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Creating a world-class brand in the Middle East
Date Published：2/9/2016 11:02:20 AM
WITH a market of 300 million consumers, the Middle East is only slightly smaller than the United States and the EuroZone, but penetration by world-class brands has lagged farther behind. One reason is that the product quality of the multinational brands often can't match the local offering, says Sardar Wahidullah, for many years the Chief Commercial Officer of Al-Rabie Saudi Foods Co., Ltd. Conversely, he notes that the same cannot be said for the branding and packaging efforts of regional brands. “Many of these companies with solid product lines do not take the steps to upgrade the visual and emotional components of their brands to world-class levels.”
Al-Rabie is one Saudi company that can now be mentioned as a “World Brand” in aseptic cartons in the Juice, Nectar & Soft drinks category in the Pan Arab world and beyond. Mr Wahidullah believes that the story of how it got to that level may be instructive to other Middle Eastern companies wishing to grow their brands.
Identifying the need to rebrand
Roughly seven years ago, Al-Rabie seemed to be in an enviable position. The company was the largest producer of juices, nectars and drinks in the pan-Arab world. Its products were popular and of the highest quality. “Our juices are all reconstituted,” Mr. Wahidullah notes, “we buy only the best ingredients.” Still, he and senior management felt the company could realize even more substantial results by improving the brand in the eyes of their customers. “We took a hard look at how our products were branded and merchandised and concluded that important changes were necessary if we were going to meet our growth goals. We were doing OK, but OK was not going to get us to the next level.”
Al-Rabie wasn’t sure exactly what the problem/opportunity was, beyond the need to create a more aggressive brand and connect their product lines with a master logotype design. To help them in that regard, they ran a formal worldwide interview process and selected King-Casey, an elite U.S.-based retail branding and design firm to work with them. It certainly helped that King-Casey and one of its principals, Howland Blackiston, had been active in the Middle East for almost a decade successfully counseling well-known companies such as Al-Baik, Almutlaq and Al Sorayai. In the U.S., the firm's clients have included Pepsico, McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts and Merrill Lynch, which still use the “bull” logo that King-Casey designed.
Sardar Wahidullah, Chief Commercial Officer of Al-Rabie Saudi Foods Co., Ltd (left) and Howland Blackiston, principal of King-Casey, who collaborated on Al-Rabie’s successful rebranding, shown at Al-Rabie’s Riyadh headquarters
King-Casey’s first step was to conduct a COZI audit to determine the strengths and weaknesses associated with Al-Rabie in-store merchandising strategies and designs, and to identify opportunities for improving product visibility and customer touch points on a zone by zone basis. COZI, which stands for “Customer Operating Zone Improvement,” is a unique, proprietary methodology that recognizes every retail environment as a series of customer operating zones. You must identify each zone and understand what shoppers do in them.
COZI enables you to avoid planning strategies based on a holistic view of the environment. Strategies which are right for one zone are wrong for another. The big plus is you clearly understand your customers’ real needs and behaviors, which lets you design a strategy to make the customer experience more enjoyable while distinguishing your brand and maximizing business results. For Al-Rabie, the zones that King-Casey evaluated included: (1) Entry, (2) Island, (3) End of Aisle, (4) Chiller Case, (5) Free Standing, (6) Shelf, (7) Branded Chiller, (8) Sampling and (9) Checkout. They did so at retail store locations in hypermarkets, supermarkets and grocery stores, looking at four criteria in each zone: (1) product organization planograms, (2) branded merchandise at point-of-sale, (3) brand presence/recognition and (4) product line graphics packaging. In short, the audit gave King-Casey a tremendous amount of detailed information from the customers' point-of-view.
Equally important, it gave the Al-Rabie merchandising team a first-hand view of how the process worked. Five team members accompanied Blackiston for several days as he performed COZI audits at Saudi supermarkets. Together they went from zone to zone as he made his observations, analysis and identified opportunities for improvement and the rationale for it. “This was an eye-opener for them,” Blackiston said, “and also taught them the things they should be looking for after I departed. Essentially, they received several days of -in-the-field training.”
Blackiston presented the King-Casey audit findings at an all-day workshop with the Al-Rabie merchandising team and a larger group of managers and senior managers. Their in-depth, in-store analysis revealed that the brand presence and recognition on retail shelves was diminished by a weak brand identity and a fractured and inconsistent packaging strategy. The trade dress and graphic look of Al-Rabie’s products was similar to competitive brands, leading to consumer confusion and diminished brand distinctiveness and impact. The brand’s identity (logo) lacked visual impact, was not distinctive, and did a poor job of visually communicating the brand's fresh and healthy positioning.
Creating a “world brand”
Al-Rabie management endorsed the findings and gave King-Casey a mandate to reposition the brand as “world class” and to strengthen the fresh juice and healthy natural product quality perceptions. The first step was to develop a more powerful and relevant brand identity that could be applied in an impactful way across all product lines. Consumer research was conducted both within and outside of the trading market to define “world brand” best practices. Three of the brands that surfaced regularly in this analysis were top brands in the Kingdom. This research clarified both the strengths and weaknesses of the current Al-Rabie identity and packaging system.
Based on the research, King-Casey developed a range of enhanced brand identities (logotypes) to better portray the desired brand attributes. Further consumer testing identified the new logo design that most effectively communicated the brand’s positioning and personality. An Arabic version of the new logo was then developed to mirror the same brand positioning and personality: exciting, fun, fashionable, freshness, friendly and youthful.
Then, using the collective findings of the in-store analysis and consumer research, King-Casey leveraged the new brand identity to guide the development of a uniform and impactful packaging design system across all product lines. The new packaging and design strategy needed to be adaptable to future product lines, as well as to co-branding opportunities. The packaging program consisted of eight distinct product categories (including juices, coffees, milk and food) and encompassed over 110 sku’s.
A final round of extensive consumer research – conducted throughout the Middle East – objectively evaluated the effectiveness of the new branding and packaging, which was then implemented across all Al-Rabie product lines.
The proof of the pudding
Since completing the rebranding, Al-Rabie has grown steadily at a rate better than 15 percent per year and has established distribution across the greater Middle East. It is a “world brand” in every respect. Looking back, Sardar Wahidullah has this advice for consumer products companies looking to grow: “Don’t shy away from looking at branding. If you have a problem, find a cure.” He also has kind words for his friends at King-Casey: “The firm was a pleasure to work with. King-Casey’s sensitivity to our regional culture and their profound understanding of branding, package design and merchandising have provided us with more than we could have dreamed of.”
Howland Blackiston has profound memories of the Al-Rabie rebranding as well. “From a personal and professional standpoint, it was one of the most satisfying engagements of my 40+-year career. Many clients – who profess to want change – wind up balking when they see the magnitude of the tasks before them. This was not true of Al-Rabie, whose management welcomed the volume of data that we produced and actively took part in the process that successfully put it to work.”