News & Views

Event Debrief / BIFEX

by Contagious Contributor

Sean Pillot de Chenecey is an insights, innovation and strategy consultant. He reports back from BIFEX about how Lebanon is setting out to brand itself as a country and which brands are having an impact there

Beirut – those that know it swear by its amazing vitality, creativity and beauty. Those that don’t frequently link it to a violent image (way out of date) or the amazing number of refugees that it shelters. There are a lot of contradictions at play in this dynamic country...

Meanwhile, brands seeking to connect with its consumers – and those in the wider area – have to realise that the cultural/social trends impacting the region are as complex as one might expect; given the context of a country bordered by Syria and Israel.

As the JWT MENA Future 100 Trends report puts it ‘It is incredible to watch the pace of change accelerate so much across the region. We are experiencing technological developments – and the ethical questions they bring; we are taking huge progressive societal steps across major markets; and we are embracing our polycultural, influential and forward driving momentum for hope. It’s not easy living in today’s constant state of uncertainty – not for brands, nor consumers. Yet the trends we have identified all point towards an exciting, collaborative and compassionate future.’

This issue of ‘challenging outmoded stereotypes’ at the event resonated from the need for a modern national branding campaign, to creating powerful comms activity targeting modern consumers. (And let’s not forget – JWT MENA highlighted the fashion-forward ‘Mipsterz’ movement several years ago…)

So it was an interesting blend of the ‘political macro and the promotional micro’ that was a key element of the 2017 BIFEX conference in Beirut; themed as it was around ‘Brand Lebanon’ and the need to boost prosperity in this incredibly vibrant country. One that is increasingly seen to be a dynamic force for positive change in the Middle East.

For my part I was back in Lebanon to speak once again at this annual event run by the LFA – which is one of the key business conferences in the region. After last years’ congress (where everyone wore #LawChouMaSar wristbands) in these ‘interesting times’ it was interesting to note that this year’s event had record attendance, focused around an uplifting theme that aspires to unite the Lebanese behind the many positive attributes that their country and people possess.

A range of the country’s leading politicians and power brokers attended the event, (which was launched by Charles Arbid, President of the LFA) including numerous dignitaries and the ministers for Culture, Economy & Trade, and Industry.

The agency side saw presentations from senior PR, advertising and research experts including Tim Wilkinson (Chairman of Bell Pottinger Middle East), Alex West of Maker London (ex-Mother), Maarten van Embden of M3Cube and Ole Petter Nyhaug of Opinion AS. The world of think-tanks was represented by Carsten Beck from the Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies, whilst additional national branding expertise was provided by Joakim Noren  who as head of strategy at The Swedish Institute was responsible for the implementation and development of ‘Brand Sweden’ their official brand strategy used in all government sponsored global promotions.

As he said ‘Two of the greatest challenges when developing a brand strategy for a country are getting the support from all interested parties, and implementation. These are key issues that need to be considered right from the start. Too many great strategies have failed because lack of support or enthusiasm among the people that are supposed to follow them or because people just don’t understand them. The often-negative image of Lebanon is outdated and not at all in line with the much more attractive reality. A well-executed brand strategy could help Lebanon focus its resources and attract the attention it deserves.’

Mirielle Aoun-Hachem (main advisor to the President of the Lebanese Republic) chaired a key session focusing on a building a framework for Brand Lebanon. This featured Alex West, who proposed a national branding approach influenced by the enormously successful GREAT Britain campaign (in which he was deeply involved) which showcased the best of what GB has to offer  to inspire the world and encourage people to visit, do business, invest and study in the UK. So he discussed connecting the diaspora, the Gulf States and the people of Lebanon, communicating Lebanon’s strengths in a way which enables partners to work together more effectively and collaboratively; telling the Lebanese story via leveraging the core pillars of its national brand – the place / people / creativity / business / arts & culture / technology / knowledge / heritage.

This point was backed up by Mike Nithavrianakis, a senior British diplomat who now runs his own consultancy and helps businesses improve their international trade and investment performance. He spoke about the important role of government and the public sector in branding Lebanon. As he said ‘The leadership and co-ordinating role that the government of Lebanon can bring to a refreshed and energised branding strategy is critical. However, government needs to consult with business and the widest possible range of stakeholders to ensure a concerted and consistent delivery of the core messages. And it needs to listen to the views of exporters and investors with an open mind and a willingness to reform the system where barriers to a more competitive business environment exist.’ Mike added that Lebanon had a number of inherent strengths and qualities that could underpin a new Brand Lebanon strategy. ‘Lebanon’s pioneering role in promoting trade, its highly developed international networks, the local talent pool and skilled workforce, along with its resilience and determination make it the perfect gateway to the Eastern Mediterranean and wider Middle East region. All of the key ingredients are there for Brand Lebanon to help a small country make a big impact.’

And it’s making a big impact when set against the hard realities of regional politics and macro economics that brands naturally have to consider re: marketing in the Middle East. According to Carsten Beck, head of research at the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies ‘the macroeconomic perspective for global consumers and consumers in Lebanon are more fragile than we would like. At CIFS we see volatility and a lot of false starts in the global economy. This means that consumers will still be faced with a number of concerns regarding future spending power. For brands, CIFS believe that we will see a further split in high involvement and up-market brands vs convenience and soft / hard discounters. The trap lies in the middle position in the market. Therefore brands must ask themselves: are we truly ‘High Involvement’ and how can we leverage that? Or are we less sure about the customer involvement which means we should focus on ‘Good Enough’ solutions, convenience changing price points etc.’

Elsewhere, it was interesting to note what the agency-speakers had to say about creating brand communication that really cuts-through in the region i.e. the incredible powerful What will they say about you? work by Nike a great example of work based on a genuinely core ‘human truth’. This incredibly motivating campaign champions women in the Middle East; featuring female boxers, skaters, and parkour athletes – bought to life via a high-impact message. (A very different approach taken by the likes of Coke and Pepsi in their annual efforts to win consumers during Ramadan with their aim to be THE ‘Ramadan Soda’.) A very different sector involves Goody one of the largest food companies in Saudi Arabia, and who featured as a case history in Vijay Mahajan’s renowned work The Arab World Unbound.

Daniel Sabanekh, MD of Y&R Jeddah told me about their recent integrated work for Goody Peanut Butter, which achieved over three million views, and 113% accumulated engagements on Facebook with a commercial that resulted in a highest-ever TOM of 93%. A highly successful example of ‘everyday’ creative integration, it tapped into the issue highlighted by Mahajan’s research, that as a growing number of Arab women have become more educated and self-sufficient, they’ve also consolidated their authority within the home. The most successful food companies in the region (like Goody) have crafted campaigns that tap into a wife and mother’s role as protector of her family’s well-being and happiness. (Like mothers anywhere, Saudi women want to keep their kids healthy, and for active, growing kids it’s a good source of protein and vitamin B.) Hence the creative strategy behind the Y&R campaign, when according to Waqas Moosa, their marketing director whom Mahajan interviewed ‘about 90% of in the company’s target market keep a jar of peanut butter in the house’.

Meanwhile, BIFEX saw a huge number of retail and franchise delegates in the 500+ audience, and so best-practise use of ecommerce was a key issue, which Raja Habre, Executive Director the LFA was keen to discuss. Regarding this issue, Stanislas Brunais, senior director – performance at OMD Dubai says ‘A lot of traditional retailers fear that e-commerce will cannibalize their sales in store, and are reluctant about investing more on digital media platforms. Sephora, the famous beauty retailer has a ten years presence in the Middle East. When they decided to launch their ecommerce platform, we decided to shift even more their marketing / communications spends from offline to digital, and adapt a full funnel approach across the main digital platforms, with Google, Facebook & Programmatic. It is known that only 5% of sales are currently done online, but 65% of these sales are influenced by a digital ad. But by providing a seamless and omni-channel experience to their customers by adding ecommerce into the mix, Sephora saw an uplift on its sales and revenues, not only in-store, but overall. Ecommerce sales drove the repeated purchases up for the loyal customers, and attracted new customers that did not have access to a store near them  sales driven by ecommerce after six months are way over the initial targets.’

Reflecting global trends, talk of purpose-led branding was a key theme throughout the event (as it was last year) mirrored by comments from Mennah Ibrahim, head of brand intelligence at JWT MEA who stated in their recent trends report ‘An increasing demand for brands and lifestyle products to offer Muslim-centric options has fuelled a wave of innovative solutions, created by and about a diverse yet inclusive Muslim identity that prioritises social justice and social impact’. Linking to this theme, Ole Peter Nyhaug of Opinion AS presented a range of international campaigns that have had ‘Brand Purpose’ as a core element.

The event finished off with a suitably impressive gala dinner featuring hundreds of the key movers and shakers of Lebanese society, but it was the issue of ‘Branding Lebanon’ that really focused the minds of everyone present.

Ending the week discussing ‘Brand Lebanon’ with financiers at the rooftop bar of the Four Seasons, and then getting viewpoints from various members of African NGO’s (enjoying some R&R by the pool of the O Monot hotel) clarified even more that the country has a truly dynamic range of cultural strengths and societal skills on which to draw; alongside an extraordinarily beautiful landscape.

It will be fascinating to see how they develop a national brand positioning, and then tell their story in a suitably motivating, engaging and distinctive manner.

Which will no doubt be discussed at the 2018 BIFEX event in Beirut…    


Sean Pillot de Chenecey is an insights, innovation and strategy consultant. His book The Post-Truth Business will be published by Kogan Page