Can cities be brands ? With the developments on the media landscape and visitor expectations, destination marketers found themselves in a great need to rethink their strategies and build brands for their cities and destinations. It takes more than just a logo to brand a destination. Destination branding involves communicating the feelings, culture, and overall mindset people experience when visiting a landmark. 

We’ve exclusively interviewed Mazen Jawad, President of Horizon Holdings, to weigh in his insights on destination branding in the MENA region. 

BB: Destination branding is all about identifying the destinations’ strongest and most competitively appealing assets in the eyes of its prospective visitors. In your opinion, how is branding a destination different than branding a company?

MJ: At their core, they have a lot of similarities, but destination branding has two main roles. The first is aspirational; where you create desirability of the destination and a captivating story. The second is organizational; especially in the UAE, since a lot of these are in the planning or development phase, hence you need to have enough imagination and some ‘future-gazing’ to define the relationship with its subsidiaries and audiences, in advance.

Mazen Jawad

BB: Storytelling has become an instrumental pillar of a destination development strategy. With shedding some lights on Horizon FCB’s work for Dubai South, how can you build a compelling story when branding a destination ?

MJ: Dubai South came with a very large ambition. Twice the size of Honk Kong city or the size of Stockholm, we had to tell the story of Dubai South in the most compelling and exciting way, while linking it to Dubai – the ultimate brand. With a destination of this magnitude, there is a story that is built around the main brand, selling a dream for multiple target groups, and building credibility. Each component and sub-destination has to deliver on a dual objective: the umbrella brand purpose and its own raison d’être.

BB: What differentiates a destination brand is the ability to emotionally connect with its visitors to the place which makes them want to return. How can destination brand marketers build, retain and sustain an emotional click with the visitors ?

MJ: In the past, brands used to sustain this by ensuring more media presence and being continuously active. Now, the landscape has changed, and marketers can share and use the power of storytelling to spark emotions and feelings among the people. This includes those who are visiting the destinations, as well as influencers that can get the wheel of interest turning again. It’s no longer about always being present, but about being more actively engaged, engaging, and relevant. Through all this, what ultimately matters is that you stay true to the story you tell.

BB: The Middle East’s ultimate star destination brand is UAE’s Dubai, topping all regional tourism competitiveness reports. In a nutshell, and from your perspective, what makes it a great destination brand ?

MJ: Dubai is an amazing city, and the one thing that sets Dubai apart from the rest is that it delivers greatness consistently, and at the same time continues to up their game in wowing people every time. Each time you think Dubai has done something amazing, they will go ahead and do something that is even better or greater! At Horizon FCB, our philosophy is built around a similar approach – that great ideas are ‘never finished’, they keep evolving. I can’t think of a better example of this than Dubai, always hungry for a better idea and, most importantly, delivering and remaining true to a promise.

BB: Can you mention some of the key takeaways when creating a destination brand ?

MJ: We need to find that ‘something’ at the core of the brand that only we can claim and own, and then build on this with a compelling and authentic story. Most importantly, establish uniqueness, which is especially critical with many projects being delivered and adding to the supply of the market. It won’t always be easy, and so if your brand has something different or slightly unique about it, be sure to jump all over it!