Ideals versus idols: the rise of non-Western brands

A different type of brand is emerging from many predominantly Muslim countries with booming economies, fuelled by vibrant creative communities with an innate talent for craft and cultural depth, John Grant writes.

Ideals versus idols: the rise of non-Western brands

Five years ago, I was chairing a conference in Istanbul. The keynote speaker was Kevin Roberts, Saatchi & Saatchi’s chief executive and the author of Lovemarks. He began his speech by berating the low standard of creativity in Turkish advertising.

The previous night, he had been staying at a hotel near the airport and turned on the television, only to see dreadful ad after dreadful ad. When he met his own agency that afternoon, he said, improving creative standards would be top of his agenda.

While Roberts was off berating his colleagues that afternoon, the founder of a local creative agency took the stage. He started by telling the audience that he had been staying in Chicago a few weeks ago and he too turned on the TV in his hotel, only to see dreadful ad after dreadful ad.

He then showed a selection of his own work that made the point very well – that Turkey is a highly sophisticated country when it comes to film-making, comedy, design, art direction and culture in general.

For example, look at Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the winner of two Cannes Grands Prix (the cinema ones, not the advertising gongs), alongside other film-makers gaining inter­national recognition. Or look at Turkish novelists such as Elif Shafak and Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

What is happening in Turkey is more fundamental than just culture and creativity. Turkey has been on a long surge of economic growth, and not just in traditional sectors such as construction, food, textiles and manufacturing, but in technology, internet, banking and mobile.

Istanbul today reminds me of San Francisco or New York in the late 90s – a place buzzing with entrepreneurial activity, where anything seems possible.

When you put together all of the "brand-driving factors" in the table above, you can begin to see why the brands emerging from countries such as Turkey might become comparable with those from Japan in the 60s and 90s.

But the final point – addressing cultural "otherness" – deserves a more nuanced treatment. It would be as unfair to describe most of the shining examples from this part of the world as Islamic brands as calling Walmart a Christian retailer.

To reduce cultural producers and their work to one dimension is stereotyping; it says too little about quality, diversity or humanity.

Rather than describing this part of the world as Islamic (when also some of its creative leading lights are Arab Christians, secular democrats etc), I call it the "Interland", positioned – as they see themselves – between East and West. But, yes, they are different, and that difference does derive from culture.

Emerging markets across the world share some or all of the first five brand-driving factors, and they are producing world-class brands such as Natura in Brazil and Lenovo in China. But it is the "otherness" of this Interland region that makes it such a potent source of brands that are different to those from the West.

One factor is that, for more than 1,000 years, this is a culture that avoided icons (no statues, portraits or other depictions of human figures) and is profoundly suspicious of the ego. Instead, its art is expressed in patterns, geometries, calligraphies and an allusive, expressive tradition best known in the West through the poems of Rumi.

If you stop for a moment to think about how central the notion of brand personality is to the Western conception of brands, then you start to realise that this really is a disruptive starting point.

I set out to explore the brands emerging from this region by interviewing their creators. I spoke to entrepreneurs, artists, designers, admen, anthropologists, activists, sustainability heads, technologists, fashionistas, journalists, TV producers and politicians.

Many of them feel quite close to the West, having studied or worked there. They also feel they bring the best of both worlds. I certainly met few who were anti-Western – but few were in any sense followers of Western culture. They take the modernism, but have no desire to adopt the actual lifestyles of America.

Istanbul reminds me of New York in the late 90s

A survey of Arab youth by Burson-Marsteller in 2012 confirms this finding: by a wide margin, the region that youth across the Middle East most want to emulate is not the US, but the United Arab Emirates, home to Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

My interviewees told me that it wasn’t so much a case of them rejecting Western values, but more a feeling of "now, it’s our turn" and that they want to do things their way.

What are the shared values of these emerging-market brands?

I would describe Western brands as being "made by". The most obvious examples of these are brands associated with famous founders such as Coco Chanel, Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, or those with a connection to the personalities of leading sports stars such as Nike, or subcultures such as Harley-Davidson.

In contrast, I would describe the brands I encountered in the Interland as "made with". The examples are quite diverse – from artists, city architects and luxury-furniture designers to social activists, $100 million-dotcom entrepreneurs and mainstream creative agencies whose work is for soft-drinks companies and banks.

Nonetheless, there is a common thread running through all these examples – there is less emphasis on ego and identification, and more reliance on craft and invention (made), community (with) and fusion (made with).

In some ways, it is not that different a recipe from the classic Japanese brands but, in other ways, they are worlds apart. As the Beirut-based furniture designer Nada Debs explained to me, while Japanese culture is restrained, Arab culture is emotional; where Japanese design is minimal, Arab design is ornamental; where Japanese art and spirituality focus on the diversity of every fleeting present moment, Sufism (which underlies many Islamic spiritual and artistic traditions) reaches on unity and eternity, as represented in the Islamic geometry patterns that repeat infinitely and feature heavily in her work.

The "made with" theme comes more into focus with the seven main brand strategies that emerged from my interviews.

Some of these were familiar to me as relatives of brand strategies I have worked with in Western society, but all are a real departure when you explore the details of the cases.

There is not space here to do justice to the richness of these examples themselves, but the following is a summary of "what they make brands from if not personality".

Seven ‘made with’ strategies

1. Craft with

Bringing artisanship into the 21st century. Historically, craft is something the region was well-known for. Producers with a feeling for craft are now creating customised but scalable systems of production and design to revive this for today.

Examples include: Karen Chekerdjian (pictured below), whose designs fuse industrial modernist styles and handmade craft (pictured below); Timur Savci, the producer of Magnificent Century (something like The Tudors in Turkey), a hit TV show in 43 countries; Dimitri Saddi, the founder of.PSLAB, which does for lighting what couture does for fashion; and Nevzat Aydin, whose food-ordering website, Yemeksepeti.com, has brought online search, service and support to one in seven restaurants in Turkey.

2. Invent with

Inventions with a human spirit of play and involvement (rather than techno-dazzle) that open out to the audience instead of focusing on the perspective of the geek or the gadget. The Arab region, in particular, is famous for its pioneers of science and technology down the ages.

But there is nothing antiquated about examples such as the Beirut DIY scene; Ayah Bdeir, the inventor of Little Bits; Sedat Kapanoglu, the founder of Eksi Sözlük, a top-five Turkish internet site compiling competing definitions of everything and everyone; and the innovative Istanbul digital agencies Rabarba, C-Section and 41? 29!.

3. Adapt with

New businesses and innovations are being "made with" highly selective adaptations of the best practice of the West.

The genius of the Interland has been importing, combining and surpassing ideas that travelled the trade routes.

Examples include: Ibrahim Al-Zu’bi, a leading sustainability thinker in the region; Seeqnce and Starch, two types of business start-up accelerators; Fawaz Al Zu’bi, the former telecoms minister of Jordan; and Sina Afra, a former senior exec at eBay, whose Markafoni shopping site is a leading example of why many are saying it’s Turkey’s turn to enjoy the internet boom.

4. Fuse with

Brands that synthesise East and West, bringing something more human and rooted to modernity in the process, with a state of mind that makes a commitment to "and", rather than "or".

This idea is championed by Shafak; by designers at the Lost City of Arabesque event; by the authors of the report The Mind Of Turkey; by the leading adman Serdar Erener; by Turkey’s AKP political party; and by Debs, the designer who combines Japan and Arabia into a fusion that makes poetic, universal sense.

5. Remake with

As a continuation of the fusion theme, ultra-modern developments are being "made with" layers of historical heritage, rather than ripping it up and starting again. The Interland has a treasure chest of heritage – its key cultural resource.

I toured the new downtown of Beirut, walking its heritage trail with Amira Solh from the city redevelopment company Solidere and discussed the "archaeology of the future" with the lifestyle design company Bokja. I also got a glimpse of the Seven Wonders of the World II (a theme park) and other amazing edutainment productions from Randa Ayoubi of Rubicon in Jordan.

6. Emerge with

Communities and movements "made with" a sense of participation – which are about emergent social processes with creativity, spirit, camaraderie and joy, and an openness to new ideas.

Examples include: humour as the key weapon in the Arab Spring; Burak Arikan, the MIT-educated Turkish artist whose medium is digital networks; and the founders of Hijab-ista (a youth fashion scene in Indonesia), who grew from a small group to a global community by using online and mobile channels.

7. Citizens with

Peace, progress and tolerance "made with" creative platforms that give people common ground and a common purpose. The literal ability to "make with" is central to this process.

Examples include: Kamal Mouzawak, the venture activist behind the Make Food Not War movement in Beirut; a hackerspace in Iraq; Pete Teo’s 15 Malaysia film project; how BBC Arabic TV managed to overtake Al Jazeera on trust; and Fadi Ghandour, the founder of Aramex and Maktoob, who is promoting a pan-Arab initiative called Corporate Entrepreneurship Responsibility.

All of these examples have a topical relevance, given the renewed troubles in Syria and Egypt. It’s clear from the people I met that, despite instability, there is a youthful self-confidence and potent authenticity that can create winning brands – not just in the region, but internationally.

And with emerging markets’ combined GDP due to overtake the developed world in 2014 (according to Ernst & Young), this is surely where we should look for future brands and trends because they are the places where history is in the making – even with (or, perhaps, because of) the pace of change and degree of instability.

It is a point that Orson Welles made about the Italian Renaissance in The Third Man: "In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed – but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

John Grant is a co-founder of St Luke’s, a consultant and the author of Made With: The Emerging Alternative To Western Brands