Letter from your Thought Partners

As our readers may have noted, since its inception in 2004 Bidoun has evolved from a scrappy quarterly spurred by the sweat of its editors and a monthly check from a single benefactor into a slightly manic nonprofit that publishes books, curates exhibitions, organizes educational initiatives, and even has its own library. Now we run on paperwork, mountains of it, and the love of our six hundred (600) subscribers (whom we love right back: we lose money on each and every one of you!). Despite — or maybe because of — these changes, we’ve been doing some of our best work ever. But since becoming a nonprofit last year, with all its attendant stresses, we’ve been asking ourselves how we might improve Bidoun. Perhaps Bidoun will never be an all-powerful cultural megalith, but it could be (cue grant-speak) a fully sustainable organization, the kind of place that can afford to pay its monthly rent and salaries on time, and then some.

If we were a country, how would we exercise soft power in order to enhance Bidoun’s credibility in the global marketplace and desirability among international cultural elites? Our last issue, which was made in Cairo and evoked, through interviews and photographs and a wide range of ephemera, the ongoing Egyptian revolution, seemed to mark a turning point: we crafted an editorial voice that was inclusive, collective, and yet distinctively our own. How might we amplify this voice to appeal to a greater number of readers — not just those overeducated and undercapitalized youths in Cairo, London, Beirut, and so on, but the business people who sell to them, the gallerists who represent them, the diplomats who appreciate them? Could Bidoun be to Emirates what Monocle is to Lufthansa?

According to Branding for Dummies, “Commodity products become branded products, usually known as consumer brands, when a manufacturer wins awareness in the marketplace that its product has compelling characteristics that make it different and better than others in the product category.” We decided to speak with a number of prominent marketing and branding agencies around the globe for advice about how to narrate Bidoun’s compelling characteristics, to find out how they would change — no, position, leverage the equity of — Bidoun.

The agency credited in the below transcript is a composite character; the text is drawn from and inspired by — but not a record of — conversations and email exchanges that took place in February with firms whose clients include major magazines, megacorporations, and entire minor nations. Admittedly, we haven’t quite decided which strategy merits our investment. (Got some advice? Send it over to [email protected].) We hope you’ll stay with us as we continue to strategize and define our key success factors, because, as we’ve told the agencies, “Bidoun is uniquely situated to serve as a venue for some of the most pressing and exciting conversations of these times.”

—The Editors

Bidoun: We’re at a pivotal inflection point. Given the tremendous upheavals in the Middle East this past year, we want to capitalize on our existing brand but also expand, and engage in a much more international conversation. We’re thinking hard about what that brand is, what the Bidoun narrative is. We’d like an assessment of where we should be investing our energies, whether it’s in our visual culture, our editorial production, or… anything, really. We would welcome a robust critique of everything we do.

Agency: The concept of rebranding means different things to different people. A third of our clients are corporate brands, a third are trade associations, and a third are sovereign nations. We work a lot in the Middle East. Some of our clients have called us in and said, “We want to be legitimate.” We’re curious to know if you’ve done any initial thinking as to what a successful rebranding would mean to you.

Bidoun: Bidoun is highly respected, but also occupies a niche. We recognize the current moment as one in which we might speak to a much larger audience. A lot of us are Middle Eastern but grew up in the US or elsewhere; our relationship with the Middle East is a kind of sideways one. I think that’s quite powerful and unique and we’d like to channel that voice into something much larger.

Agency: How much do you see the magazine as coming from America and being an American magazine, regardless of the subject matter?

Bidoun: That’s a tough question. The fact that we’re so international might make it even more difficult to brand us. Bidoun is about the diaspora but also about people who live in Cairo, Beirut, and Jeddah. Our writers are from all around the world. It’s a very sui generis perspective. That’s the trick for us — how do we articulate that perspective? It’s almost postnational, or at least not limited to any one place. It’s forward-thinking cosmopolitanism as a way of life, but a cosmopolitanism that comes out of particular experiences.

But basically: We seek a dramatic shift, a reinvention that makes what Bidoun is and has been speak to a much wider array of readers and consumers. We’re very interested in thinking about emerging markets and societies, new stories, even a new visual culture for the magazine… We’re open to changing our logo, too. We think the name should stay, but who knows?

Agency: You’ve definitely picked the perfect time. We could step back and outline a strategy for reimagining Bidoun’s brand architecture — what to retain from the current brand, plans for growth, hierarchy, global advertising. Then we could move on to a complete redesign of the magazine.

Bidoun: We are so open to that. Especially our logo.

Agency: That’s great, that’s very helpful. It gives us great direction. So to what extent have you done qualitative or quantitative research to understand the appetite for your brand in various markets, and which of the brand’s current strengths do you want to maintain?

Bidoun: Very little. We have a pretty simple press kit with reader demographics. Our subscription base is quite small. And we’re totally open to raising the subscription rate because we actually lose money on subscriptions.

Agency: Monocle is a really good example of a magazine that has grown to be a brand that reaches far beyond the printed magazine itself, between the website and films and product collaborations and stores and new radio station, Monocle 24. There’s certainly a lot to learn there.

Bidoun: We want Bidoun to be a must-read in the same way that Monocle is a must-read for a certain crowd — or at least a fixture in certain bathrooms. We want Bidoun to be an integral part of the identity of a certain demographic, and required reading for multiple demographics. We want to be in all the bathrooms. We just need help in figuring out how to get there.

Agency: We recently did a quarterly publication for Abercrombie & Fitch, which is a real departure for us. They called us in and said, “We don’t just want to titillate these kids, we want to actually tell them that we understand the things that they care about and show that we’re connected to their needs.” So we prepared about fifty pages for them — a lot of beautiful stories, and even some illustration.

Bidoun: Not to compare ourselves to Abercrombie & Fitch, but when you think of them you think of images of these cheesy guys with their shirts off and other kinds of youth-culture clichés, and, in a different but not totally unrelated way, we deal with clichéd images, too, from terrorism to unchecked opulence to chintzy oil culture to veiled women. We’d like to address these clichés in our rebranding strategy.

Agency: With your Middle East focus, there is infinite possibility in that realm. There seems to be a trend with a lot of our Middle Eastern clients, for example, to really want to get the word out there that what’s being shown in the media is not really how life is. Nobody is out there saying, Hey you know what, there’s some of the most incredible art in the world in Bahrain. Or in Saudi Arabia. It’s a wonderful story to tell.

Bidoun: We are definitely all about telling stories that aren’t being told in the mainstream media.

Agency: How do you go about acquiring subscribers? Have you done direct mail or advertising?

Bidoun: Yeah, no. It’s basically word of mouth. We speak to a very small community of really interesting people.

Agency: That’s very helpful for us. Is advertising something you’re considering? Cartier or Louis Vuitton? There is so much capital in the Middle East and luxury brands have outposts there, too. You could do advertorials.

Bidoun: Absolutely. There’s so much capital in the Middle East!

Agency: So what’s your business model if neither ads nor subscriptions are paying for the editorial work?

Bidoun: Applying for grants and cultivating forward-thinking patrons. But we’d like to have a powerful subscription and sales model. We probably sent the magazines around for free too much in the past.

Agency: What are some other measures of success in terms of business outcomes?

Bidoun: We’d like everyone who has some sort of relationship to the Middle East — whether they have a grandfather who came from Lebanon or went on a trip once to Cairo, whether diplomat or DJ — to be reading, or at least aware of, the magazine. We want a significant increase in advertising revenues. We want amplified press coverage of what we’re doing, too. Everyone should be writing and blogging and tweeting about us.

Agency: I appreciate your candid answers. I know sometimes these things are tough to talk about. We have a team of experts that is consistently reaching out to specific target markets in the Middle East and of Middle Eastern descent through our sovereign-nations work. Whether we’re doing elite advertising, marketing and rebranding, or public affairs for a major corporation, we have the ability to blur that line, which is not only exciting for us but pretty rare. We fully anticipate taking advantage of that, not just to deliver tangible business outcomes in terms of increased subscription rates and revenues, but also just because it’s fun. As much as we like talking to blue jean and cereal companies, doing something new and different like this is what gets us out of bed in the morning.

Bidoun: Do you think there is great potential here, given our arts-and-culture brief and Middle East focus, for expansion and wider visibility? How do we stand?

Agency: Absolutely. I’m pretty plugged into the art scene in New York, and I see that art sales are in a significant upswing right now. That’s usually an important indication of future economic trends. I think people are reengaging and getting out of survival mode, starting to enjoy the world a little bit more. In terms of the Middle East, this is an extraordinary time to leverage a changing socioeconomic landscape and a community that is increasingly capitalizing on powers of communication through word of mouth — which is very important to your brand — and social media. There’s a new ability to express that in the marketplace, a new empowerment; it’s absolutely the right time to capitalize on that. So as far as timing, I’d say we’re both looking at the same dartboard and we’re both looking at a bull’s eye.

Bidoun: We know it will take some time.

Agency: Just from experience — you tell me if this is a good hypothesis or not as we move forward — but what I’ve typically found helpful in these sort of conversations is just a high-level synopsis of everything that we could do from you know, almost if you think of the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, you know — this one is too small, this one is too big, this one is just right… Sure, we can come up with things that are just right to help position Bidoun in the next twelve months, but also come up with some wild and crazy ideas that bolster to the back of that. I’ve found that that gives you a bit of leg, internally, as you stand up and sell a rebranding effort, to be like, here are all the different things we can do, and then scale this back to a realistic option. Rather than just providing some realistic options and leaving that as the conversation. Would that be a helpful approach for you?

Bidoun: Could you maybe rephrase that?

Agency: Well, let me ask the inevitable question. You know, in terms of, what scale we’re talking about, it’d be helpful to hear the ballpark range in which you’re comfortable in asking for an investment. We know that the media has such a narrow lens on so many places and our clients are realizing that they have to get their voice out there in order to fix that. And in a lot of ways then the people who are more extreme can’t really counter back because they don’t have that ability to kind of get out there and get on television or in magazines or whatever. And yours is just, you know… your magazine is beautiful. Gorgeous cover. We’re happy to be your thought partners.