Branding the Intangible

Ibrahim Lahoud

In an interview with one of Lebanon’s leading branding experts, Ibrahim Lahoud, Director of Strategy at BrandCentral, examined the problems as well as offered solutions to ‘Brand Lebanon’, which from a conceptual point of view remains elusively-undefinable.

From a strictly branding perspective, what are the issues with Brand Lebanon?

Lebanon is the issue. To brand an entity, you need something concrete to build on, which in our case does not exist. In other words, what are we to brand? The problem here is that all of us are playing the ostrich defense in hope of dreaming away our difficulties. Point being, if the people in power are unable to agree on a common genetic makeup, how then do you expect to create Brand Lebanon when you do not even have a country to begin with.

Also, when you want to brand something, you need a strategy, namely, who you are, what you do, how you do it, and how you are going to sell it. The other thing is you need to have a position. Thirdly, you need to develop values, attributes and a corresponding tone of voice communicating all these. Problem is, we have no clue who we are, a reality which has become ever-more diluted in recent years. It is similar to taking on a new client who one day wants to brand beer only to switch to juices before deciding to sell sandwiches.

Is not the branding agency, at least in part, responsible for figuring out some of the country’s attributes?

A fair number of agencies did work on the matter only to come up with ideas that were buried in a drawer for a decade or two where they remain today because half the politicians agree while the other half does not. As such, shooting down the ideas of the other is how the various factions are maintaining the illusion of balance and control.

Why are we unable to focus on the positives in the initial branding process rather than dwell on the negatives which will get us nowhere?

That is exactly what Jordan did. It managed to bring back a significant number of the intelligentsia they had previously lost and did a great job at that. This nonetheless is not yet feasible here as there is no healthy breeding ground and therefore no justifiable reason to leave the life you built for yourself abroad only to return to a situation that at best could be described as explosive.

However, if you insist on finding a common denominator to brand the country then corruption takes center stage. We are even in disagreement over our original identity which some believe stems from the Phoenicians while others hold themselves to be Arabs. Take the Egyptians for example, whether they are descendants of the pharaohs or not, they nonetheless have the pyramids. The Americans, whose history only spans a couple hundred years view themselves as explorers who ventured into the unknown only to return and build the most powerful nation in the world.

If you were to hypothetically wake up tomorrow to a Lebanon restored, what would some of the selling points be?

I would promote it as the country of possibilities irrespective of industry because the one undeniable fact is we know how to enjoy ourselves despite our differences as we have good resolve. Sadly, no one is making use of this as few if any see the light at the end of the tunnel. Building on that is difficult if not impossible due to external interference.

Has there been any attempt at getting a feel for what the country means by creating a questionnaire for the masses?

Not to my knowledge, but you do get a real feel for how people see things from conversations you have and their views are very subjective. Despite everything, some still maintain that the country is unlike any other, which is a dangerous attitude because such views reflect the state of denial these people live in. Others are the wishful thinkers who live their lives hoping for the best. The rest, have already given up and would lunge at the chance for a meaningful existence anywhere else but here.

Take Monte Carlo which is slightly smaller than Lebanon though based on a service industry. Compared to the entire Middle East, we are the only country that has a casino and are very European in our attitude affording us the ability, using all the ingredients at our disposal, to become a small services haven of which the communication industry is part of. Information technology is another sector we can build on which previously did not exist. We can easily create a digital media consultancy which today is central to communication seeing how we originally built that sector throughout the region. The question remains, how do we get to build on the wealth of possibilities we currently are squandering away?

Do you know of any collaborative attempts at branding the country?

That is another ostrich game we like to play as we do not work well with others. It is a stale mate situation where on the one hand ‘government’ is burdened with much too much and on the other, the private entities are trying to win the biggest market share possible. Though branding is related to problem solving, this problem presents the biggest obstacle as it is not restricted to personal effort. Perhaps a good way to go about things is to start rebuilding Lebanon’s image yet that too is not possible as most people are unable to comprehend that a number of Lebanese do not belong to any party nor have any kind of affiliation. If on the other hand I were to lie to myself and brand Lebanon, I will not be able to sell it and would also have hurt myself and the country as promoting a falsity will have detrimental effects. Branding starts at the bottom with a first layer which today does not exist.

One solution would be to admit defeat because declaring bankruptcy affords us the chance to start from scratch which is optimal for branding. Again, even if we brand the country, half its inhabitants will disagree simply because their personal interests have not been taken into consideration. Also, how can you promote Lebanon as a touristic destination when the first rule governing that dictates a solid infrastructure?

What can you say about local franchises?

Imagine that someone using thyme and oil ends up creating a super brand that competes and in some cases excels over well-established international brands! Other great examples of ingenious branding are Crepaway and Roadster which not only have excelled but to the surprise of a lot of their consumers turned out to be locally-grown brands. One factor contributing to their success could be proper financial backing. Another is that we are a society who enjoys going out for a meal. I am proud to say that the food and beverage industry is one of the best branded sectors in Lebanon and the success of these franchises stems from relevant insight into the local market. This proves what we have been saying all along, namely that if you have a clear notion of what something is, building on those attributes becomes easy, lucrative and fun.

This article was published in ArabAd’s October 2013 issue and all legal rights are those of the publisher.


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