Najjar on the Branding of Lebanon
 | By Yasmine Dabbous

Ramsay Najjar, Founder & Managing Partner of Strategic Communication Consultancy (S2C) talks to us about Lebanon's country branding.

Your company specialises in country branding. Have you previously worked on a campaign branding Lebanon? If yes, can you share us more details about it?

The political instability that has plagued Lebanon for decades now and which incidentally has contributed to reinforcing the existing perceptions of it among foreign audiences, coupled with the shortsightedness of most of the political establishment and leaders, has meant that no serious efforts have been carried out to try to brand Lebanon in a holistic and non-fragmented way in recent years, with the exception of the efforts started under the mandate of the late martyred PM Rafic Hariri in 2001 and 2002, and which did not fully materialise and see the light due that same political instability and the later assassination of PM Hariri. The seed of such efforts were the events of 9/11, whereby a few days later, specifically on Sunday September 23rd, Lebanon was among the first countries to publicly and officially express its solidarity with the people of the United States through a full-page ad which we envisioned, designed, copy written, and created, and published in all the leading American dailies such as the “Washington Post”. Entitled “We the People” and signed as “The Republic of Lebanon”, the ad tried to show a collective Lebanese front in supporting America in its hour of need while emphasising the common values that Lebanese share with Americans, including tolerance, democracy, and freedom.

More than simply a gesture of solidarity or a political statement, the full-page ad was meant as a means to highlight what Lebanon stands for, positioning it among the countries that value peace, prosperity, diversity, and moderation, as opposed to societies that believe in the clash of civilisations and the need to impose a unique way of thinking and behaving on their own citizens and others. The ad also tried to show that similar to the United States’ ability to reemerge stronger from the ashes, so was Lebanon able to shrug off and shake off its wounds suffered in its years of war to reclaim its position on the world stage and as a destination of choice for all. It was only when time came to sign the ad that it became evident that Lebanon lacked a brand identity, which kick-started the creative process of designing such a brand, translating into the development of a mother brand for Lebanon as well as sub-brands for some of the Ministries and public entities. In addition to the design and development of a series of applications, two pilot projects reflecting the newly developed brand were adopted by the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, whereby their brand identities (especially the MOF), till today, still reflect the work done then. However, when it was time to garner the buy-in of all stakeholders, most notably the political establishment, to the brand and what it should represent and how it should be communicated, political events once more stood in the way and signaled the end of these efforts. 

What is, in your opinion, Lebanon's current brand image?

Today, Lebanon has undoubtedly a very fragmented, puzzle-like brand image, whereby even if it succeeds in still being seen as an exotic, diverse, and colourful destination, it is perceived by much of the “western” world as a war-prone country ravaged by internal strife between its various religious communities, always on the verge of imploding or exploding. That said, the failure of Lebanon to create and communicate a unique brand has opened the door for it to be seen under different lights and through various angles, depending on the conditioning and familiarity of stakeholders with the country and their own socio-ethnological backgrounds. In other words, while a mid-western American might see Lebanon as a war-torn country, a Frenchman might equate Lebanon with its archeological treasures and history, while a young man in Kuwait might perceive it as a haven for entertainment and uncensored pleasures. 

What contributes to this image?

The reasons that contribute to the before-mentioned current brand image of Lebanon are manifold and include: The constant mediatised bickering between politicians and their behaviour which have created an image of Lebanon as being a hub of political turmoil and a country with failed institutions and a democratic system incapable of arbitrating the opposing views. The lethargic situation in which Lebanese find themselves in now, mostly as a result of their own making, whereby their sense of belonging to the (religious) community rather than the country takes away from the ability to unite around a common brand/definition of Lebanon which can subsequently be relayed to international stakeholders. The lack of a pro-active effort by the political establishment (and to a lesser degree the private sector) to brand Lebanon and communicate that brand to foreign audiences, knowing that such an endeavour should not be relegated to an initiative by the Ministry of Tourism, but rather be acknowledged as a national priority that is as much about attracting tourists as it is about luring businesses, creating jobs, enhancing national pride, and removing the prejudice that Lebanese have to endure simply due to their passport and their identification as “Lebanese”. The lack of a far-sighted leadership that recognises the need to see the long term rather than simply the length of the political mandate in hand; one that believes in continuity rather than the chauvinistic need to always shelve existing plans and start over, especially when considering that building a country’s brand requires years and decades of communicating and “hammering” the same message. 

As a communication expert, how do you rate this brand image? 

Unfortunately and as previously mentioned, the branding of Lebanon is mostly the result of contextual circumstances rather than a conscious and serious effort to position the country in a certain way, making this branding volatile and easily swayable with the smallest changes in the political, social, or economic situation. This, in effect, goes against the spirit and raison d’être of branding, which is meant to cement a certain image of a country/product/service whatever the external factors and the time-bound parameters that can affect the brand.

What do you advise should be changed about Lebanon's brand image?

The fact that Lebanon is home to such a multitude of religious (and therefore cultural) communities should be turned into an opportunity to leverage in branding the country rather than be shunned as a dimension that can take away from the country’s appeal. In fact, the multicultural and multi-confessional characteristics of Lebanon is what makes Lebanon what it is and is at the core of its identity and should be part of the brand’s DNA. That said, before discussing ways to change the Lebanon brand, we need to decide on what that brand is, to develop it, and to effectively and efficiently communicate it, which requires securing the commitment and will of political decision-makers in the country and their resolve to remove the question of branding Lebanon from the political infighting.

In an article for the Executive Magazine, you called for a holistic approach to country branding. Given the chronic tumults that Lebanon suffers from, and which reflect constantly in the news, do you think such a holistic approach is possible? 

A holistic approach to country branding is not a luxury but a must if we are to avoid the fragmented approach in which too many cooks and too many ingredients simply ruin the recipe. Many believe that we should first resolve our political differences before we can agree on the identity of Lebanon, which we would then celebrate. I, however, believe that we should look at this in reverse, whereby simply sitting together to align and work on Lebanon’s branding would serve as a catalyst for an entente among political factions and would amount to taking a step closer towards resolving our differences, since only then could we see that we all generally agree on the values that define us and that we would want to project to foreign audiences. Far from believing in fairy tales, I realise that certain differences might emerge when deciding on Lebanon’s social, cultural, and economic identity, but tackling this in the context of branding Lebanon remains a much safer platform than on the streets or through the might of arms.

Moreover, if we all put our Lebanese identity ahead of our political differences, then there are no reasons why we would fail to align on the system of values that we all live by and adhere to.

It remains that any approach to country branding that falls short of being holistic would simply result in a narrow-focused slogan rather a true branding exercise in which the values and unique selling proposition of the country are put forth.