How to Brand Your Business in Iraq

By Lisa Knight, Creative Director & Founder of The Brand Foundation.

Since 2007 Iraq has witnessed a number of multinationals setting up regional operations – GE, Daimler Benz, Shell, and global finance and banking institutions such as J. P Morgan Chase and Citibank publicly proclaiming an interest in the Iraqi financial sector, its only a matter of time before a cross-sector multinational influx occurs.

How does a multinational go about presenting itself to an Iraqi population of approximately 28 million people? Iraq, unlike the UAE or Saudi Arabia has a significant amount of historical baggage, local perceptions of large western organizations are unclear at such an early stage of re-development, and the idea of a multinational being welcomed with open arms is not guaranteed – neither is global brand recognition a given in a country that has largely been shut off from western media.

With the possibility of political baggage being directly associated with big, foreign businesses, especially those that are US or British owned, does entering Iraq mean a major brand positioning exercise is required?

In the case of Iraq, I believe it should. The Iraqi market is to be entered sensitively, with tact, diplomacy and an acute cultural awareness of the impact of a turbulent history. Imposing your tried-and-tested western brand on this market with disregard for its troubled past and cautious nationals could be an opportunity missed.

In the marketing and branding world, getting to know your customers has always been a vital research activity that helps you develop an appropriate brand dialogue, in Iraq the concept remains the same, however it isn’t a small market segment one is analyzing, it’s a population of tens of millions of people, the majority of which are potentially receptive to your proposition, provided you get the dialogue right – and dialogue, not just identity, is key.

Understanding their purchasing habits, lifestyle traits, beliefs and customs will lead you to appropriate solutions, including when and where to interact and what tone of voice to adopt. A bi-lingual logo isn’t enough to say “Hello/Salam, we’re here – we speak your language, so trust us,” – a far more considered, sophisticated approach is needed to achieve a deep-routed penetration whereby in time trust is established between your organization and your new customers.

Localization is just that. Local. Methods that work in other parts of the world, or other parts of the Middle East may or may not be appropriate for Iraq.

Lisa Knight is Creative Director & Founder of The Brand Foundation, a UAE-based branding agency that specialises in the property sector in emerging markets. Prior to that, Lisa led the creative team of the UK’s governing political party, firstly under Rt. Hon Tony Blair and latterly, Rt. Hon Gordon Brown. Lisa’s career spans 16 years and numerous industries: arts & entertainment, business & finance, fashion, travel, youth, sport, and international development.

7 Responses to How to Brand Your Business in Iraq

  1. Hussein Hallak 2nd December 2010 at 03:27 #

    Thank you for this excellent article, finally someone talking sense with the multinationals, instead of telling them to throw more money at the problem...

    I believe this is needed as well in the rest of the Arab market, at least regarding your observation about localization, and how it is not the same as translation and having a bilingual logo, website or what have you. It is about the minset, the thinking and the strategy that drives the brand.

  2. Sami Shaker 2nd December 2010 at 06:34 #

    Dear Lisa,
    I have read your article and I admit that I agree with your analysing of the Iraqi markets and How should it be approached. In my opinion I think that we need to study the Iraqi tastes through what the nation went through and through a quick scan you can see that Iraqi tastes have been changed from a very selective to accepting whatever that is cheap. The long wars and embargos made Iraqi people thinking only about their day and how to get through. then came the post Sadam period and in my opinion that made a great change in Iraqi attitude towards buying products they were seeing only through the satellite channels. What made this dream come true was the increasing in the income for most of Iraqis. Iraqies are well known as a good spenders with a high taste which meets your theory that if you need to reach Iraqi markets you should think more than 'hello and Salam'
    Thank you again for the nice article was a professional analysis for the situation.

  3. hayder 17th December 2010 at 15:54 #

    having worked in iraq on both retail as well as corporate oriented business since 2003, i can say that "value for money" and a good warranty program are the key differentiators for retail customers (electronics, construction materials, frozen chicken, soda drinks etc...). That is the reason why companies like Nokia, Hyundai, Samsung have taken Iraq's market by storm, because they offer not only competitively priced products to retail customers, but the chain of approved retailers/distributors and authorised service centres throughout the country and using local resources to avoid the excessive costs associated with bringing in "expats".

    In the "corporate" sphere I can point to the examples of Huawei vs AlcatelLucent in the telecom sector, where Huawei's combination of maximising the use of local labour, 0 additional expenses for "expats" and their "security details" as well as flexible pricing and payment methods compared to the very risk averse "western" corporates ensured they gobbled up the entire market, whilst ericsson/alcatelucent et al were left simply shrugging and "giving up" on the market (iraq went from 0 cellular subscribers to 20M+ in the last 5 years! - winner takes it all).

    Finally the governmental sector is defined mostly by graft, rather than "marketing" "branding" or even past records, competence or any other reasonable metric, therefore, the type of "branding" required to win business there is rather different to the retail/corporate areas.

    In many sectors its almost too late for new comers to break in now, the pioneers took huge chunks of such critical markets as telco, cars, TVs etc... already between 2004-2010. There's still room for the banks and organised retail/restaurant chains since these sectors have not developed in Iraq yet. Here once again a combination of "cost" as well as quality and ubiquity are the key differentiators. I would say Iraq's market is not much different to Jordan, and most people are willing to give a new shop / restaurant a try as long as the entry threshold is not too high (i.e. McDonalds should not be more expensive than a local shawarma! - the novelty factor would wear thin pretty soon).

  4. Roya 31st January 2011 at 00:34 #

    Dear Lisa
    Thank you for your fantastic article. I do marketin and working in Cyprus I have the hardest time finding any website that gives us any details of businesses in Erbil. The only one we found was yellow pages that wasnt much help. Im sorry to ask but do you have any sugestions for us please?

  5. Paul MacAlindin 12th February 2011 at 10:09 #

    Thought provoking, and trust is the key with any brand. In the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, we're only in our third year, and have a lot of work to do marketing to our various stakeholders - players, parents, the Iraqi public, governments in Iraq and abroad, sponsors and donors. So far, there really isn't much research into how Iraqis really see the nation of Iraq, or what it feels like be be a part of this diverse land. Trust and stability go hand in hand of course, and so that may take a while. The young people I work with are very future oriented, hopeful and hard working, both in their abilities and their desire to work with others from different backgrounds. They're willing to communicate, take risks, improvise solutions. And while many international companies are focussed rightly on B2B marketing, let's not forget that the vast majority of Iraqi employees of these firms are young, educated, and connected online to their generation worldwide. I guess that becomes a recruitment marketing question.
    If I were to generalise, personal networks (comparable with viral marketing) are still premium in a way that the west does not appreciate, women work incredibly hard to hold their own and are succeeding, and collective decision making/responsibility can override individual.

  6. Basit Javaid 22nd February 2011 at 23:24 #

    I am writing you this to appreciate your valuable contribution to the growth of Branding in Iraq. It is not a hyperbole here if I say that your article, has been the highlight of the "Branding in Iraq" did discuss various inputs that you have given in your article on different angles of the subject ‘Brand Your Business in Iraq’.

    This is all nothing but your encouragement and we profusely thank you once again for your article.

  7. [...] blog was first published in Iraq Business News, where the discussion [...]


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