ABU DHABI // To demonstrate the difficulty of his job - creating a brand for a young airline based in a once-obscure city intent on becoming a world-class destination - Peter Baumgartner gestures to a blank sheet of white paper pulled from a stack. "When we promote the airline, it is known where this airline is coming from," said Mr Baumgartner, the executive vice president of marketing and product for Etihad Airways and one of those entrusted with helping to build "Abu Dhabi Inc".
"It is the national airline of the UAE and of Abu Dhabi. Then the question becomes, 'What is Abu Dhabi?'" Mr Baumgartner and the rest of the Abu Dhabi Inc team have been tasked with answering that question and communicating it to the world. Etihad, its jets, logos, crews and sponsorships have become the "brand ambassadors" of the capital: a title usually reserved, in marketing parlance, for the celebrities and promoters for the likes of Coca-Cola, Nike shoes and Nokia mobile telephones.
This is Mr Baumgartner's vision: as the emirate's development kicks into top gear to welcome Formula 1, a Ferrari theme park and branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, so too will Abu Dhabi Inc begin the long march of marketing abroad. Soon, the Abu Dhabi brand will become synonymous with the luxury of a Bentley and as globally recognised as a can of Coke. Most airlines are created centuries after their home countries are founded. Governments that awake to the economic potential of tourism have only to look around and promote the museums, galleries and natural attractions that have evolved over generations.
As the capital of a young country with cities whose fortunes have been tied to the price of oil, Abu Dhabi is a latecomer to the tourism game. The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) was established in only 2004. Etihad was created by royal decree in 2003. The growth of the city's infrastructure is increasingly parallel to the development of its tourist attractions. The image of Abu Dhabi will not grow organically over decades, as it has in older cities. It will be created with all of the wealthiest emirates' resources, using the modern marvel of marketing, Mr Baumgartner believes. "There's an opportunity in there. It's the opportunity to start to create an Abu Dhabi positioning and branding strategy and worldwide communication programme together."
The airline has incorporated images from ADTA's marketing campaign into its in-flight magazines. It has offered travel packages based on the Picasso exhibit at the Emirates Palace hotel and has partnered with other Abu Dhabi-based corporations to market the city as a luxurious cultural attraction. When Saadiyat island, which will host branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, opens over the next decade, global advertising campaigns from Etihad will become the gateway for tourists to learn of the capital's sights. Marketing campaigns will start to speed up in 2009 as the Formula 1 race approaches.
As construction of the city's cultural jewels is still incomplete, it is telling that Etihad has come to rely on sporting events and sponsorships to sell itself. "We're still an airline and an airline's main task is still to promote its products and services. The question is how do we do that to be in line with our destination?" Mr Baumgartner asked. Etihad's logo appears on the livery of Ferrari's Formula 1 cars and the shirts of Chelsea football stars. The airline also sponsors the Harlequins rugby club in England and hurling championships in Ireland.
"Sports ticks quite a few boxes for us. It offers international, if not global, exposure. For example, the Formula 1 race is global. Chelsea offers international exposure. "It is very efficient. We deal with brands that are compatible with our values. We ask, is there an image transfer possible? Yes, for example, with Formula 1 you see teamwork, every second counts, excellence, technology, safety. That all works very well for us," he said.
Sporting events offer a better opportunity for promotion and sponsorship than one-off events such as the Elton John and Justin Timberlake concerts, he said. Those were clever ways to bring international attention to the city for a short time, but sporting events are ongoing and seasonal. Like the ADTA, Etihad understands that it runs the risk of overselling the destination. If too many tourists come before there's anything worth seeing, the Abu Dhabi brand could be irreparably harmed. Mr Baumgartner said there's only one chance to get it right.
"You have to make sure the tourism infrastructure, the hotel capacity, the resorts, these development plans are growing as fast as we do to accommodate the passengers we bring," he said. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are likely to become increasingly important global transit hubs as they are located in the geographical middle of Africa, Europe and Asia. The cities are a natural halfway point between the continents; a perfect place to change planes, or rest between long-haul flights. If Abu Dhabi succeeds, it will entice those tourists who wish to extend their stopovers to other destinations by a few days in order to catch the sights. Currently, about 60 per cent of the passengers who travel through Abu Dhabi International Airport connect to another flight. The number of passengers is expected to grow to 12 million per year by 2012, although the ratio of transit versus destination passengers will likely remain unchanged.
The ADTA has set a modest target of three million tourists to the emirate within the next five years, twice the current number. To accommodate the influx of people, the authority has said the capital will need to increase the number of hotel rooms it can provide to 25,000 from 13,000 within four years. "The pressure is on because we have to use this opportunity to get it right, because the window of opportunity to get it right is relatively small," he said. "Once you have created something that you find is not synchronised, it is very difficult to redo."
Etihad is not alone in this ambition. Rather, it is a cog in the marketing machine gearing up for global recognition. It is no coincidence that the airline has sponsored Formula 1, a sport in which the government-owned Mubadala has a five per cent stake. The airway's logo will appear in line with the Ferrari theme park, a destination that is being built by Aldar, which will then be promoted by the airline as place to visit.
It is Abu Dhabi Inc in action. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org