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.

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.

Multinational brands have been and continue to land in Iraq, attractive to Iraqi nationals perhaps due to the trade embargos of the past, and Saddam’s dislike of Iraqi’s owning western brands. It is hardly surprising that brands that were formerly unavailable domestically are now desirable. The ever-increasing number of global brands being marketed domestically via an equally increasing number of media channels is testament to the domestic appetite for global brands. In that respect, the days of old are truly over.

When you think about the influx of incoming international brands, on the surface at least Iraq doesn’t differ greatly from most emerging nations, but on the homegrown front it appears to. What about Iraq’s domestic brands? Where are they? Who are they? How do Iraqi brands fare in the pan-Arab world, and what about internationally? Is a pan-Arab or global presence important at this precise moment in time? Organisations seeking international affiliations may say yes, and others may think not.

You could argue that Iraq’s situation is unique, and that Iraq is not an emerging economy but a re-emerging economy with a domestic re-building focus right now, a collective inward-looking strategy if you like. Perhaps local brands are seeking to position themselves domestically before brand Iraq as a nation brand is re-defined and opens the doorway for Iraqi brands to enter and compete on a global stage? Makes sense, I guess.

However, the time will come when Iraqi brands seek and will own a place on the global stage, and even if that thought remains in the back of your mind for now, better it be there than not at all.

This blog was first published in Iraq Business News.

Since 2007 Iraq has witnessed a number of multinationals setting up regional operations – GE, Daimler Benz, Shell, and global finance and banking institutions such as J. P Morgan Chase and Citibank publicly proclaiming an interest in the Iraqi financial sector, its only a matter of time before a cross-sector multinational influx occurs.

How does a multinational go about presenting itself to an Iraqi population of approximately 28 million people? Iraq, unlike the UAE or Saudi Arabia has a significant amount of historical baggage, local perceptions of large western organizations are unclear at such an early stage of re-development, and the idea of a multinational being welcomed with open arms is not guaranteed – neither is global brand recognition a given in a country that has largely been shut off from western media.

With the possibility of political baggage being directly associated with big, foreign businesses, especially those that are US or British owned, does entering Iraq mean a major brand positioning exercise is required?

In the case of Iraq, I believe it should. The Iraqi market is to be entered sensitively, with tact, diplomacy and an acute cultural awareness of the impact of a turbulent history. Imposing your tried-and-tested western brand on this market with disregard for its troubled past and cautious nationals could be an opportunity missed.

In the marketing and branding world, getting to know your customers has always been a vital research activity that helps you develop an appropriate brand dialogue, in Iraq the concept remains the same, however it isn’t a small market segment one is analyzing it’s a population of tens of millions of people, the majority of which are potentially receptive to your proposition, provided you get the dialogue right – and dialogue, not just identity is key.

Understanding their purchasing habits, lifestyle traits, beliefs and customs will lead you to appropriate solutions, including when and where to interact and what tone of voice to adopt. A bi-lingual logo isn’t enough to say “Hello/Salam, we’re here – we speak your language, so trust us,” – a far more considered, sophisticated approach is needed to achieve a deep-routed penetration whereby in time trust is established between your organization and your new customers.

Localization is just that. Local. Methods that work in other parts of the world, or other parts of the Middle East may or may not be appropriate for Iraq.

This blog was first published in Iraq Business News, where the discussion continued

National branding is a vital strategic activity undertaken by governments worldwide, in emerging & established nations, the impact of which goes far beyond tourism – it has the power to dramatically alter the economic landscape and attract major foreign investment, dramatically impacting the lives of its citizens.

How does a re-emerging nation get it right without resorting to modern-day propaganda? How can Iraq weaken the popular global perception that doing business in Iraq is simply too risky? Firstly, doing business in Iraq must become less risky and the future Iraq brand must align who it is with who it says it is.

What role do Iraqi people believe their country should play in the world? Just what does Iraq stand for? Should Iraq ignore its recent past & tuck it away or should it be compared to its current standing and utilized as a tool to demonstrate progress?

How far back does one look, pre-Saddam, pre-invasion, what about the countries rich heritage?

As a result of Iraq’s troubles, past and present – the world is watching, waiting – mass media coverage is a given, as interest in what shape Iraq forms in the future is mammoth. The stage is set, but what’s the message?

Back in 2006 Iraqi-Kurdistan positioned itself as ‘the other Iraq,’ the peaceful, and relatively troop-less Iraq. Regardless of how successful that campaign was, surely Iraq could do without further comparisons that stoke the fire of instability.

Despite the efforts of the government over the last 2 years, maybe the time isn’t right for a fully-fledged Iraqi tourism campaign and perhaps a revitalized brand Iraq is a decade away, but nonetheless the dialogue needs to begin – the debate needs to be had.

When looking to the future of brand Iraq, perhaps looking back to the distant past isn’t such a bad idea.

What’s your vision of brand Iraq?

This blog was first published in Iraq Business News.

In the Arabic world family name is important – family names are ‘brands’ with real stories, history, notoriety and respect. This is particularly the case in Iraq, a nation very much at the beginning of an onslaught of international brands – some seeking associations with the big family names of Iraq and others planning strategies to apply local relevance to their global brands with the objective of penetrating the Iraqi market.

Recently, I asked an Iraqi businessman why they had removed their family name from the business and adopted a western/international brand name. I expected them to retort with; ‘It was part of our strategy to go global and attract international investors,’ which in part it was, or is now, but the predominant reason, which, incidentally was made about 7 or so years ago came as a bit of a surprise to me.

They went on to explain that in Saddam’s era kidnapping was big business, and by using your family name as your brand name (as was the norm) you were essentially handing the would-be kidnappers an ideal target list; ‘Hello, my name is Mr So-and-So, our business is very successful… come and find us, we can afford to pay your ransom fee’. Targeting successful family businesses was a fairly safe bet for those in the business of kidnapping for money.

As one would expect, in some instances Iraqi businessman distanced the family name from the business. From a branding point of view, it could be considered an absolute disaster – take away the name – take away the history, right? Of course, not everybody removed the family name altogether, but for those that remained in Iraq, creating a distance between your family name and your business was a necessary, protective measure. Some went further than that and fled the country altogether.

Brands are forever changing names, adding extensions and developing sub-brands as strategic facilitators, but in the historical context of Iraq the reasons were altogether more fundamental. Whoever thought branding was merely a commercial activity, free from the influence of politics and in Iraq’s case, crime – might be rudely awakened. If ever there was a strong rationale for a re-brand, surely this was it!

An ironic twist of fate is that as Iraqi brands now seek to establish stronger local and overseas associations, the brand revisions they implemented for sheer familial safety in the past may very well assist them in their future endeavors.

This blog was first published by Iraq Business News and was later picked up by Brand Channel, where you’ll see a discussion about the issue.

%d bloggers like this: