is right and what is wrong in the free market economy. Whenever you do something out-of-line, the verdict will come from the customer. So managing your brand is like managing your children; you have to really make sure that it behaves, [that] it is constantly polite, constantly performing in its environment, and it’s up to you to manage it properly.