Exploring Brand Oman

Brand Oman – the opportunity

Is branding relevant in the context of Oman’s economic development? Let’s first look at the current perceptions of the Oman brand. Ask people outside of Oman what they know about Oman, and you may get very little in return; ask them to name an Omani product, and you are unlikely to get anything other than oil and maybe a few comments about Omani lobster or frankincense from some of those in the know. Ask them about tourism opportunities in Oman, and almost nobody outside of Oman will be aware of the cultural heritage, the scuba diving, the wadis or the Khareef season in Salalah.

In short, Oman is a small story, poorly told. An Oman brand, if it does exist, is extremely subtle. In terms of both tourism promotion and attracting foreign investment, Oman faces the challenge of competing against neighbours like Dubai and Qatar who have dedicated more resources to their brand buliding exercise. In this context, building an effective national brand will be critical for Oman to “get on the map” of potential investors and tourists.

In terms of promoting Omani exports, a national brand offers a number of potential benefits. Most importantly, it can be a critical image-maker for exporters whose products have had little exposure to international markets and for buyers who have never before bought Omani products. If managed appropriately, it can also allow Omani exporters to collectively develop a reputation for quality that can be earned much more quickly than could be done individually.

Starting with the home market

It is in the domestic market that the development of Brand Oman can have the biggest initial impact. Omani society is in the midst of major changes – economically, it continues to diversify and begins to look beyond its own borders; socially, it is leading the movement of participatory government in the region; demographically, continued population growth means that Oman is increasingly a nation of youth. This is a story of growth, openness and modernity. At the same time, the image of Oman to Omanis remains much at odds with this picture – few Omanis see their brand image as modern, strident and strong.

For Oman to be successful, both economically and socially, it is critical for its citizens, consumers, businesses and workers to develop a positive concept of what Oman stands for and where it is going. We must first develop this internally before we can hope to convince the rest of the world.

Development of a strong Omani brand in the domestic market can also have an immediate impact on economic development and job creation. The examples of South Africa and Australia show that raising awareness of locally made products can be successful and can be a major catalyst for economic development. Such programmes can then be effectively leveraged into international markets to promote exports. The “Omani Made – Our First Choice” programme is a potential starting point for this. This programme, if harnessed effectively and re-launched, can serve as a platform for the development of a strong and dynamic Oman.

Ask Omani businessmen whether they would source their telecom supplies from within Oman or from Germany/Sweden.

Nationalism aside, chances are that a majority of them would choose the latter options. But the fact remains that an Omani company has supplied optical fibre to megacorps such as Siemens and Ericsson. A look into the shopping baskets of Omani consumers at the hypermarkets would reveal packages with international brand names. But the fact remains that these international food companies source some of their most critical ingredients from Omani manufacturers.

In a rapidly modernising country like Oman, there is often a tendency to assume that what comes from abroad is generally superior to what is produced domestically. Often, this assumption is highly exaggerated. When faced with the marketing power of international brands, consumers, business buyers and even government are sometimes unaware of what is produced locally.

Why “Omani-Made” matters

As part of the process of Oman joining the WTO in 2000, barriers to imports dropped significantly. This has been further reinforced by the implementation of the GCC Customs Union at the beginning of this year. The effect of these initiatives has been to open up the Omani market to an ever-wider range of international products and services.

This is by no means a bad thing. Studies show that the long-run benefits of import openness more than offset the short-term problems of job loss and industrial transition. But many domestic industries in the early stage of development, particularly businesses in the SME (small and medium enterprises) sector, will struggle to compete with international competitors due to their limited capacity to build and promote a brand. In many cases, these domestic producers may be delivering international levels of quality at highly competitive prices, but have neither the financial resources nor the capabilities to communicate this to local and international markets.

Promoting the development of domestic industry through a national branding initiative can play a significant role in the economic development of Oman. First and foremost, increasing the domestic demand for Omani goods and services will lead directly to job creation and will strengthen the establishment of nascent industry sectors. Aside from this, developing a brand to promote Omani-made products can also provide a platform to meet other key objectives of Oman’s development strategy, including Omanisation, environmental protection and quality/innovation.

The Omani branding initiative

Government and industry in Oman have long recognised the importance of branding and the value of promoting domestic products. Back in 1998, a national branding initiative was launched by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and the Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The programme, dubbed “The Omani Product is our First Choice” included the development of a logo and the launch of a number of promotional initiatives to support Omani-made products. These included education and communication, travelling, Omani product exhibits and rebates on advertising expenditure for companies involved in the programme.

This initial programme has been successful on a small scale. However, in comparison to similar programmes launched in places like South Africa (see case study on the following page) and Australia, it hasn’t yet had a dramatic impact on awareness and purchasing patters of consumer and business buyers. With Oman’s continued development and openness to world trade, now may be the time to re-launch the national brand and reinvigorate the promotion of Oman-made products both to domestic and international buyers. The potential is significant Ð achieving it is just a matter of careful planning and execution.

Keys to success

As countries like South Africa realised, developing an effective national branding programme requires a lot more than just a stylish logo and a few advertisements on CNN. National branding programmes must be developed holistically, with clear objectives, a strong organisational structure and wide-ranging set of initiatives. They must also be sustainable to be effective. There are seven key issues that need to be considered in developing a programme:

  1. Scope of the campaign: Brands can be diluted if they are applied to widely. Moreover, resources may not be available to address all products and services in the country and to do so domestically and internationally. The scope of a national branding programme should be closely linked to the priority areas for economic development growth. Key questions here include: Domestic or export focus? Which products and services should be targeted? Which sectors? Are we focusing on consumers or “B2B/government”?
  2. Stakeholder involvement: Key stakeholders include government, industry, labour and community. Each of these stakeholders has different needs and objectives with regards to promoting a national brand, and each should be consulted and managed to develop the most appropriate and effective programme.
  3. Brand positioning: Key brand values must be clearly understood. What is the image of Omani products we want to promote Ð Modern? Innovative? Top-quality? Reliable? The brand should also be positioned in such a way that it can be leveraged both domestically and internationally, as well as across a range of industry sectors. Finally, it must be WTO-compliant: the blunt but sometimes effective “Buy Oman” just sounds a bit too protectionist these days.
  4. Brand maintenance: This is the most important and most often overlooked element of national branding. It is critical to put in place exacting criteria for organisations associated with the brand. Not just any company should be able to use the brand to promote their goods and services Ð they should meet strict requirements for quality and should have progressive programmes in place for such key strategic issues such as Omanisation and environmental management. Finally, brand protection must be ensured not only through the initial application process but also by implementing a strict programme of compliance and audit.
  5. Operational Support: Developing and managing a national branding programme requires skills and resources. An effective and efficient organisation must be developed to operate and support the programme.
  6. Financing: Regardless of the initial budget that can be made available by government and/or industry, sustainability of national branding programmes relies on stakeholder contribution to financing. Paid participation leads to active involvement.
  7. Coordination: The brand for promoting Omani-made products is unlikely to be the only “national brand” initiative in Oman. Additional brands (or an umbrella brand) may well be developed for promoting tourism and/or foreign investment, as well for specific sectoral development initiatives (e.g., the IT sector). Effective coordination and integration of these national brands is critical to the success of the initiatives.

Oman has many reasons to be proud. The goods and services that its people produce should be one of them. A well-developed and executed national branding programme can do a lot more than simply harness latent feelings of national pride, but more importantly, it can play a major role in supporting job creation and continued economic development in Oman.

The author is Managing Director (GCC) for Kaiser Associates (www.kaiseredp.com), a global strategy and economic development consulting firm based in Dubai.