Growing up in the Middle East, you learn it is not just a big giant region, but one that is made up of several different and unique subcultures and societies. I have been living in the Middle East since I was one-and-a-half years old and, although I am Italian/Egyptian, for me, the Gulf is home.

I have lived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for more than nine years now, and this has become another home for my family and me. I always used to tell me friends and visitors you have not seen Saudi Arabia (where I grew up) unless you really live there for a few years. It is unique in its own way and it will just grow on you.

The UAE is different and even more unique. Born through the discovery of oil and sea trade and then its unification in 1971, it is now home to more than 200 nationalities. You see the developments of this country as you see how a little baby grows to become a toddler, then suddenly a teenager, and then a mature adult.

The cyclone of infrastructure developments, and the tornado of new attractions is unimaginable. At this stage, in my opinion, I would plot the UAE at the same stage of a teenager trying to create its identity.

Similarly, many brands in the UAE are baby boomers – born as early as the 1960s and 1970s. A good majority of them are at the stage of either closing down or surviving these “market weather changes” and spearheading to a new goal while clinging on to a new identity or something that pushes them through this period of time – UAE transformation.

Many of these brands are actually the pioneers in their industry like Khaleej Times, the first English language newspaper in the UAE inaugurated in 1978.

At that time, a fleet of cars used to line up on the highway road, Sheikh Zayed Road, to deliver the fresh newspaper to each house every single day. A reflection of the economic and political eye watch and the country trends, Khaleej Times used to be the daily news feed to many residents in the UAE, including high status officials, government, and businesses.

But as times changed everywhere around the world, the challenges grew as the UAE population increased and other sources of news were created.

Today, as any part of the world, UAE is also accelerating into the digital world. According to Google, UAE has the highest mobile device penetration in the world. And according to various Internet sources, the young population is above 50%.

So how does a print born media source survive and stay close to its consumers? Khaleej Times did go through the normal “go digital” route, which every print media is transforming into these days.

Its ranking fluctuated from No. 2 to No. 1 vs. Gulf News (an English newspaper in the UAE), according to IPSOS data in the past few years.

However, Khaleej Times — with all its heritage and empire of data through the years — has also acquired something that no other media source in the UAE would have: knowledge of the target segments and the needs of all customer types.

For the past decades, Khaleej Times has sustained its knowledge banks through employees, data, and even connections with suppliers to ensure that the essence of the newspaper is not changed. This works both ways, of course, and has both its pros and cons.

One pro is the ability to focus on an existing segment and to use knowledge about it to improve services and products for this particular segment.

Through finding consecutive challenges to become unique within the digital world, Khaleej Times found there is a growing need for innovation from both the advertiser and the reader through print.

Bringing in simple innovative ideas, the media company developed a series of automated proposals for key clients, giving them added value to stand out and attract more attention.

False cover front pages, stickers on the front, extra flaps and bookmark the ads where amongst the most simple ones.

Then came key clients collaborating on even more unique ideas, such as the famous example of McDonald’s different language/burger campaign, which won Khaleej Times world-recognised success awards. Another example was the cricket IPL match, which became a benchmark in the country.

Many newspapers have started to use the innovation model more commonly in the UAE. Even magazines have started to invest more heavily in this area.

When you look at these examples, from the bird’s eye view and a pure marketing perspective, you realise it does pay off to know your readers, your customers, and your future target segments. However, it is the key learnings within your scope that makes the difference and leads to genuine and longer survival.

Lately, I have seen brands invest and re-invest in branding projects to take their brand image from point A to point M or point R — with a hefty amount of their budget paid out. This is becoming more of the trend. You can’t survive, just rebrand!  

But at the end of the game, it is your customer who is waiting for your service through a new innovative way that adapts to his or her new lifestyle.

For example, I went to service my car recently in the UAE. The licensed service center is part of a large group. Similar to the current marketing cliché, it is all about the outer image and not the inner itty gritty details that matter most.

I was sitting at the desk of the service receptionist, who followed the branding protocols (smile, greet, say you are from this company while stating your name, and serve).

But there was nothing there that spoke to me as a customer. I was in a hurry because I have to go get me kids and go get groceries before lunch time. I had to wait for him to follow the normal procedures and protocols, which were the typical bureaucratic style (photocopy, question, answer, etc.), while I was burning inside.

At the end, I had to tell him that I really need to make this quick as I have other errands to do. A working mom is a growing lifestyle need that many brands in the UAE seem to neglect.

So what is the use of innovating when it does not apply to your customers nor push you to the next level? That’s why Khaleej Times is one of the great successes on that front so far. Khaleej Times is just one of our successes in the group.

I always say, don’t do your best, do great and never forget that you are not in your industry. You are in the industry of the consumers. Brands should think for customers first and everything else will fall in place.