OPINION

The Folly of Theme-Based Branding

Theme-based cities are cropping up at a phenomenal rate in the Middle East, with some one thousand projects currently underway. Developing brand and name identities for them has, in many cases, become a nightmare.

Except for a very few, they tend to occupy just a few acres — or even a single large dwelling. Now this requires a new definition of the term “city,” so as not to confuse them with traditional metropolises.

For example, Dubai Media City, which extends the souk (market) concept to its extremes, has become a great success story. Still, with the emerging jigsaw of cities, it is difficult for one to stand out among many similar and overlapping themes.

Cities with themes that center on technology, innovation, transportation, manufacturing or logistics often overlap too much. Soon, there could also be Furniture City, Food City and Book City parked within People city. Like the Babushka dolls, cities will be nestled into cities. A serious battle for image, name-identity and brand-positioning is already raging.

Concept vs. Word

The city as an idea is great, but acreage, structural development and a support infrastructure are necessary to create even a miniature city.

There are serious prerequisites when it comes to naming. A city has to be large enough to create a critical mass about a particular theme, and rich enough for customers to have compelling reasons to make repeat visits.

The word “city” by itself communicates something along the lines of New York, Toronto, Paris or Kolkata. Those are different than tens of thousands of little shopping marts all over the world, named after whatever they seem to specialize in: Computer City, Sport City, Pizza City, Carpet City, Toy City, Silk City or Gold City.

In these cases, the “city” term is perceived as a large specialty store under fluorescent lights with a good variety of merchandise sold at cheaper prices. Does this explain why there are so many closeouts and mega-branding failures? Beware. Customers won’t be fooled by fake branding names.

Any generic term — like “toy” — attached to the word “city” will ensure that its identity is lost among the thousands of equally watered-down projects with equally similar identities. Does this mean that now these cities should be called “Toy Country,” “Toy Continent” or even “Toy World”? No. Creating a stronger brand is accomplished through building a unique experience.

Immaculate Attractions

For example, customers have never experienced a Toy City where gnomes escort them on long train rides through immaculate gardens, across lakes and over mountains crowned by year-round rainbows, as toys dance around to the orchestral strains of “The Nutcracker Suite.” If you have a super “city” brand, then let the whole world see it. If you have absolute 100 percent ownership of a brand, prove it.

In the Middle East today, 95 percent of businesses do not have full ownership of their brands. They may have huge logos, unique designs, colorful executions, banners and billboards — but as long as there are far too many identical or similar name identities all over the marketplace, 100 percent ownership is a distant prize.

Global icons like Sony, PlayStation or Rolex are 100 percent owned, and there is absolutely no confusion about this anywhere in the world. Without iron-clad ownership of name identity, a company’s entire advertising and marketing effort is nothing but an uphill — and ultimately losing — battle.

The urge to copy already-famous themes and global icons of the West will eventually make the Middle East nothing but a distorted copy of a disconnected Disneyland.

Real estate branding in the Middle East is at an elementary stage. With intense competition, though, it is likely to make the leap from generic name adoption to an advanced stage of proper world-class corporate nomenclature.

The best approach is play the image and name identity game under the laws and rules of naming. Branding City? No thanks.


Naseem Javed is recognized as a world authority on Corporate Image and Global Cyber-Branding. Author of Naming for Power, he introduced The Laws of Corporate Naming in the 80s and also foundedABC Namebank, a consultancy established in New York and Toronto a quarter century ago. Currently, he is on a lecture tour in Asia and can be reached at[email protected].


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