Editor’s Note: With this piece, we are introducing a monthly column by Abdur-Rahman Syed of Imprint Advisors.  Each month, he will inshaAllah review a brand launch or rebranding initiative by a Muslim corporate, sovereign, or non-profit brand.

On 2 December 2010, Qatar shocked the world (including Qataris themselves) by winning the bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022. For a tiny Gulf state with a reputation for bold initiatives, this is the boldest one yet.

The winning bid has faced more than its fair share of controversy.  Popular incredulity at Qatar’s insignificance as a football playing nation has evolved into charges of corruption at FIFA and a variety of doubts about Qatar’s ability to meet traditional expectations of World Cup season: comfortable temperatures, high alcohol consumption and minimal dress codes.

What most of this criticism misses is that world sporting bids are about the future.  Since the 1990s, FIFA has bet on newer, younger markets (United States 1994, Korea/Japan 2002, South Africa 2010, Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022) more often than on established football powerhouses (France 1998, Germany 2006, Brazil 2014).  This is in fact part of a much wider shift in world politics, economics and culture: from the global North to the global South.  By acknowledging that Doha will be a significant economic and cultural actor in another eleven years time, FIFA is staking a claim for international football in that shift.

Brand positioning

For its part, the Qatar 2022 Bid Committee’s efforts have been nothing short of remarkable.  Consider it a master class in brand positioning: turn your weaknesses into strengths.  The absence of a football pedigree spells a new market.  The lack of an existing sports infrastructure means that the 2022 architects can start from a new slate, building the stadiums of the future: culturally relevant, modular and powered by green technologies.  The tiny size of the host nation means a “compact” World Cup, so that fans don’t have to choose between matches in different cities.

Indeed, a string of high-profile (and presumably highly-paid) stars from the football universe have helped to make the case that the Arab world is the next logical step for international football. Zinedine Zidane’s TV spot is particularly on point: reflecting on the challenges of making it as a French Algerian footballer, he concludes that “football belongs to everyone.”

Logo design

The Qatar 2022 Bid’s brand launch in May 2009 showcased the work of the international creative agency FutureBrand (which cites the Sydney Olympics, Dubai World Championship and Asian Cup Qatar 2011 among its work).  The bid logo applies classical Islamic geometric motifs (in the local colors of sand, sea and sky) to the world of football.  In FutureBrand’s own words:

“The design work signals Qatar’s readiness to welcome the world. The logo features thirty-two pentagons, which represent the qualifying nations spiraling toward a football at the center.”

Setting the Qatar 2022 logo in the visual context of other recent FIFA World Cup and World Cup bid logos highlights both its strengths and weaknesses.  It is arguably the strongest concept in the set: the representations of international football and local culture come together in a true synthesis. But the execution is weak: while the pattern of pentagons is pretty enough, the colors and typography lack the youthfulness and vitality necessary for a successful sports brand.  To the football enthusiast, Qatar just doesn’t look very exciting.

Logo design in context: FIFA World Cup logos for Korea Japan 2002, Germany 2006, South Africa 2010, Brasil 2014, Russia 2018 (bid) and Qatar 2022 (bid)

Identity applications

Where the FutureBrand logo falls short, Lambie-Nairn’s supporting applications deliver.  The UK-based creative agency was appointed Qatar 2022 Bid’s Official Supplier and Official Brand Agency in October this year, presumably taking over from FutureBrand. Lambie-Nairn softens and scatters FutureBrand’s pentagons across compelling shots of footballers in action. Lambie-Nairn’s videos, posters and other applications manage to extend FutureBrand’s work in a younger and edgier direction, with urban typography and richer color tones.  It also has something to offer to both international and local constituencies: inspirational words like shaghaf (“enthusiasm”, depicted below) and fakhr (“pride”, depicted elsewhere) are discreetly incorporated into the background of a subset of the visuals.

Identity applications

Scores

To provide a point of comparison with future brand reviews, let’s score Qatar 2022’s brand positioning, logo design and identity applications on a rising scale from 1.0 to 5.0:

Recommendations

Let me close with a few recommendations for making the most of this opportunity.

Update the logo. As the most visible element of a brand, a logo can be a badge of honor or a lightning rod for criticism. Although I wouldn’t be surprised to see the current logo replaced altogether, a bolder execution of the same concept would strengthen its appeal among young spectators.  In the age of social media, the potential dividends are significant: after all, who could be a more passionate advocate than a football fan?

Keep the focus on the region. In a competitive neighborhood like the GCC, Qatar is unlikely to share the glory of hosting the World Cup matches. Neighboring countries can nevertheless play a key supporting role.  A hotel stay in Dubai, for example, not only reduces infrastructure but enhances the appeal of a World Cup vacation. Moreover, building a sense of ownership among Arabs will not only draw the football fans most likely to feel at home in Qatar, but also deliver on one of the Qatar bid’s implicit promises: to grow the market for football among Arab youth.

Discover the essence of Qatar’s country brand. Not unlike other GCC countries, Qatar has been making big splashes in multiple directions. This is an opportunity to focus the country brand, aligning its various initiatives on the world stage and distilling Qatar’s particular appeal and character (beyond “small state, big spender”).  How the World Cup host decides to balance visitor expectations with local values will also be a moment of truth for Qatar, sharing its own particular formula for a cosmopolitan Muslim society.

Indeed, what Qatar is about to embark on is no less than an exercise in national self-definition.  Fortunately, the 2022 World Cup gives it a generous timeline and plenty of motivation to get it right.

About the Author:

Abdur-Rahman Syed

Abdur-Rahman Syed has helped develop and manage brands in both in-house and consulting roles since 2001.  He co-heads Imprint Advisors, a niche brand and communication strategy firm focusing on Muslim brands.

You can reach Abdur-Rahman at abd@imprintadvisors.com to suggest a brand for a future review or for advice about your own brand.  You can also follow Imprint Advisors on Twitter (@imprintadvisors).

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