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Superbrands arrives as Omani brands come of age

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Superbrands, which markets itself as the Oscars of branding, first looked into entering the Omani market eight years ago, but then dismissed the idea. There wasn't enough economic activity," is the terse explanation offered by Mike English, director, Superbrands Middle East.
Now he sees business in the sultanate differently - not surprisingly, after a lengthy economic boom.
"I think the time is right now for Superbrands to really take off, because the ethos of branding has developed so much here. If we had done this five years ago, I think we would have had great difficulty in identifying brands which were really strong enough to be Superbrands. Now there is no problem."
Wheat from the chaff
But before the gongs can be dished out a lengthy evaluation process has to run its course during which Superbrands will be working with its local partner in Oman, ADINC. When Superbrands starts up in a new country it first forms a Superbrands council; in effect a jury to judge local brands.
The council members are successful businessmen in the relevant market. A team of researchers then lists all the brands active on the local market. Brands that are too small or too specialised are discarded. The council then scores the brands using criteria provided by Superbrands. Brands that emerge with a score of 80 per cent or above will qualify as Superbrands.
Although the evaluation process might sound complex and drawn out, the essence of the criteria used is simple, according to English. "We ask our council members when they are scoring brands to think for a few minutes, 'Do I feel comfortable with this brand? Do I trust this brand? Does this brand make promises that it can't deliver?'" Those are the three main criteria that we're looking at." In the end it boils down to the emotional reaction to a brand, he adds.
Minuscule chance
In this age of numerous business awards, and the accompanying suspicion that many are little more than a mutual backslapping exercise, questions about their worth inevitably arise. English is adamant that it is hard for a brand to achieve Superbrand status. "It's a very difficult thing to be a Superbrand. In the UAE this year we had a shortlist of 1,371 brands. And after the scoring was complete there, only 72 became Superbrands."
But he says that statistic alone doesn't adequately demonstrate just how hard it is for a brand to qualify. An American company keeps tabs on brands around the world and maintains a database with the details of over 6.5mn brands on it. Another 7-800 are added every day. Despite this proliferation of brands, the chances of any brand becoming a Superbrand are statistically minute.
"Superbrands is active in 84 countries and we've been around since 1994 and yet in all that time we've honoured less than 6,000 brands. That's the true measure of how difficult it is to be a Superbrand. Six thousand out of 6.5mn," he says.
"To be voted as a Superbrand by our independent council is a powerful endorsement and evidence for existing customers, potential customers, the media, suppliers, investors and employees of each brand's exceptional status," he says.
Superbrands from the Omani market will be honoured at a Tribute Event scheduled for just after Ramadan next year, and will be invited to participate in the Superbrands book. They also get the right to use the Superbrand logo on all their advertising and marketing communications including their packaging, stationery, business cards and letterheads.

Quota denied
English denies that Superbrands would massage the results if the evaluation procedure produced an embarrassingly low proportion of Omani companies. "That would negate everything we do. We've got to be like Caesar's wife. We've got to be completely above the fray. If it happens that here there is not one single Omani company, then that's just the way it is." Bikram Sehgal, general manger, ADINC, echoes this.

"If non-Omani brands are what is important to the Omani people, then that's the reality and we're going to reflect that. We can't do anything about it," he says. Superbrands goes to great lengths to make sure its evaluation of brands is fair even to the extent of choosing a neutral venue for the presentation event, says English. In Dubai this has meant ignoring the five-star hotel chains that usually host business presentations - themselves potential Superbrand candidates - in favour of using the racecourse instead.

Superbrands does not accept advertising or sponsorship and only makes an income through its books, he adds.

That said, the scrutiny of the Superbrands council typically produces a mixture of international and domestic brands. When Superbrands evaluated brands in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates, the domestic brands that made the grade included Dubai Duty Free, Chilis restaurants, Emirates Bank, Dubai Media City and Ski Dubai. Global players chosen in the Emirates included Canon, Burger King, Colgate, DHL, Hertz, IBM and MasterCard.

Although he denies there is any bias in the selection process, he says he is keen on local brands. "If you're a brand manager for a big international company like Coca Cola or Mercedes, your job is easy. All you've got to do is follow the book, because you've got a brand bible which is given to you. If you're a local brand manager, you've got to write the book and that means so much more."

Of course, it can all go horribly wrong frighteningly fast as Perrier discovered to its cost after a contamination scandal in 1990. The Gulf region had its own recent case in point. English singles out Atlantis, a new resort in Dubai, as a "wonderful example" of a brand faltering.

Atlantis recently captured a whale-shark and put it in an aquarium, an act that produced a huge wave of protest in the UAE, with school children wearing 'Save Sammy the whale-shark' badges, stickers on cars and whole websites devoted to boycotting Atlantis until the whale-shark is free. "If the general manager just picked up the phone and called the radio station and said we're looking after it, it's not well at the moment, but as soon as it is we'll set it free. But he wouldn't do it and that trust, which they spent millions of dollars building up, is gone."

The dark arts
Disasters aside, many see branding as a slightly shady albeit profitable art. "How can one T-shirt which is made in the same factory as a second T-shirt be worth more than the other because it's got a Gucci label on it? But it is because it's worth what someone will pay for it. And that's what branding is about," English says. He is quite open about the hocus-pocus element of branding.

"It's sleight of hand, but it's something that works. And it's sleight of hand that adds value - perceived value. It's a question of perception. Brands exist only in the minds of their consumers."

Many businesses are naturally in a rush to use branding's array of techniques to enhance the value of their product or service, but this is unlikely to translate into instant Superbrand status. "It's very rare for a brand that is less than five years old to be a Superbrand. I get brands from all around the world calling and complaining that they haven't become Superbrands. And the reason for much of this is that they're too young and they haven't built up the trust," says English.

Despite great improvements in the standard of branding around the Gulf, this rush to build brands leads many brand managers to embrace one fundamentally false assumption. "There are too many brand managers from all around this region who think that advertising builds brands. Word of mouth builds brands; editorial in newspapers and magazines builds brands; advertising merely maintains or increases your brand share."
The world economic slowdown and accompanying belt-tightening have led many to conclude that the power of branding is suddenly in decline. English is dismissive of this notion. In fact, he sees the rising popularity of supermarket own brands - an assumed consequence of the spreading recession - as confirmation of the power of brands rather than as a rejection of them.
"People use generics as brands in their own right. Brands are becoming more important."
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