Al-Jazeera: a top brand from Arabia?

MEDIA | An Arab brand makes international headlines. What does it all mean, asks Ahmad Humeid

The news shocked the branding and marketing world. Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeerah has been voted the world 5th most influential brand in a poll of branding professional conducted by Brandchannel, an online magazine. Al-Jazeera came just behind Apple’s iPod, Google, IKEA and Starbucks, all of which are mega brands that net their owners billions of dollars each year.

But Al Jazeera still loses money and it still depends on subsidies from the state of Qatar to continue operations. Recent reports indicated that Qatar is thinking of selling the channel which is causing it political headaches. And although the Al Jazeera is watched by tens of millions around the world, it is largely shunned by global advertisers who are unwilling to associate themselves with a channel that is often at the center of political controversy.

While it is great to see an Arab brand making it to a top slot in the global branding game, one should not get too excited about that. A look at the other top brands in the list shows that they are money-making machines built on technological and business innovation. Their position of leadership has been built over decades of growth and development. In contrast, Al Jazeera’s brand has risen to prominence because our region has been the world’s burning trouble spot since September 11th 2001 and the subsequent wars on Afghanistan and Iraq.

That’s not to say that Al Jazeera isn’t important. It almost single headedly revolutionized the Arab media landscape and proved that Arabs can create and run a global media organization. The good news about Al Jazeera’s brand cannot come at a better time for the channel’s owners if indeed they want to sell it to investors. Yet a new owner will have to figure out how to turn Al Jazeera’s brand into cash from advertising, licensing or content sales. That’s no easy task for a company whose annual budget is well over US$ 100 Million.

Looking at the Arab branding landscape one mostly sees a barren desert. Arabs have almost no representation when it comes to global brands. Look at the Koreans: Samsung, LG, Hyundai. Look at the Chinese: Haier, TLC (and soon many others). The Indians are also making branding waves, at least in the IT world with companies such as Infosys.

Arab companies with global brand aspirations include Thuraya, the UAE based satellite phone company, Dubai’s Emaar and perhaps also Jordan based Aramex, which, before going private again, was one of the few Arab companies to be listed on the NASDAQ.

Brand leadership is built on innovation, which sadly is not very abundant in the Arab world. Oil, not innovation has been the biggest Arab export over the past decades. And oil is sold in unbranded ‘barrels’. It remains to be seen which Arab company can go beyond oil and trouble reporting and create a truly innovative global brand.

6 Responses to “Al-Jazeera: a top brand from Arabia?”

  1. zaydoun Says:

    Hi there… please read this article I wrote on branding, which didn’t get published for some reason. I think I’ll submit it again.

  2. Yazan Says:

    Hi Ahmad. Hope all is well.

    I first got the link to the BrandChannel poll by email. I read it and thought it was funny. Yesterday I was talking to an Arab journalist in London who was was bringing the poll as proof of the big ‘impact’ of Al-Jazeera. What was amazing was that he knew about the poll from the media. Apparently the news was reported by many international media channels including CNN. I ran a search on the Internet and found that even you, Ahmad, wrote about it in the Jordan Times.. I was a bit disappointed and decided to write a response to explain what I think.

    What does it all mean?

    Before we get carried away with exhilaration, it might be worth taking a moment to reflect more critically on the news. The BrandChannel people have little illusions about the significance of their poll. As they humbly put it, less than 2000 of the magazine readers participated in the poll. Who are these readers? people interested in brands (as the magazine presumes). These two pieces of information, to start with, rule out any kind of authority the poll is said to have. To put it more prosaicly, the poll tells us what less than 2000 people who happened to read the magazine at the time of the poll and were interested in taking part of it thought. This is not a global study on brands. It seems to me that the whole thing was just a light-hearted exercise carried out to entertain the readers of the magazine (who ever they are) and produce some cheap content for it.

    This is not all. The whole thing would seem even more problematic if one considers the following questions: On what basis were the brands included in the poll preselected (short-listed)? The poll question was about the brands with biggest impact; what is ‘impact’ and on who? can anyone evaluate ‘impact’ on anything other than oneself? which takes us back to the poll participants (who were they? do they even speak Arabic to watch Al-Jazeera?).. Finally I wonder how possible it is to compare something like Al-Jazeera to Starbucks?

    Again, the magazine people have little illusions about their poll, but to take this as the basis of a grand theory about Al-Jazeera or Arab brands in general is bit of a far stretch. More importantly, how can branding and innovation be conflated? branding and innovation have absolutely nothing to do with each other. The poll and it reverberations tell us nothing about brands or innovation. What it does tell us about, though, is the naivete of the media.. or maybe that they don’t care much about the content of their reports.

    I apologize that my first comment on your blog happens to be a polemic; it just so happened.. Salamaat to all.

  3. Humeid Says:

    Hi Yazan,

    I agree with a lot of what you say. But it is still interesting that BrandChannel included them in their poll and that they got such a high slot. The ensuing coverage of the poll is in itself interesting. That’s not to say I don’t have my suscpicions about the whole thing. Such a poll raises the value of Al Jazeera brand at a time where there is talk of selling it.

    Of course I totally (ok, almost totally) disagree with your assesrtion that branding has nothing to do with innovation. Brand leadership is often linked to the ability of a company to introduce innovative products or services that have not exsisted before. Sometimes the innovation is technological and deep (think Macintosh) or in convenience, distribution, cost, etc.

    And remember, branding is often about the ability to gain mindshare. I know that this is not ‘scientific’ enough for you :) but then what in the world is?

    Salam and kepp writing :)

  4. mo Says:

    It was quite comical reading what you boys had to say about branding, it is obvious that none of you got a clue…. Stick to what you know best (architecture for example)

    It seems that branding is becoming a Ammani fashion, even talking about it!

    What’s next? Creativity…lol


  5. Muhannad Says:

    “And although the Al Jazeera is watched by tens of millions around the world, it is largely shunned by global advertisers who are unwilling to associate themselves with a channel that is often at the center of political controversy.”

    The ditching Al-Jazeera can be considered a leading indicator of what may come next.

    The irony is that Fox TV, America’s far-right TV, is a favorite for advertiser, because of its massive viewership. Al-Jazeera has been compared unfairly to the Fox TV but the key difference is that Fox TV has promoted US policies that are in direct contravention of the universal declaration on human rights, such as torture of prisoners, as well as in direct violation of UN mission and security council resolutions, such as support for invasion of Iraq and the Israeli occupation (under the pretext of WMD and terrorism)

    I am not surprised that Al-Jazeera will have its wings clipped. Look at Alarabya TV. When they started, they were very outspoken against both the US and Israeli invasions. Today, Alarabya is a mouthpiece for the neo-liberals, finding excuses the US invasion while focusing on the what the US calls the fight against terrorism, which somehow does not seem to seperate between ligitimate resistance and sensless killing except in a token sort of way.

    Now this makes sense when you look at the big picture.

    We do live the American Century and its only befitting that we talk the talk and walk the walk. Except that as a backlash to this intellectual captulation by the intellectuals and the ruling elite, the movement towards religious orthodoxy is gaining grounds slowly but surely at the grassroots. We see it in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria. The average Arab sees religion as the last refuge from total diloution of values and identity into this Tsunami of consumerism and globalization that leaves behind nothing but western-clothed consumers who live their lives to service mostly American products and values while producing nothing original of value to offer a counterbalance. Compare this with Asian cultures such as China or Malysia for example, where consumption is counterbalanced with production, both cultural and technological.

    I am not complaning. I am happy to be diluted :) I mean, if you can’t originate or produce, open shop and fix things. That’s why I got my MCSE.

  6. Hisham Says:

    I agree with Muhannad.. al Arabiya lost its ground quickly… Al Jazeera remains the only relatively free platform in the Arab world with balance rather than bias (though that depends on who you ask.)

    Great post and comments. Glad I came across this blog. Keep it up :)

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