Creating a platform for Authenticity. Grace Yacoub speaks to Gulf News

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Everyone loves rankings; ‘the 10 best of that’ or the ‘the 10 worst of this’. These days you just cannot navigate websites without coming across one or more of these vying for your attention. Such is their sheer proliferation.

Now, Zaman — one of the first dedicated branding agencies from the region and which knows a few things about the subject — has taken upon itself with creating a ranking list of its own. But this is no Top Ten listing.

Zaman has taken on the task of finding out the Top 100 ‘authentic’ Arab brands out there.

The process does seem straight-forward enough on the face of it, but look closely and the catchphrase ‘authentic’ strikes you. How does one filter through brands which are authentic and which aren’t? Would such an exercise be completely objective and be free of personal preferences or prejudices?

Grace Yacoub, founder and CEO of Zaman, speaks on the rationale behind the new ranking list and all the processes that went into making it.


Gulf News: There are so many brands out there which would fit the bill of what you are looking for. Why then this emphasis on ‘authentic’ rather than ‘popular’?

Grace Yacoub: We believe authenticity drives brands to be loved. Throughout our 16 years of practice in the Middle East, we have tried to make Arab companies focus on creating meaningful experiences around their brands.

We felt this is the only way they could penetrate a market that is saturated with international established brands. We have oriented companies to be more honest about their offering so they are perceived as real and genuine.

According to you, what makes for an authentic Arab brand? And what was the immediate need for the agency to go for this ranking list?

A brand is authentic when it has an original story that engages with the customers and it consistently delivers what it says it does.

It initiates or participates in activities that support its messages which usually match the customer’s needs and values. Most importantly, authenticity comes from business owners who have real passion and therefore keep challenging themselves to do things better.

By initiating the 100 Most Authentic Arab Brands, we wanted the companies that are behaving in an authentic way and inspire customers and brand owners better understand the ins and outs of successful brand behaviour.

We hope it will be the platform for measuring the real value of brands in the mind of the customers. Perhaps after this exercise, brand owners will learn what people truly care about.


Isn’t there a chance the way you arrive at the conclusions could set off protests from brands claiming their authenticity?

The platform we created for this initiative is very transparent and interactive. After selecting the brands we have monitored, we are leaving it to the public to express their liking and their feedback.

By doing so, we are hoping that brand owners will capture the feelings of people and be able to assess better what they are doing right. So far we’ve got a lot of positive reactions from various brands even those who have not been selected.


Are there proprietary processes you followed to arrive at the conclusions? What were the parameters to identify the wider universe of regional brands?

Our manifesto is based on three values — authenticity, taste and innovation.

The markets are saturated with products and services. In the Middle East, consumer expectation is growing especially after the financial crisis.

Today, they have become immune to hollow messages and superficial design. So branding is only effective if a product or service is wrapped up with true value.

And unless the brand is really genuine and committed to practice what it says it does, it will become obsolete. Authenticity is about honesty.

Brands need to find a way to appeal and become relevant. We believe “taste” plays a major role in presenting a message simply without fanfare.

It is about harmony and original compositions and re-compositions that make a brand live its story in an infinite dimension without looking boring or sounding phony. It is about the attention to detail that any discerned person can detect and appreciate. Nowadays customers have become more sophisticated and learned.

Consumers’ expectations are growing. Today’s game is no longer about awareness. It is about differentiation. The more original you are, the more you stand out and if your story is original, believable and credible the consumer will adopt it and even market it for you.

In the 100 Most Authentic Arab Brands, we decided to go viral to demonstrate that consumers today talk with each other before talking to brands. And if they love a concept they will drive it.

It is interesting that the brands that are most popular on our site are not necessarily the most established. Some of them are not even three years old.


Many of the rankings in the region are based on third-party feedback. Have you eschewed this route completely?

So far we have noticed that size and longevity don’t really matter. Also, it doesn’t matter if the company’s online fan community base is big or small.

Some of the brands that are reaching the Top Ten most voted have a very mixed number of fans. Take for example the Brand Rajadano, they have been on our Top Ten most voted list since the start.

It is a young Arab Fashion brand that has great ambitions to grow on an international platform. What is most interesting to see is that Rajadano has no Facebook Fan page, only a Twitter presence and without a large number of followers.

So far, we have noted that there isn’t a direct link between our votes and the number of fans. Our voters are responding to real experiences that they have with the brand.

They are somehow connected with the brand they like and their messages relate to pride and ownership. We have also noticed that we have managed to create a new dialogue between brands and their audiences. They are now listening to what people are saying about them and responding.