06 January 2010

What Kind of Lighthouse Identity is This?

If December 31st marked the end of a decade we'd rather forget, then the official opening of the world's tallest skyscraper on January 4th seems intent on heralding the dawn of a decade to remember. (Watch a YouTube clip of the opening ceremony's awesome fireworks display by clicking on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qe304CiT6zo&feature=related) The question is, for what will we remember this year and this decade?

Hold that thought for a second. First, the facts: Burj Khalifa, with its 160 stories served by 57 elevators, tops off at 828 metres, surpassing by far the previous tallest tower in the world, Taipei 101 which stands at all of 509 metres. (Wonder how much they have to pay window-washers to entice them up to clean the 24,348 external windows.) The building can accommodate 25,000 people at any one time. Five years in construction, it is a symbol of Dubai's endeavour to diversify from an oil-based economy to one that is tourism- and service-oriented.

Indeed, the world's tallest skyscrapers all seem to be built in tandem with a country's growing economic ascendancy and the local government's efforts to garner international recognition and investment. Just think about Taipei 101 and a previous record-holder, the Petronas Towers.

But here's the thing: The Burj Khalifa could not be launched at a more awkward time in Dubai's history. The city-state has fallen on hard times over the past year or two, caused by the twin torpedoes of the global financial implosion as well as the collective (over)ambition of Dubai's leaders and an expat community paying over-inflated prices for the good life. (You can read a vivid account of Dubai's troubles in a Fast Company article at http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/38/exodus.html). This latest landmark had to be renamed (it was formerly known as Burj Dubai) in honour of the current ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the United Arab Emirates, which has had to inject billion-dollar bailouts at critical junctures to keep the project alive. The current massive real estate collapse means that the Burj Khalifa is likely to stay empty for the forseeable future.

I blogged in an earlier post about the competitive advantage of projecting a lighthouse identity -- so that others can know what you stand for, unequivocally. So what kind of lighthouse identity is this signature tower projecting? An iconic, aesthetically attractive and functionally superior symbol of a nation's stature ... or, as a recent Los Angeles Times article more bluntly describes, "the latest in a string of monuments to architectural vacancy"?

Two thoughts occur to me:
1. This is the perfect commercial address for marketers with a long-winded elevator pitch.
2. What are their contingency plans to evacuate someone from the 160th storey in an emergency? (Note to brand marketers: Have a crisis management plan in place.)

On a more grounded note, timing and credibility have as much to do as the nuts and bolts of brand identity (what you say and do as a brand, and how you say and do it) when it comes to crafting and communicating a sustainable brand image. On one level, I can empathize with the building's owners: What would you have done in their shoes? (Post a comment and share your views.) The Burj Khalifa would probably have been universally well-received five years ago ... but the brand story of the Burj unravels for me in these turbulent times; and I, for one, would not want it to be the posterboy for this new decade.

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