Who dares, wins

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Branding has traits of parenting. Although it takes energy, vision, and a gutsy approach to business life — and as such is no small feat — the effort of conceiving of a new brand pales when compared with the unending task of nurturing it and seeing it through years and years of maturation.

On this note, one could not even begin to speculate about future pathways of Zain, the master brand launched on September 8 by multiple GSM operator, MTC.

The birthday bash of Zain gathered between 4,000 and 5,000 guests in four capitals: Manama, Kuwait City, Amman, and Khartoum. This was because Zain erupted into public being simultaneously in four countries, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, and Sudan.

In the middle of the celebration’s vortex of culture, fun, food, and communication, the sense of wonderment at three things was never far away for those of us pausing to think of: the rapidity of this company’s rise; the scale of the brand birth achievement; and the enormity of the future of the community that this brand is setting out to create.

There are more than enough numbers in circulation that document how big MTC has grown in the less than five years since it adopted the mission of turning itself, a Kuwaiti operator of a single mobile network, into a telecommunications player of international, and eventually global, proportions.

But without citing any performance figures and targets that had to be modified because they had been exceeded well ahead of all plans, the fact that Zain was introduced in two continents by a multi-cultural team of quality people was enough to demonstrate the operator’s stature transcending national idiosyncrasies and any complexes of business inferiority.

The brand launch achievement was a thing to behold, a testimony to investments of a magnitude that MTC did not even want to talk about and to how much a total will to something new can create within 48 hours! When I arrived at Bahrain International Airport on the evening before the launch party, Zain was still a phantom. When I left two mornings later, executives of the company said confidently that the network’s identity had been moved to Zain by more than 90% — including web sites and most store signs, not to mention the brand’s massive first wave of advertising.

The mega-thing, however, will be the future. This only begins with the fact that Zain aspires to be perceived as a global company and that it wants to move another 15 plus existing networks in its portfolio to the new brand in a short time span — including some networks that have a strongly developed identity and others that have already undergone a name change. Shaping such a community in very diverse markets and demographics will, even in the definition interactive realm of telecommunications, engender challenges that one can expect but never solve from even the best a priori thinking.

To be sure, the proud progenitors of Zain have spared no effort to give the brand a head start in life. The gestation period of designing name, logo, values, and mission of Zain exceeded 18 months. The good ring of the name in many languages was examined and the brand has been imbued with a whole orchestra of positive connotations, from the heart, belonging, and radiance that MTC affixed to the word to the aural allusion of the zeitgeist-colored logo.

From perspective of regional business culture, the beauty of Zain for the beholder goes further still than MTC’s brand messages. This, because the dominant business culture in the region is only starting to discover the art of existing as a brand. Some countries and state-backed entities in the Gulf region have embarked on communicating their identities to wide audiences with branding tools. The emirates of Qatar and Dubai, as well as Emaar Properties, Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Aldar Properties come to mind.

However, none of the companies among those is independent from their respective state roots, which stands as barrier against reaching corporate self-determination in all decisions. Plus, if one produces claims to be global deliverer of quality lifestyle or treat every passenger as honored guest, severe imperfections in corporate governance and customer service easily can turn into haunting deficiencies. Zain, like all brands, will also face this challenge that the brand will be the mirror of what the company does — and not of what it says.

Branding is a lifetime investment. Branding also involves listening, responding and letting go, as every successful brand turns into a community that has a very strong own mind. There is no telling for which characteristics Zain will be known some years from today, as a brand and as a community. In setting up its brand as core of a community and in daring to develop it from its first atom with regional and joint cultural essence, Zain is pioneering an Arab and an African brand. It brings affirmation of originality and creativity that thrives in people in the Middle East as much as in any creative center of the world. The responsibility of Zain’s corporate parents will be not to spoil the brand.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail