Thoughts + Insights

Recently I was thinking about the various ways and through what mediums nations tell stories about who they are, where they come from and what they have to offer. Postage stamps came to mind. Whether you love them, don’t particularly notice them or collect them postage stamps tell time-framed stories and capture national sentiments. They’ve been around (in paper format) since the 1840’s – baring images of Monarchs, Presidents, heritage sites and key political figures.

Over the years’ stamps have been widely studied for their historical significance. I asked myself what stories Iraq’s choice of stamp designs revealed about the nation, past and present? After coming to power, was Saddam’s dictatorial style reflected on the nations’ postage stamps? Did they portray his face? If so, was he in military uniform? Did they depict ancient scenes, agriculture, and oil?

The earliest Iraqi postal system is said to have originated in northen Iraq, or Assyria, as it was then known in approximately 600BC. Letters were written in cuneiform (pictograms) on clay tablets and enclosed in clay envelopes.

Iraqi Cuneiform alphabet - The Brand Foundation Blog

The Ottoman Empire saw post offices open in Baghdad, Basra, Mogul and Kirkuk, and in 1868 India operated two post offices in Baghdad and Basra from 1864 – 1914. Interestingly, these stamps carried Indian imagery, which were later overprinted by the British military during World War I, as British soldiers fought in Basra and Mosul. Already, it’s curious to see that India and the UK had literally stamped their mark on Iraq’s postal system during that time.

The British mandate granted by the League of Nations in 1920 saw the first official Iraqi postal system, which led to the introduction of the very first Iraqi national stamps – not, at this point depicting a monarch or political head, but they contained scenes of ancient and present day Iraq, connoting a sense of pride in the countries’ rich sites of historical importance. Faisal I of Iraq appeared on stamps in 1927 and again in 1931. This was the first time that Iraqi stamps were definitively Iraqi, without the presence (albeit temporary over-printing) of another country, and interestingly, this was pre-Iraqi independence.

Independence in 1932 saw a new currency, and a re-printing of the original (1920’s) set of stamps, including Faisal’s. To coincide with the accession of King Ghazi, new stamps appeared yet again in 1934, followed by another set in 1941 after the unexpected death of King Ghazi. The 1941 designs reverted back to depictions of scenery because Faisal II was an infant at the time. However, 1942 marked the young boy, Faisal II’s first appearance on the stamps, followed by updated versions of him as a teenager in 1948.

As many other nations did in 1949, Iraq printed its first commemorative set of stamps to mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Postal Union. This was 17 years after Iraq’s independence. Concurrent with the coronation of Faisal II three more designs were commissioned, some of which were only partly available prior to the 1958 revolution, which saw these designs overprinted by General Qassim’s regime, perhaps an indication that he was seeking to assert his authority instantly. General Qassim was behind Iraq’s very first commemorative set of stamps that featured him as benevolent leader.

Saddam Hussein was Vice President when he was first depicted in 1976 and by the mid 1980’s it is claimed he appeared on the majority of stamps produced. February 2003 saw the release of the last stamp he was featured on. Two other designs were scheduled but the printed versions were reportedly destroyed by looters, however the proofs survived and one, on the theme of transport was later approved for release by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Since then, overprints have been in use, but don’t appear to have been officially authorized.

An interesting set I came across, although I have no idea if they were official or not, is a series of “No” stamps. The eight designs are said to reflect the views of the majority of the population, commissioned under Iraq’s PM of the time, Al-Maliki. Printed on them are these words: No to Terrorism, No to Occupation, No to Dividing Iraq, No to Killing the Innocent, No to Sectarianism, No to Militias, No to Baathism, No God but Allah.

No Stamps, Iraq

Image courtesy of

Although Saddam Hussein has been the most-featured man on Iraq’s stamps, the “No” set struck me as the most politically charged. Yes, Saddam’s face had appeared on a lot of stamps but from what I could find there seemed to be a distinct absence of powerful political messages that, I for one, found entirely unexpected.




The Brand Foundation is a Dubai-based branding agency that provides holistic, creative and strategic branding solutions that create long-term value. TBF’s speciality focus is real estate branding, emerging markets.


After the burial of Colonel Gaddafi this week – the symbolic end of his 42 year rule, I asked myself: “What countries will emerge from the Arab Spring and succeed in increasing tourism revenue streams and securing foreign investment?” I wondered where Iraq’s place would be within the context of the re-shaping that’s occurring in the Arab world? What I was sure about was that from a nation brand positioning point of view, safety and stability are pre-requisites to success.


In a very short period of time, numerous long-standing nation brands, their symbols, leaders and oppressive values have been booted out by their own citizens. The search for new, unified national identities and renewed values in largely tribal nations is on. Mammoth tasks. For Libya this is a new challenge, for Iraq, not so.


A coherent and unified national identity is vital for the economic success of these nations – for the long-term wellbeing of their people, not to mention regional and global political and economic stability. Crucially, it communicates stability and safety – which by default opens the floodgates to foreign investment and tourism. Apart from those with humongous appetites for risk – who wants to live, invest, work and holiday in unstable regions? Is this not what’s held Iraq back? Regardless of the improved situation on the ground the perception that Iraq is not particularly safe hasn’t changed much. Whether it has or not in reality – I don’t know, I’m talking about pure perception here.


Yes, Iraq’s turbulent history is unique, as are some of its domestic challenges, but its aims going forward mirror those of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and Jordan – to increase tourism (or put a new destination on the map) and foreign investment. Tourism is big business, attributing between 1 – 80% of national GDP’s worldwide, hence every government in the world wanting a sizeable piece of the pie.


Recent international news has been littered with images and sound bites about the enormous amount of construction underway (albeit stalled during the 8 month-long revolution) in Libya. The perception is that Libya wants progress and wants it fast – as do all the others.


There is already talk of aggressive campaigns as each nation seeks to position itself as the next big thing in tourism and boost GDP. There’s a race on, a race to re-shape and re-position the aforementioned nation brands. Who will unite for the greater national good? Which governments will seize the opportunities available to them? Who will not or cannot?


Changing perceptions is what nation branding does – and the closer the perception is to the reality the better. Nobody knows who will succeed on the new world tourism front yet, but something worth considering is the appetite size of those in the race.


Iraq isn’t the only nation in the region that’s re-positioning itself now – the competition is on the rise. Come on brand Iraq – take note!


The Brand Foundation is a Dubai-based branding agency that specialises in the real estate sector.

This blog was first published in Iraq Business News.

Recently, a client sent us a link to one of their competitors’ websites. He asked: “Why do you think this building is still empty – the brand looks good, the site is informative, the floors are handed over fitted out, visionary architecture, decent facilities management – what’s gone wrong?”

We’d already started investigating this particular building and, likewise the first impressions were pretty good. A great concept, the developer had invested in the branding, commissioned some great photos – complete with stylist input and models. It was packaged stylishly, and up went the website. Then, the developer sat back and waited for the tenants to roll in and sign up to their highly desirable product. It didn’t happen.

Here are a few reasons why we think it went south:

There’s a disconnection between the brand and the reality

The reality and the brand are as far apart as Bengal is to Southampton… and that’s quite a way! The building is pretty much constructed, but the brand was built on the promise of what the tower offers today, not in 2-5 years when the building and surrounding infrastructure was finished. Drive in to the building and you’ll see what we mean. You can’t. It’s impossible to access the car park. The few tenants occupying the building have to park a number of metres away from it, trawl through the sand, and dust down before starting work. Not good.










The premium brand positioning and leasing rates contradict each other

Premium brands command premium rates, regardless of whether you are buying a watch, car or a property – the principle is the same. If a real estate brand shouts about its construction and finishing standards, top notch facilities management, international architecture, etc you wonder why the leasing rates are rock bottom. If the product was a watch, you’d ask yourself: “Is this a fake, will it stop working after a month, what’s wrong with it?” In dropping the prices, perhaps they shot themselves in the foot? Lowered the value of the brand? Given off the wrong signals?

There’s no evidence of a marketing campaign

Armed with their wonderfully crafted product brand, it seemed to have stopped there. The website sits there doing nothing. We suspect the budget didn’t stretch to strategic marketing, or any marketing at all for that matter. Building a product brand and not marketing it is a grave mistake and a waste of money. Unless someone stumbles upon it by chance, who’s going to know about it? In this case, we searched Google for offices to rent in the masterplan – nothing came up apart from a 3rd party listing on page 4.

No construction updates for a year

Another oversight we often see is when real estate developers insist on having a news/construction update page that they don’t update for long periods of time. In this case, a year had passed. SEO issues aside, what message does this give off?

Lack of relevant messaging

This particular real estate brand screams style, style, style. We wonder if it’s a case of style over substance? We couldn’t find a single message within the literature that echoed anything other than style and vision. Largely de-sensitized to glitzy brochures, prospective tenants want to know more these days. Detail is king.

Don’t ignore the context

Although they may feel like it at times, developers can’t complete the work of the master developer. Tell prospective tenants what you are doing to lobby the developer to deliver their part of the deal. It’s a mistake to mislead and paint a rosy picture of a visionary masterplan if it’s still under construction.

Successfully branding and marketing real estate developments is a complex matter that requires a high level of strategic planning on all fronts – a surface-level branding exercise might look good, but lasting success requires a lot more than that.

When we meet prospective clients, we’re always asked: “how can you help us?”

Tell us your story to date – your challenges and successes and we will prepare you a bespoke proposal with your specific needs and budget in mind.

The Brand Foundation is a Dubai-based branding agency that specialises in the real estate sector.

The word ‘community’ is a common part of real estate marketeers lexicon these days.

Marketing buzz aside, what does community mean to you?

Has the reality lived up to the hype?

For better or worse, how has your real estate community enhanced your life? Has it enhanced your life?

We’d be delighted to hear your views as an end-user (tenant or owner).


The Brand Foundation is a Dubai-based branding agency that specialises in the real estate sector.

I recently wrote about the instant Libyan national identity change we all witnessed live on the news as the Libyan revolution fighters tore down the Gaddafi-designed green flag and replaced it with the red, green and black flag of the Libyan Republic. Instant re-branding witnessed by the world at large, and before the existing government was officially overthrown. These acts, broadcast worldwide symbolised national unity – the will of the people.

This inspired me to take a look at where Iraq was with regard to its flag, the carrier of its national identity. What a journey it’s been and from as far back as 1921. Even today, the Iraqi national identity issue has not been resolved. The flag that was introduced in 2008 as a temporary solution is still in use.

Post-invasion, it was speculated that the US had pressed for a change in the flag to disassociate it from Saddam’s Ba’ath Party and Pan-Arabism. Surely that was a no-no – foreigners (especially the West) imposing their will on an Arabic nation’s national identity? Is that not the very issue of contention that Arabs far and wide feel today, the imposing of western views and culture onto Arab societies?

However, to a degree it looks as though the Iraqi people haven’t been in agreement either, and haven’t done so for decades. This is a telling identity crisis, and not one attributed to western interference.

It is believed that Saddam, like Gaddafi had imprinted his touch on the Iraqi national flag (Flag Law No. 6 of 1991), by adding the words Allahu Akbar, which means “God is Great” in green. The Takbir, as it is known, was alleged to be in Saddam’s personal handwriting – an extreme, and highly personal statement of ownership/dictatorship. The Gaddafi-designed single colour flag seems tame in comparison.

The first flag of the Kingdom of Iraq was introduced by the pro-Hashemite monarchists in 1921. It was abolished in 1958 under the Iraqi and Jordanian, Arab Federation merger – this change lasted 6 months and ended during the 1958 revolution. In 1959 the Hashemite monarchy was abolished and Iraq became a republic. Yet another flag was adopted, which lasted until 1963 but is still flown in the Kurdish regions of Iraq.  1n 1963 the Ba’ath Party changed it again, Saddam changed it once more in 1986, and so the story continues… here we are in 2011 and the issue still remains unresolved.

The constant debate, changes and proposed changes to the Iraqi flag (16 in total since 1921) must have compounded a feeling of national uncertainty and probably still does.

Lisa Knight is Creative Director & Founder of The Brand Foundation, a Dubai-based branding agency. This blog was first published in Iraq Business News.

6.Your real estate brand is not an oasis
Presumably, you also have a corporate brand. Think about how project and corporate brands can compliment each other. What standards and values do they share? Leverage the strength of your development brand against the corporate brand, and vice versa. Create a brand architecture chart and clearly define the relationship. If you intend the two (or more) brands to stand alone, and some do, the rationale should be clear and solidly aligned with the future objectives of the company.

7. Listen and engage
Where real estate branding is concerned, listening and engaging with tenants, stakeholders, buyers and owner’s associations is paramount.

There’s nothing more damaging than when your real estate brand is positioned as offering a luxury, when the reality is that the maintenance team a) never turn up, b) turn up after a week, c) turn up after a week and cannot fix the problem, or even worse – there’s a sewage pipe nearby that omits a foul smell. This is why authentic brand positioning is vital, not to mention planning!

8. Think carefully before you jump on the bandwagon
If your development is a premium one, why charge 50AED per sq ft just because everyone else is? Look hard enough and you might find out just why the competition have dropped their prices so much – it may not always be attributable to market demands. Think about the possibility of long-term damage to the brand before you jump on the bandwagon. Once you bottom out on pricing it’s difficult to go up later. A tricky subject to generalize about, but if you truly have a premium product and can justify the price premium – stand firm.

9. Allow brand flexibility
Avoid rigid brand guidelines – markets and moods change. Rapidly. How many times have you been prevented from communicating a vital message because your brand guidelines don’t accommodate your ideas? It’s a fine line, I know, but you don’t want to be stuck with rigid guidelines that cannot flex organically – as you may need them to, especially during uncertain times. It’s best to see branding as a continuous corporate activity, extensions come and go as new opportunities arise. Don’t take your eye off the ball, even if you have just spent millions on a re-brand – that’s not the end of the story for 5 years, I’m afraid – not if you want to stay relevant and at the top of your game.

10. Be relevant
Stay current. Keep abreast of what’s going on locally and internationally – not just internally, in your corporate bubble. What are people talking about on the ground? What does a sustainable commercial real estate brand of the future look like? How do people wish to work in and contribute to their environments? What do they expect from you? The strategies of old might not cut it anymore. Neither does a surface-level branding approach.

The Brand Foundation is a Dubai-based branding agency that specialises in the real estate sector.

As Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound falls, within less than an hour of its infiltration there is already a momentus re-branding effort taking place on the ground – in the heart of Bab al-Aziziya Gaddafi’s single-colour green flags are being torn down and replaced with the horizontal-striped red, black and green Flag of the Libyan Republic, re-adopted by the National Transitional Council in March 2011.

This flag has history. It was first introduced in 1951.

As symbolic as flags are, only time will tell exactly what the Flag of the Libyan Republic stands for in 2011. The re-branding of Libya has just begun, nationally and internationally.

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