PSFK INTERVIEW | Grace Yacoub on Middle Eastern Brands

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Branding agency Zaman is embarking on a remarkable initiative as they campaign to consolidate votes to determine the best brands in the Middle East. The initiative includes not only regional product and service brands, but also blogs, media outlets, and even festivals.

PSFK caught up with Zaman’s Founder and CEO, Grace Yacoub, to get a better idea of what they are doing.

Tell us about what you hope to achieve with your initiative.

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 that 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. We believe that authenticity drives brands to be successful and loved.

We initiated The 100 Most Authentic Arab Brands to celebrate the companies that are behaving in an authentic way and inspire customers and brand owners better understand the ins and outs of successful brand behavior. 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.

In your manifesto, you mention 3 criteria: authenticity, taste, and innovation. What do each of these terms really mean for brand building?


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

How do you define authenticity for brands?

A brand is authentic when:

  • It has an original story that engages with the customers
  • It consistently delivers what it says it does
  • It initiates or participates in activities that support its messages which usually match the customers needs and values.
  • Most importantly authenticity comes from business owners who have real passion and therefore keep challenging themselves to do things better.

Who is voting? Any notable differences in how a consumer votes vs. more professional voters?

It doesn’t particular matter if their 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 somehow connected with the brand and their messages relate to pride and ownership. We have also noticed that we have managed to create a dialogue as brands are listening to people and establishing a two way conversation, building closer and more personal relationships generating evangelists for their brand.

What trends make you optimistic about the future of brands in the Middle East?

Arab societies are changing. There is absolutely more awareness about what the international brands are doing and hence they are now expecting the local brands to level. In certain industries such as fashion, luxury goods, companies in the Middle East have started to have more confidence in their offering and their ability to anticipate what customers want. So they are addressing the needs of customers and even creating astonishing quality. Local customers are responding positively.

Whilst these brands are quite popular locally or regionally, they have just begun to venture on an international level. So the potential is immense. Take Sauce for example or Animals of Lebanon. They seem to have gained good awareness and popularity amongst regional audiences in very little time. That means they must be doing something right. However, these brands are still working on a niche proposition. As the markets are maturing, brand owners are challenged to improve their offering. I believe the economic crisis made brands strive harder to survive and by doing so they learned to do things better.

Thanks Grace!

The 100 Most Authentic Arab Brands