Making connections

Dubai’s flag carrier has not only experienced year after year of profits, its canny worldwide sports and arts sponsorships have made it a phenomenally visible global brand. Vision investigates how Emirates Airline reached out to the world

The news that Emirates Airline had cruised past Lufthansa to become the world’s biggest carrier by international traffic was just one in a long line of coups for Dubai’s globally acclaimed flag carrier, which has enjoyed a phenomenal 23 consecutive years of profit. Indeed the airline is now considered the torch-bearer for a new breed of global power brands flying out of Dubai and onto the global stage.

Underpinning this meteoric rise is a 20-year commitment to sponsorship, which has seen the brand put its weight behind a plethora of global sporting teams and cultural events – from one of English football’s most successful clubs, Arsenal to the Dubai International Film Festival. This sponsorship programme has helped fast-track the company’s progression to a global brand.

According to Roger Duthie, Head of Sponsorship at Emirates, the broad sponsorship portfolio allows Emirates to nurture close connections with customers and serves as a bridge across which the brand can reach a wide variety of people from around the globe. “For example, in India we have invested heavily in cricket as we understand this is a sport which unites the country, and in Europe we have done likewise with football,” he says.

Emirates’ commitment to sports sponsorship has been at the heart of the brand since its inception. Its achievements are even greater in light of its relative youth – it was born as the official airline of the United Arab Emirates in March 1985 and won backing from the Dubai royal family. Though wholly owned by the government, after its initial start-up investment the government of Dubai has treated Emirates as a wholly independent business.

Steve Martin, Global CEO of advertising agency M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, says it is phenomenal what the Emirates brand has achieved in such a relatively short space of time. “It is still a young brand, when you think Coca Cola is 125 years old – fast-forward 20 years and the Emirates brand can only go forward.”

Emirates is unique among long-haul airlines in that it has not joined a global alliance, such as the Star Alliance, although it did strike a partnership with US Airways in 1993. This willingness to go it alone reflects the ambition and confidence that has underpinned the brand’s phenomenal growth. It is unique in the sector, as it is not perceived among consumers to be a local carrier in the same way a brand like British Airways is.

Olivier Auroy, Managing Director of global design and branding consultancy Fitch’s Middle Eastern operations, applauds the way in which Emirates has successfully positioned itself “at the crossroads of the world” through its extensive sponsorship strategy. “Since the beginning, the brand has shown you can go even further, both in terms of destinations and sports sponsorship,” he says, adding: “This is why its ‘Discovering’ positioning works so well, as its consumers are discovering new routes and new places.”

While from a distance, Emirates’ sports sponsorship strategy may seem somewhat scattergun because it incorporates such a wealth of different sporting properties, it is in fact meticulously planned. In effect, when Emirates opened a new route – whether to Asia, Europe or South America, the brand would also sponsor local sporting teams. A case in point was the launch of the new Airbus A380 and the sponsorship of Paris Saint-Germain football team. When the airline giant invests in a route, it also invests in the regional team.

Charles Wright, Managing Partner of brand business Wolff Olins Dubai, suggests that Emirates has benefited from a so-called ‘virtuous circle’ powered by investing in sponsoring teams in markets that their travellers fly from. “Emirates sponsors local teams, raises awareness and fills their seats at premium prices, enabling them to invest in more planes and more teams and start the circle again.” In short, while rivals have struggled to build their brands in the wake of industrial action and the global economic downturn, Emirates has continued to invest both in regional sponsorships and its aircraft.

One of the most high profile of these regional deals is Emirates’ sponsorship of English premiership team Arsenal’s stadium. The naming rights deal successfully embedded the Emirates brand into the country’s vernacular (the stadium is commonly referred to, simply, as ‘the Emirates’), propelling the brand right into consumers’ consciousness. Tim Crow, Chief Executive of Synergy, which handles sponsorship activity for brands such as British Airways and Coca Cola, says that because it was a brand new stadium and started with a clean sheet in terms of a name, they were able to christen it ‘The Emirates Stadium’ to ensure the media would only ever refer to it as that, thus guaranteeing maximum brand coverage.

But Arsenal is not the only high-profile premiership and national team to have benefited from Emirates’ sponsorships, and the airline’s patronage at a grassroots level lends authenticity to its global sponsorship platform. The airline has also invested considerably in cultural institutions – from the Hong Kong Open to the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO). The association with the latter began in 2003 when the airline became the orchestra’s principal partner. The sponsorship not only provides a halo effect on the Emirates brand, but also provides benefits for customers. For example, members of WASO can enjoy discounted flights on Emirates. This burgeoning commitment to the arts was further boosted by the brand through its sponsorship of the Dubai International Film Festival and the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, both providing an opportunity to cement Emirates’ position in its home market and promote Dubai’s growing stature as a cultural hub.

The airline engages its frequent flyers in its corporate and social responsibility work through the Emirates Airline Foundation, which invests in a wide range of causes. Recent projects have included providing flights to medical volunteers from the US on a clinical care mission to rural Uganda. Meanwhile, the Matumaini orphanage in Tanzania now has a new IT classroom thanks to Skywards Miles donated by Emirates passengers.

This joined-up strategy has not only propelled the Emirates brand forward across the globe, but also showcased the growing branding power of Dubai. Crispin Reed, Managing Director of London-based Brandhouse, says that Dubai’s involvement in sports sponsorship is fascinating: “The emirate has clearly invested a great deal of money in leveraging its historical crossroads between the East and the West in terms of being a commercial sector.” The launch of a new terminal for A380s in Dubai, combined with the fact that Emirates is the single biggest buyer of new planes, suggest this investment will only accelerate in the coming years.

And where Emirates has led, rival brands such as Qatar Airways and Etihad will surely follow. But branding experts warn that this ‘me-too’ approach will be no easy task. Marcus Mitchell, Strategy & Client Director at branding agency Corporate Edge, says that Emirates has secured ‘first mover advantage’, which means followers will need to work harder if they are to differentiate themselves. “Emirates has built a genuine reputation and relationship with local audiences – the result is a brand that has impact and registers clearly in consumers’ minds.”

If rivals complaining is the surest form of flattery, then Emirates has received praise indeed from competitors such as Lufthansa, which has requested landing slots are denied to the airline when a new airport opens in Berlin.

Hermann Behrens, CEO, The Brand Union Middle East, says that the Emirates story demonstrates that progressive cosmopolitan brands can come out of the region and compete with the best in the world, many of whom have a longer heritage and history. “I really like the fact that Emirates has been creative with their sponsorship programme. Above and beyond the high-profile opportunities, they also take a more grassroots approach to sport. For example, Emirates has recently created links with the ICC Cricket umpires, who are responsible for controlling international cricket games. This association with authority reflects well on the brand as they try to take a leading role in the global airline industry,” he says.

Steve Martin, M&C Saatchi, adds: “It has made the region incredibly inspirational and it has come from the springboard of Dubai to become a global player.”