It’s a fact of human nature that we adapt to our circumstances. For the most part this is a good thing. It’s what has ensured the survival of the human race after all and it keeps us sane when we are unable to change things that are less than perfect, but it’s also the trait that represents our biggest obstacle to development – complacency. Right now there’s a scene playing out in the Gulf that illustrates quite vividly how this works.

Dubai’s pre-crash growth was spectacular, but built figuratively as well as literally on sand. Then came the crash, which brought a few people at least to their senses, followed by the resurgence that has delivered Dubai, in a few short years, to a better than full recovery and an economy that is probably better grounded in sound financial sense than its pre-crash equivalent. Sadly, the apparent ease with which this recovery was achieved has also fuelled the argument of those who believed in the original Dubai ex-pat myth, that the sceptics are wrong and you can realise your widest dreams in these markets with little talent and even less work.

So, once again Dubai is in boom, fuelled by the 2020 promise of unending (at least until 2020!) growth. This has brought three opposing factors to bear. The first is a resurgence of belief in that old half-arsed approach to life and work – “There is plenty of work in most sectors for all the existing operators, so why put yourself out to up your game?”  and the belief that the UAE operates outside the usual laws of commerce is justified. Thats the complacency. The second is the counter to that argument, in the shape of the arrival of new businesses from the rest of the world keen to exploit a rare growth market.

The third factor comes in the shape of home-grown businesses from around the Gulf, who, buoyed by past home-turf success against the background of second-rate competition and rampant demand, are looking for expansion beyond the region and are starting to bid for a slice of foreign markets.

The fact is, newly arriving businesses aren’t just clones of those that are already here. Just as the pre-crisis arrivals upped the game set by the ill-equipped and tragically managed locals, the second wave are a whole new breed – smarter, wiser, better equipped and, with a few exceptions, absolutely a cut above most locals and earlier arrivals simply by dint of the fact that they have spent the last five, formative years, when the business world has changed beyond recognition, in challenging markets where being best-in-class is table stakes.

There’s no doubt therefore that a disproportionate slice of the incremental business generated by 2020 and the World Cup will end up with the newcomers. Established businesses that are still operating on the old minimum-effort model are going to suffer the most and I’m sure that we’ll see a few fold as a result, which is no bad thing – if you can’t deliver to the standards modern international businesses need it’s only right that you should be removed from the scene. However, because they have emerged from an environment with such a low bench-mark, even some of those that think they are operating an internationally robust model are going to find that reality is a whole lot tougher than they expect.

Those who believe the answer is to expand geographically, will be playing against the very companies that are making life tough for them at home, but on away turf. So their chances of success are pretty scant.

Squeezed at home and abroad there’s no alternative for established Gulf businesses. They just have to get better at what they do and I’m pleased to see that a growing number are rising to the challenge on. So how would you set about this?

Firstly, you should know that there is no quick fix. If you have lost your competitive edge you are in this position because you failed to act when you should have done. Success is transient and you need to be making changes to your business when you are doing well, otherwise you’ll be left behind. That train having left the station for many, the starting point is to define your offer. There’s a tendency in these parts for businesses to think they can be Jacks-of-all-trades, but as we all know, that’s a road to nowhere. Business in all sectors is tough these days and to succeed you have to aim to be the best in town at whatever you do. You need to focus on one or at most a few specialist things and hone your skills to the sharpest possible point. So start by deciding what this is.

Because second best isn’t good enough these days you next have to understand what you need to do to be the best at what you do. That means studying the market, understanding what end-users need and knowing what your competitors are doing to satisfy those needs and wants. Then it’s a matter of working out what you need to do to fill the gaps in the market – structuring, introducing processes and technology and then taking your offer to market.

What we are talking about here is brand development. Brands drive modern businesses and will increasingly do so in the future, yet it’s surprising how few managers recognise this. The fact that, in times of need, brand consultancies are top of the list for so few managers is due largely to their lack of understanding of the subject. As I said, brands are at the core of every modern business and at the heart of every brand is a promise that the organisation makes to end-users. Fail to deliver that promise and you’ll crash and burn – pure and simple. So, the brand strategies that we develop to ensure delivery (which will include structures, practices, processes and communications) are today’s business strategies.

As I said, there are signs that businesses in the region are waking up to this. A growing number of the many diversified conglomerates that are peculiar to the region are re-inventing themselves and all the brand consultancies I speak to claim to be busy, but I predict fall-out and fall-outs when some clients discover that the brand “expert” they hired is really nothing more than a design shop churning out logos. Logos are not branding and the “real-deal” brand consultancies are going to have to shake off their own complacency and separate themselves from the pretenders if they are going to help local businesses deliver the strategies they need to survive.

Phil Darby
September 24, 2015

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