Brand New

With the news that at least two major Middle East operators are planning major changes to their brands, CommsMEA investigates how image is becoming more important in the region.

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By  Tawanda Chihota Published  January 12, 2006

|~|blank-sign200.jpg|~|The Nawras brand was developed specifically for Oman. The brands that we establish in new markets will have to reflect properties that are unique to that particular culture. |~|Across Europe, where competition is rife, mobile operators have for years been expensively and painstakingly developing their brands. Some have cultivated their followings through perceptions of what the company represents, others have simply gone for mass-market appeal. As they have expanded globally, major names such as Vodafone and Orange have been altering the mobile landscape as they rebrand the local operators they swallow up in accordance with their own international image. France Telecom's Orange mobile brand became so strong and instantly recognisable that in 2005 the operator decided to use it beyond just its cellular business, and it is currently in the process of transferring the name across its international internet service provider Wanadoo and corporate communications provider Equant. Rumours even suggested that France Telecom would drop the national moniker altogether in favour of its fruitier alternative image. In the Middle East, the liberalisation of markets and aggressive expansion plans of operators into new areas has raised the importance of branding. Operators that previously would have sat back safe in the knowledge that the simple lack of an alternative would draw in customers are now realising that the look and feel of a company is essential if it is to retain market share. For mobile operators, branding is especially important. “There's very little that differentiates one operator from another,” says Qtel's executive director of group communications, Waleed Al Sayed. “Having the latest technologies such as EDGE and 3G are of course essential. Pricing packages and promotions help, but again, operator’s prices tend to be much the same as others.” Al Sayed believes that the real competitive advantage comes through the brand. “At the end of the day, people buy brands not necessarily products.” The first sign that Middle East operators were really paying attention to the importance of image was in 2002 when MTC in Kuwait signed a co-branding deal with Vodafone. Aside from giving MTC subscribers access to the UK operator's global roaming services, the Kuwait operator benefited from the endorsement by being connected with one of the largest mobile operators in the world. Speaking earlier in 2005, MTC Group managing director Saad Al-Barrak said that the deal was the only way to “tango with a giant.” The MTC-Vodafone brand was later spread to Bahrain when MTC won the kingdom's second GSM licence in 2003. “As a small operator (back then) we had to kiss their feet.” This arrangement with Vodafone has since been scrapped, with MTC's international ambitions pitching the operators more as rivals. ||**|||~|karimsabbagh200.jpg|~|Karim Sabbagh, VP at Booz Allen Hamilton thinks in Mobily, Etisalat has built a brand that can be taken elsewhere.|~|“We have decided to assume our own individual identity,” says Saad Abu-Odeh, MTC's group strategic marketing director. “We saw that it would be a complete waste of value for us to confer brand equity on other brands than our own because of MTC's aggressive expansion plans. We don't want to expand into areas where Vodafone doesn't exist, and grant equity to the operator (Vodafone) at our expense.” For a company seeking to be in the same league as Vodafone, a dual-brand model does not make sense. MTC actually lost out to Vodafone in the bid for Turkey's second mobile operator, Telsim, and it is highly likely the two operators will come face-to-face again in the future. “I think this brings the whole thing into perspective. A Vodafone dual brand is no longer a valid thing for us as we are butting heads with Vodafone,” admits Abu-Odeh. Aside from dropping the dual-branding approach, he says MTC is making a dramatic change to its overall branding strategy that will see it emulating the giant it hopes to compete against. “We are going to adopt a monolithic approach to branding.” The new image will completely do away with brand names such as Fastlink, MTC Atheer in Iraq, MTC Touch in Lebanon, and perhaps the MTC name altogether. Even recently purchased pan-African operator Celtel International is set to go under the branding surgeon's knife, despite having undergone a major rebranding itself in 2004 that saw its name change from MSI Cellular Investments. “We believe this approach will help us in creating the sort of community that we want to create in our footprint as well as help us in our expansion strategy, so when we enter a new market, we have a well-recognised international brand.” Abu-Odeh admits there are issues with the MTC name. “One that is very important to us is the ability to register the brand.” Operators looking to leverage the brand as an asset of the company need to be able to register it in all markets where present, something Abu-Odeh admits is difficult with a name like ‘MTC’. “It's not a matter of opinion, it is just legality.” Like MTC, Kuwait operator Wataniya are also reviewing its branding and plans to launch the new image in February 2006. But unlike its Kuwaiti counterpart, it will maintain its strategy of having a local brand in each of its operations. “We want strong local brands that reflect the countries where we are, we really believe in this strategy,” claims Sylvie Scott, Wataniya International's marketing director. Scott acknowledges that having an all-encompassing brand has its benefits, certainly regarding cost and time. “It makes launch a lot easier, you also save a lot of money. It's a cookie-cutter solution. Having to go through the whole brand development process each time also requires more work and more thinking.” ||**|||~|Qtelwaleed200.jpg|~|Qtel’s communications head, Waleed Al Sayed, says real competitive edge comes from branding, not technology. |~|But in adopting an individual approach to each operation, Wataniya is hoping to develop strong local brands that customers can connect to on an emotional level. “I have seen international brands have difficulty in markets, because the brand comes from a certain country and adoption is difficult at first because of that, and brands have to get through that. These become international flavours, they never become true local brands.” The Nedjma operation that Wataniya helped establish in Algeria was tailored to the Algerian market. “The Algerians feel that they own this brand.” Scott believes that an operator such Orange would not have had the same recognition from Algerians. Nedjma means 'star' in Arabic, and the name was selected not by Wataniya, but by focus groups it assembled. “The star in Algeria is a very strong symbol,” says Scott. “It's on their flag, it's extremely relevant and present in their poetry and literature. It's a very strong symbol because it represents light, it represents brightness. It has many positive connotations.” In Oman, Qtel adopted a similar tactic to Wataniya in Algeria when it won the second GSM licence in June 2004, turning to customer research to help develop the Nawras brand. “Nawras means seagull in Arabic,” says Qtel’s Al Sayed. “The Nawras name and logo were inspired by the wing of a seagull in flight. The logo is designed to capture the freedom and grace of an outstretched wing.” Qtel teamed up with Danish operator TDC to launch Nawras, with the operators stating that they would like to enter three further markets through similar partnerships. Despite having regional significance, Al Sayed is not sure the Nawras brand would be used for any new operations. “The Nawras brand was developed specifically for Oman. The brands that we establish in new markets will have to reflect properties that are unique to those particular cultures.” Wataniya's new branding approach will be launched in February, with promises of television adverts and new-look websites. Until then, Scott is remaining tight-lipped about the project. “We're putting a lot of effort behind brand development, both on the operational level and we'll be putting a lot more on the corporate side. What we're working on will definitely help, it's going to help us on an international level and it's going to help our operations.” While the change at Wataniya may not be as dramatic as the new-look MTC, both agree that branding should be something much more than simply a name and logo. “Branding has traditionally been dealt with as something you campaign with,” says Abu-Odeh. “You go out and say 'my brand is about this, I'm positioned like that, my values are like that' or whatever.” But this approach is all about operators talking about themselves, not what they deliver. ||**|||~||~||~|“Branding really defines how an organisation behaves inside the company, and outside,” claims Scott, something she says very few have been able to master. “Orange is a great brand, it came out really strong and has managed to build a lot of consistency in its delivery. I'm not just talking about its look or feel, I'm talking about its delivery and strategy,” Suzi Khattab, MTC Group branding manager, admires the brand positioning of Richard Branson's Virgin empire. “I think it's the rebellious part of it. We like what they've done.” For Khattab, only the Virgin and Apple brands deliver what they claim. “Their total power of experience with their customers is amazing,” she says. When UAE incumbent Etisalat took the third GSM licence in Saudi Arabia in 2004, it adopted the name Mobily for the new operation. “Etisalat is a UAE-centric brand, but Mobily is a name that may have legs outside of Saudi,” says Karim Sabbagh, the UAE-based VP of consultancy firm Booz Allen Hamilton. “What Etisalat has done is develop an option for them to take this business model elsewhere, including the brand. Being a visible brand in the largest market in the Middle East already puts them at a strong starting point in building awareness. Everyone knows today there is a brand called Mobily.” A name such as Mobily implies that the operation is neither country nor-region-based. “It says what it says,” explains Sabbagh. “From a marketing sense it's a good card to play. For Etisalat, having this venture before competition was one of the best things that could have happened to them beyond the value of the investment per se. It's a good learning platform for them and I'm confident in due course they'll be able to leverage it.” With ambitious expansion plans, the Mobily brand may soon find itself present in other markets. Etisalat has already declared its intention to bid for the third GSM licence in Egypt when it goes under the hammer in early 2006. It will also be among the competitors for a stake in Tunisie Telecom, although how it will adopt its branding strategy to a non-greenfield opportunity with a sizeable fixed-line business is unclear. ||**||

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