Friday, February 7, 2020

Of brands and revolutions: The case of Lebanon *

Investing in advertising when the market is bad is a known recipe for success, because when conditions improve, clients are bound to remember your brand. Lebanon however, never was your typical market: : marketing departments work on a haphazard basis; advertisers are there to make a quick buck; consumers have little or no brand loyalty left. And the latest political and economic crisis – seen as a revolution by some – makes things even worse: everyone is trying to save money under the very strict capital controls banks are now exercising (customers can only withdraw a couple hundreds dollars weekly from their accounts), which translates into a sharp drop in ad spend. In fact, the questions facing advertisers are, even, existential. When a country is questioning the very foundations of its system and future, advertising becomes more testy: how will people react to advertising – brands trying to promote themselves and their products – when they live in a pressure cooker every day?
Two schools of thought emerged: one posited people need a sense of ‘normalcy’ when everything is crumbling all around them; the other, more austere, insisted that there were more important priorities than luxuries such as ads. Eventually, the ones preaching belt-tightening won, a flagrant example would be usual the flurry of ads for end-of-year festivities: This year, only one restaurant and one hotel advertised but with C-list celebrities.
Early on, when the crisis first started in October and with no one knowing how long it would take to subside or how serious it would be, most organizations refrained from committing to either strategy. Many declared they would be closed on such and such day; only local food joint Crepaway (popular with the middle- to high-income bracket) went a step further, posting: “In solidarity with Lebanon [sic] fight against corruption, inefficiency, and lack of proper economic strategies we will be closed today. Stay safe and peaceful.” The message’s tone made a stark contrast with the cautious one other institutions were adopting.
As the situation went from bad to worse, people’s buying power dropped so much that most stores announced massive sales as early as the beginning of December – usually the busiest month of the year, it ended up barren.
This plummeting could be best observed in the outdoor advertising business. Less than a year ago, Lebanon was a billboard jungle; any flat surface was good enough to hang ads on it. Today, billboards and unipoles are all covered in white sheets of paper or with remnants of older ads. A campaign – that used to require six hundred billboards to be visible in Beirut – could be very prominent, comparatively, with just one. Facebook and Instagram ads are filling the void created by the fall of OOH.
Banks – usually the engine behind the Lebanese ad industry thanks to their ample budgets – all but stopped advertising, having to contend with the protesters’ (and Lebanese population’s at large) complete loss of faith in the Lebanese banking system and its players, accusing of being responsible for the financial quagmire people were paying the price of. For a short while, they tried to spin a narrative that the government “had made them do it,” to no avail.
Many then reversed gears and went pseudo-patriotic: Byblos Bank, for example, released the tagline “Because Lebanon Is Our Country for Life” – a riff on their earliest selling line, “A Bank for Life” – on Independence Day; BLC used the country’s national emblem, the cedar tree, to come up with: “During Storms, Cedars Only Get Tougher.”
Naturally, some brands tried to capitalize on the events, with more or less success.
- Homewares maker ANF’s cheeky line “You'd Know the Original From Its Sound” was inspired by the casserole-drumming marches.

- City Mall’s sales ad “Revolutionary Sale” was much less effective and was received poorly.
- Rizk Group’s end-of-year card showed the ‘thawra’ (revolution) hand emblem with a an attempt at wordplay between ‘yeghle’ (simmering) and ‘meghle’ (the usual delicatesse prepared to celebrate the birth of a new baby), to bland effect.
The crisis is also giving rise to derivative categories, starting with a new term coined by Dan Azzi - a retired banker and a financial analyst: ‘Lollar’ – “a US dollar stuck in the Lebanese banking system, really just a computer entry with no corresponding currency.” To ‘release their Lollars’ is now a commonly-used expression for the Lebanese population looking for ways to access their own money blocked by banks.
(Lollar logo courtesy of Patrick Chemali)
One of these ways is real estate – an economic sector that was in free fall and suddenly became an interesting option. From one day to the next, real estate companies started posting heavily online and even ventured a little outdoors, notably developer Waterfront City launching a major campaign around “The Only Real Asset Today is Real Estate".
Another was gold and jewelry, to the point that Lebanese jeweler Antoine Saliba launched a campaign around the the investment that a diamond is, instead of the usual Valentine's Day message targeting lovers: “Secure 85% of Your Investment, Invest in Certified Diamonds”.
All in all, brands’ attempts to milk the events mostly ended up in failure, perhaps because of their top-down approach, trying to emulate the market. By contrast, the best work came from independent designers like Dana Osman (who goes by the professional name of Dan), who created an incredible “Currency for the Revolution;” and Mohamad Kaaki, who portrayed the crumbling economy directly on a Lebanese Pound bill – both designers who wanted to express how regular people feel, without a ‘branding opportunity’ in tow.

* An earlier modified version of this story appeared in Communicate Magazine.