Postcard from Riyadh
Ahmed Al-Abdullatif is the CEO and creative director at Saudi Arabian strategic creative consultancy Gene Branding. He discusses with Transform the vast changes that have occurred in the Riyadh branding scene in recent years, and which of the city’s numerous landmarks still inspires him.
Saudi Arabia is developing economically, socially and culturally at a dramatic pace. How have you seen the country’s branding scene change over time?
Around 20 years ago, branding was a relatively new concept in Saudi Arabia and was often confused with logo and identity design. The market was not yet mature enough to differentiate between cosmetic and strategic branding services, except for a few sectors that understood the strategic value of branding and sought services from international agencies.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has undergone significant transformations under Vision 2030, which aims to reduce the country's dependence on oil and diversify the economy. This has created a greater sense of self-awareness, identity realisation and national pride, resulting in a shift towards more authentic and culturally insightful branding practices.
Is there a specific landmark or place in Riyadh which fills you with inspiration in your branding work?
Riyadh is a culturally rich city that never fails to inspire, but if I had to select only one place, it would be Diriyah. It is a historic district located on the outskirts of Riyadh and was the original home of the Saudi royal family, serving as the capital of the First Saudi State. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is known for its traditional mud-brick architecture, narrow alleyways and historic buildings. The district has undergone significant restoration in recent years and has become a popular tourist destination, offering visitors a glimpse into Saudi Arabia's rich cultural heritage.
Does the branding scene differ greatly across Saudi Arabia?
Most branding agencies in Saudi Arabia are concentrated in the three major cities of Riyadh, Jeddah and Khobar, where the majority of the government and private sector are located. Local agencies based in these cities offer their services to clients across the kingdom, resulting in a fairly uniform branding practice nationwide.
What has been your favourite project for a Saudi client at Gene Branding, and why?
That is a tough question to answer because if you're asking me which one of my kids is my favourite, I couldn't choose. However, if I had to select a favourite project, it would be the branding work we did for Aldahu & Old Hilla. This was a beautiful destination branding exercise we completed a few years ago, but it hasn't been published yet. It captures the essence of old Riyadh in a magical and authentic way, allowing people to experience the untold stories of the city's past.
Do you see a positive future for branding in Riyadh?
Certainly, Riyadh is currently one of the most ambitious cities in the world across multiple levels. As such, I believe that branding will continue to play a significant role in shaping the city's future business landscape. With a large and growing population, characterised by high levels of education and purchasing power, businesses have ample opportunities to establish strong brand identities and connect with their target audiences through effective branding strategies. Furthermore, Riyadh has yet to build a strong global brand image, which will require significant branding efforts.
In addition, I predict that local agencies will lead the branding scene in Riyadh, given the government's increasing emphasis on promoting local content. This policy shift provides a favourable environment for local agencies to thrive and establish themselves as leaders in the branding industry.