The Future of Branding: VUCA in the Middle East

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This week, Siegel+Gale took our Future of Branding series to Dubai where we discussed the VUCA world we now find ourselves in and what this means for brands and brand owners in this region specifically. Panelists included Mike Fairburn (General Manager ME, Sony Music Entertainment), Tariq Querishy (CEO & Founder MAD Talks), Alex Malouf (Corporate Communications Manager, Proctor & Gamble), Andrew Campbell (Managing Director ME, Brand Finance) and Christian Andersen (Director, Portfolio Marketing, IBM) who shared their insights around the future scenarios for the region, exploring the potential that lies ahead for brands.

Philip Davies, President, EMEA, who chaired the breakfast discussion, offers four points to consider in order to build a brand that—while not impervious to VUCA—can help prepare it for the best chance of success.

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VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous

In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s space ship in the opening shot is branded Pan Am. He must have thought the brand would last forever. It just goes to show even the most brilliant minds can’t see ahead of time.

There are exceptions of the truly prophetic: hello Andy Warhol. However, the fact is nobody knows what’s going to happen in ten years, five years or even next year. But isn’t it interesting that we feel we should always show searing perspicacity when asked to speculate on the future?

Maybe it’s a fear of not knowing the answer—but perhaps a more fundamental fear, too. Our fears are often irrational; spiders, heights, public speaking and being alone, amongst many. But the number one fear we have as humans is of losing control—that if we don’t control the outcome of future events, something terrible will happen. 

Just like people, businesses have far less control of the future than they’d like.

What’s new today would have been hard to predict. Who would have thought the most ascendant company that sells places to stay doesn’t own any property. Or the most progressive taxi company doesn’t own any cars. Or the biggest retailer doesn’t own any retail space.

Or conversely, there’s a return to the tried and trusted. The fax machine, first patented in 1843, is resurgent in response to the security risks of using electronic mail. It’s harder to hack a fax. Hollywood producers know this, which is why they’re now faxing scripts.

It’s quite easy to track back the how and why of that—but who could possibly have predicted the when?

One thing’s for certain, we’re living and working in a time where VUCA is the new normal. Maybe we always have. Maybe it’s just more acute today. Maybe we just have a handy name to describe it now.

VUCA is the acronym taken from military vocabulary that describes our context as Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. And as we all know, the Middle East is as affected by VUCA as anywhere else in the world.

It is Volatile: Suffering global market turbulence blowback. Oil price panic. Real estate bounce. It is Uncertain: Banks under pressure. Constant security issues. Qatar 2022 and FIFA shrapnel. It is Complex: 20 million people visiting Dubai Expo 2020. Diversified businesses. Infrastructure investments. Privatizing Government Entities. And it is Ambiguous: Speaking to 200 nationalities in the UAE’s ex-pat community. Saudi Arabia opening up to foreign investments. Varying messages and conflicting stories from the region.

Depending on whom you ask and when you ask them, people will express caution or enthusiasm for the region’s future as being either dark or light.

It’s neither of course, it’s somewhere in between. And for those that subscribe to the maxim that the only difference between a stepping-stone and a stumbling block is the way you choose to look at it, the Middle East is ripe with opportunity for brands.

Managed as stepping-stones, Middle Eastern brands have the opportunity to elevate themselves and the region from where they have come, to even greater international prominence and visibility in a positive way.

Some already have. Emirates has become the world’s third largest international carrier in just over 20 years. Emaar’s Hotel Group has a presence in 36 markets. The region has shown steady growth. The economy could be described as strong; open any index and the region ranks in the top ten per capita GDP in the world—and it’s set for more.

All this means the Middle East is changing, and the way business is done is changing, and therefore there is a need to change the approach towards branding. Moving away from tactical (product and image: first and second ages of brand) to a more strategically (experience: third age of brand) focused approach will be fundamental for any business to prosper.

So while anyone with serious commercial aspirations would be well advised to expect more of the same in the Middle East, more of the unexpected. It also means building a brand that, while not impervious to VUCA, is at least prepared for it and therefore prepared with the best chance for success. That means four things:

  1. Confront Volatility. By providing leadership and the entire workforce with a clear narrative. A simple Purpose streamlines communications, clarifies intent both internally and externally and helps define your path, your products and your place in the market. The key is to not lose sight of that purpose; and means steering a steady cause when things get bumpy so they are weighted much more in your favour.
  1. Minimize Uncertainty. By gaining a greater understanding of the context in which you are operating. This requires a brand strategy based on evidence through research to help you make the best assumptions for the future. Have a plan. Be empathetic, fearless and uncompromising in your approach. The more you know, the more you certain you can be. And remember, strategy is never and is not about forecasting the future and it’s attendant pressures. Rather, it’s about understanding the future implications of today’s decisions.
  1. Overcome Complexity. By seeking clarity in everything you do. That means removing friction from any and every experience. Creative leadership and bold actions are a must if your company is going to manage complexity. Sacred cows get in the way. Watch out for incremental change and the temptation to amend and extend. That invariably leads to more complexity, not less.
  2. Defuse Ambiguity. By being ruthless. Obscurification doesn’t just lose people’s attention, it loses their business. Everything you do should make it easier for customers to understand what you do and how to do business with you. That goes straight to communications and to your products as well. Consider this. What’s it like to be one of your customers? What’s it like to try to buy one of your products, to get information about them or use them? Those are three distinct experiences and they all need to be addressed.

Ultimately, VUCA is today’s reality. Which means anyone responsible for owning, managing, creating and building brands need to ensure that they are clear, flexible, dynamic and able to adapt to the change that nobody can sensibly predict.

Using Simplicity as the lens through which all decisions should be made—bringing clarity, removing friction, making a brand easier to work for and to buy from—is what enables organizations to survive and thrive. Take Coca-Cola’s timeline and consider the world events that have happened during its journey. Maybe Kubrick’s astronauts should have had it on board.

Philip Davies is President of EMEA at Siegel+Gale.

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