By Nicolai Tillisch, the author of Effective Business in The Gulf: Mastering Leadership Skills for Greater Success and the founder of Dual Impact, the Dubai-based consulting and coaching company.
The tennis match lasted some 20 minutes back on February 22, 2005, yet the event itself is a symptomatic element in a unique story about branding and leadership. Andre Agassi and Roger Federer played each other on the helipad of the Burj Al Arab Hotel 650 feet above the ground. The photos became instantly circulated around the world, and they are still remembered by impressively many people around the globe.
Meanwhile, branding has been on a long and tortuous journey to reach the top management agenda. John Wanamaker, who was one of the advertising pioneers, did honestly highlight a fundamental dilemma: only about half of advertising actually worked, but nobody knew which half that was. The point is still being brought up as if it were only yesterday, even though it is more than a century old and technology makes it possible today to measure marketing quite well.
In my work as an executive coach and facilitator, I experience that many business leaders are much less comfortable with taking bold decisions regarding branding than other aspects of their business. One explanation is that a moderate share of these individuals has worked in marketing while climbing the career ladder. Another is that executives are first and foremost accustomed with quantitative analysis, as opposed to qualitative analysis that is also required when understanding and playing with the emotions in a brand.
You would probably never have guessed that Dubai and several of its government-related corporations would represent a case example of how effective branding and leadership can go hand in hand, had you been asked just a few decades back. The city center was then a vibrant–but small–and proud–but not rich–enclave covering the banks of its creek. Dubai has made some noise–particularly with its historical mix of Arab, Indian, and Iranian merchants–but nothing that was heard on the world scene.
Rather serious branding has helped Dubai step up, as this has been an integrated part in many of its moves. Branding helped lead the way towards what Dubai is today, and the leaders at the very top have been closely involved in branding the emirate. Business partners, expatriates, frequent travelers, and tourists did all have to be convinced that it was all possible.
His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai and Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, has very much the honor that Dubai has taken on its magnetic power and reached around the entire world to attract business and people. He became the ruler in early 2006 and started building the foundation for his achievements already as Crown Prince prior to this.
Communication is close to the heart of His Highness, who is also an admired poet; a bestselling author with his book, My Vision; and an enthusiastic social networker with more than two million followers on Twitter. Monumental constructions that he is behind, such as Palm Jumeirah, Burj Khalifa, and the previously mentioned Burj Al Arab, do speak for themselves when they are pictured in the international press.
Dubai plays on a large register of channels and activities to attract people and to give them a unique experience and a feeling of belonging. One of the other many examples is Emirates Airlines, which helps to promote Dubai on its more than 100 destinations and mesmerizes all of its new visitors with a magic video about the emirate before every one of its landings here.
While corporations–and other cities and countries, for that matter–define their brands by nicely packaging what they already have, Dubai is as much building on the dream about its continuous progress. This is irrespectively that the metropolis already has much more to offer to many than most other places.
Dubai is the single most popular location among international companies to place their regional headquarters for the Middle East and often also Africa or India. The city is in the absolute top league for places to host large conferences. It is increasingly the natural meeting point between the West and the ever-strong East.
Dubai serves also as a kind of new oasis for its large neighbor Saudi Arabia, for whom it is everything from a relaxed family hideout during Eids to an attractive honeymoon destination. Middle-class families from anywhere in the world are also putting Dubai on their holiday wish list. A steady stream of major sporting events within golf, horse racing, and tennis lures fans. At the same time, the international jet set makes their regular–and almost mandatory–visits.
All this helps paint an attractive future for Dubai, which has also become a safe haven for people who flee countries in turmoil due to the Arab Spring or who are concerned about their place of living and want to establish an additional home in Dubai. For this same reason, large, foreign investments are currently channeled from various places into new serious real estate and other ambitious projects.
Sheikh Mohammed and his Dubai could be a source of inspiration for you, if you are a leader, on how you can move your people, customers, and partners by sharing energetic aspirations and walking in front of the joint effort to pursue them.
If you are a brand aficionado, then this is also an illustration of a point made by Bill Bernbach, the father of the creative movement within advertising: “Execution becomes content in a work of genius.”