This has been a post brewing in my mind for some time and I think blogger Razan Khatib beat me to the punch a few days ago by writing briefly about the topic, so you should definitely give hers’ a read.
One of the side effects from the market liberalization that’s taken place these past few years has been the entry of various international players with well recognized logos and products. Increasingly we’re seeing new places that sell 4JD cups of coffee, including Starbucks, Costa, Seattle’s Best Coffee, JavaU, all of which have popped up in less than 2 years. Other chains coming into the country, particularly in the fast food and casual dining category, have included everything from Hardees and Subway to Fuddruckers, Applebees and TGIF’s; again, all in the past 2 years. It makes me wonder: what has happened in the past 24 months or so, that has made Jordan such a lucrative place for these places? They are, for the most part, seem to be working out well. There are customers; there is apparently a market. It could be due to the increase in Gulf tourists who find these international brands familiar. Displaced Iraqis may have something to do with it as well. I’m not sure it’s just one reason.
At the same time, I’ve noticed a unique trend: many Jordanians are sticking with local brands in the midst of this international influx. Some are doing it because they are more affordable, others are doing it out of loyalty; an economic protectionist policy on the social level (if you will). It’s pretty grassroots and it’s not always subtle. Cups & Kilos has bumper stickers that read “I Get My Coffee At Cups & Kilos”, which I admit, I have plasters on my old laptop that I carry just about everywhere. And while abroad, people ask me “What the heck is Cups & Kilos?” and so I start telling them about the place and how it started, and in fact, describing this entire post to them, which eventually makes them regret asking in the first place.
While in Toronto I noticed a similar thing. However, for Canadians, the local identity is much more important and thus Canadians are more likely to be more protective than us. This is mainly due to three important factors: 1) many Canadian brands are historical institutions by now, 2) many Canadians define themselves as the non-Americans, hence will do anything different from America just to preserve that identity, and finally 3) most Canadians can afford it. Tim Hortons, a huge Canadian chain specializing in donuts and coffee, is probably the best example of the above scenario and even though its been sold to an American company (Wendy’s, if I’m not mistaken) it is recognized as a Canadian brand. The commercials they run are somewhat nationalistic and the same can be said of Canadian beer brands, which I find to be extremely nationalistic, one of which inspired a whole new phenomenon in the country. Other companies, such as the clothing brand Roots, which did remarkably better in the American markets for a very long time, have returned to Canada to rebrand themselves as exclusively Canadian – or to use their cliche, having “roots” in Canada. This situation, if you want to call it that, has only really been noticeable the past decade or so in Canada, post-NAFTA, where many American brands have been trying to take advantage of the new market setup and break in to the Canadian market.
This is where I find similarities with Jordan and its signing of the FTA and ascension to the WTO (along with general economic policies).
Some of our brands are not as popular nor as widespread or even institutionalized, and some, such as Hashem, have no fear of ever losing ground to an international conglomerate (although I’m told the Japanese make a killer falafal).
Brands do have a sense of nationalistic identity to them. For instance, there is a great deal of annoyance, especially in Palestine, over the Israeli takeover of nationalistic foods and marketing them as Israeli inventions, such as the falafal sandwich, humus and “pita” bread, which we locally refer to as “Arabian” bread.
The whole loyalty scenario gets a jolt every few years whenever we see mass scale boycotting of foreign goods, but I haven’t seen anything on such a level since the 2002 Jenin massacre that saw a surge in popularity for Jordanian and Syrian imported colas, and a widespread boycott of Pepsi and Coke, as shawarmeh and local fast food places began franchising to meet the market demands who were busy boycotting McDonalds, Burger King (hence Day3a, Reem and Hashem all finding new territory to grow). It was around this time many international restaurants went bankrupt or withdrew from the market, including Fuddruckers and Subway (both of which have returned). In this category, Chili House is by far considered a national treasure for the age group of 17-30; a perception that seemed to emerge largely post second-intifada in 2000 that was followed so closely by the Jenin massacre in 2002.
There are many other examples, but you get the point.
I tend to wonder the extent to which these local brands can survive with the onslaught of international conglomerates that have massive backing and funding arriving on the scene every year. Especially when considering that some of these places, such as Cups & Kilos for example, have not been around long enough to be firmly considered as a Jordanian institution, and especially since these types of places do not play on the “Jordanian” theme similar to, for instance, the Canadian example cited above which has given way to the red maple leaf plastered on nearly every imaginable product (cups, coffee, beer, clothes, etc).
Moreover, prices have been going up rapidly. Many of the local brands can no longer afford to keep their prices cheap, which was one of main reasons they had so many customers. The conglomerates can mass produce and economies of scale help keep their prices relatively cheaper, or at the very least on par with the prices of local brands.
Another problem is that local brands are hard to identify sometimes. They look like they might as well be foreign.
This only begs my second question: should these franchises start playing the nationalistic card and drum up some local loyalty that way?