If you're in the business of selling Toblerones, you need to shift a lot of product to make US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) a year. Just ask Dubai Duty Free (DDF). The airport retailer reported record sales last year, retaining its top position among global duty free operators. In the first half of this year, the company earned $607 million, up 16 per cent from last year. Of course, DDF sells more than just chocolate. Travellers passing through DXB can buy jewellery, cameras and Cuban cigars. There are leather handbags on hangers and giant containers of washing powder on the shelves. The retailer stocks lots of Kraft processed cheese, for some reason. And for many Dubai residents, the 4-litre drinks quota marks the ritual end of every holiday.
Commercial success is one thing. But this week DDF was named the "Brand of the Year" by Superbrands UAE, the local arm of a global organisation that calls itself "the independent authority and arbiter of branding excellence". DDF saw off competition from 62 other "superbrands" in the UAE - including Emirates Airline, Masafi and international names such as Siemens - to win the award. Impressive, perhaps. But aside from selling a lot of Swarovski and Cubans and cheese, DDF has not done anything particularly revolutionary, brand-wise, in the past year. Even Colm McLoughlin, the retailer's managing director, admits this. As he said upon winning the award, "we've never changed our brand, we've never changed our logo, we've never jazzed things up; we've just kept on working very, very hard".
Mike English, the director of Superbrands Middle East, said DDF had come close to being voted the UAE's top brand many times, but had just missed out on several occasions. So why has it won now? "I think it was because, during this time of recession, people go for things they're comfortable with," Mr English told me after the awards event. "It's a bit like comfort food." That is telling. For DDF, which has been around for 26 years and seen steady growth during that time, plays an important role in the lives of Dubai residents, the majority of whom are expatriates, and visitors to the emirate. But it's also a "comfort" because, in tough financial times, DDF is a shining example of Dubai at its best: the business somehow encapsulates the emirate's successes in the two fields of logistics and retail.
And we have all seen Dubai at it worst. The names that slipped off the list of 62 UAE "Superbrands" are testament to that. Some property developers that were previously classed as Superbrands "didn't even get a look-in" this year, said Mr English. "They handled their branding so badly during the recession," he said. Some banks slipped off the list, too. There is certainly nothing offplan about the UAE "Superbrands" this year. There are companies that make things, such as Masafi, Al Ain Water and RAK Ceramics. There are companies that sell things, like the electronics chain Sharaf DG and ENOC. And there are companies that move things, such as Emirates.
(It is, perhaps, surprising that Emirates did not pick up the "top brand" award. Mr English said this was because the brand had lost some of its connection with the UAE public. "If you are looking at global importance in terms of brand, yes Emirates is way ahead. But it's becoming just another airline, the personal emotion is not there as strongly as it used to be," he said.) Either way, "comfort-food" brands like DDF are now the backbone of the economy in post-slowdown Dubai. Such brands are comforting because they have been around for a long time - but also because they are real and tangible, and in genuine demand.
This idea was echoed recently by Sultan al Qassemi, the Emirati commentator who writes a regular column for The National/i>. Tweeting from the official opening of Dubai World Central (DWC), the massive new aviation community near Jebel Ali, Mr al Qassemi wrote about how the new airport was "Dubai's back to basics", marking a return to the historically strong business of logistics. "Sheikh Mohammed [bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai]'s inauguration of DWC is to aviation logistics what Sheikh Rashid's inauguration of Jebel Ali was to sea freight DWC is more significant than Meydan and the Burj [Khalifa]. It's Dubai's back to basics. The logistics hub of the Middle East," he wrote in two separate tweets.
There's also a feeling of back to basics in the advertising world. During the boom years, consumer goods companies were priced out of the advertising market: the property frenzy meant that advertising space, particularly on large billboard hoardings, sold at greatly inflated prices. Now that ad space is available at more reasonable rates, these companies can justify buying it. It is for this reason that you see advertisements for Mars and shampoo lining the motorways, rather than those for upscale property developments.
Consider something similar across the wider economy. Most of Dubai's "back to basics" brands can expect steady growth in the future. As Mr McLoughlin has testified, you need to work "very, very hard" to sell Toblerone bars. But at least you know there will always be a market for chocolate. email@example.com