Meaning is everything when it comes to branding in today’s consumer obsessed markets.
UAE developers’ names are a case in point: Aldar translates as “the home” in English. Emaar is “constructing”, Nakheel means “palm trees”, while Sorouh is the Arabic for “edifices”.
Simple concepts, perhaps. But after the global economic crisis and UAE property slowdown, a more complex question beckons: how do these brands really translate in a wary and uncertain consumer market?
Not particularly well, according to research by Brand Finance, a leading independent valuation consultancy. In the company’s annual survey of the top 50 Gulf companies, the brand equity of the biggest regional developers has declined this year.
Abu Dhabi’s Aldar saw a 75 per cent drop in its brand value this year compared with last year.
Part of the problem with property brands is that they are rooted in the “off-plan” model of sales, says John Brash, the founder and chief executive of Brash Brands, an agency based in Dubai.
“When it was a boom, no one really cared about the end users … it wasn’t their main priority,” Mr Brash says. “As long as you have investors, you’ve got your money. It just became about square footage and costs.”
But some developers, through necessity, are now treating their customers differently. This comes through the realisation that instead of “flipping” property – the practice of investors reselling units for a quick profit – their core customers are now more interested in living in them.
The recent rebranding of Aldar reflects this concept. Last month, the company announced a change of logo and a shift in its business to emphasise the “human” aspects of its developments.
Aldar’s portfolio includes residential and commercial property, plus retail, leisure, education and health developments.
To reflect this, the corporate identity will be realigned based on six “brand experiences” the company aims to deliver to its customers. These are, it says: “creating communities; injecting excitement into life; indulging in the best life has to offer; taking time for yourself; creating inspiring working environments; and enjoying spontaneous activities”.
The branding work was done by Wolff Olins, the international agency that created the logo for the London 2012 Olympics.
Some branding experts say Aldar’s new identity is reminiscent of the London Olympics visuals. “The brand identity is distinctive but does remind us all of the Olympic 2012 identity, which funnily enough was designed by the same agency,” says Hermann Behrens, the chief executive of The Brand Union Middle East, a consultancy based in Dubai.
For Aldar, sleek images of developments complete with aspirational slogans have made way for branding messages more focused on the experience of day-to-day life.
Charles Wright, the managing director of Wolff Olins Dubai and the lead strategist on the Aldar rebrand, says the new approach is about more than a logo.
“Putting a fancy logo on a property really makes no difference at all. You’re not going to be fooled by something superficial,” Mr Wright says.
Aldar’s new brand is less about bricks and mortar and more about what happens outside the four walls of construction.
“In a simple sense, it was to make less emphasis on building towers and to shift the emphasis on to providing experiences to consumers,” says Mr Wright.
“The convention of real estate in this region is still bricks and mortar. It’s a hangover from the days when you could sell virtually everything off-plan.
“The new emphasis is on the practical, day-to-day things. [It’s] stuff like car parking. That’s a very small example but it’s the kind of thing that, day in day out, becomes a real pain in the neck.
“You need things like doctors, mosques, schools and shops … because those are the things that make it possible to lead a normal family life.”
Marie Clark, an account director at Wolff Olins who worked on the Aldar account, says some other property developers have overlooked these mundane but important aspects of life.
“In some places, they create these developments that don’t even have a supermarket. That’s creating a community that is very transient,” Ms Clark says.
Ashley Dymoke, Aldar’s brand manager, describes the change as “a shift to a more customer centred focus, as Aldar is no longer just a property developer”.
“It’s not just a question of changing the look of Aldar. It has to change from the internal processes and what we do,” Mr Dymoke says.
As part of this, all direct Aldar employees were invited to a presentation about the new brand. This included everyone “from PAs right the way up to the CEOs”, he says. “We very much wanted to involve our staff, so they really felt part of the brand.”
Mr Brash says Aldar’s position is not unprecedented in the region. He points to the Dubai developer Emaar, one of his clients, as having pioneered such an approach in the UAE.
Mr Brash says Emaar’s malls, education, healthcare and hospitality divisions represent exactly what Aldar is trying to achieve.
“Emaar’s positioning from day one has been integrated lifestyle communities. Emaar was really the pioneer.”
But they have no choice. As Mr Wright says, the key question for all property companies is “how they will restore confidence in people to invest in property”.
In a difficult market, property companies must stand for more in the eyes of their customers.
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GCC property firms' brand values suffer
Four of the five property companies in the GCC saw the value of their brand decline this year. According to the Brand Finance’s annual list of the top 50 GCC brands, Aldar’s brand is worth US$185 million (Dh679.44m), down from $734m last year.
Gautam Sen Gupta, the managing director of Brand Finance Middle East, says the company calculated brand value using a number of scores, including brand awareness, brand heritage and marketing spend. “Brand is what determines the longevity of a company,” he says. The higher the brand’s value as a percentage of the business, the better, Mr Gupta says.
A higher brand value can result in increased customer loyalty, enabling the company to charge premium prices and attract new clients from competitors, he says.
In the Brand Finance Middle East list, Emirates Airline ranked as the number one brand in the GCC, with a brand value of $3.5bn.
There are no property companies in the top 20. Emaar, which was ranked the 13th last year, is 26th this year. Aldar went from the 10th top brand last year to the 46th this year.