Comment: international design, domestic market

Sanjay Murthy says it's possible to find great designers in the local market

Opinion, Columnists

By and large it was the norm 30, 20, or maybe as few as 10 years ago, to look outside the region for specialists to design (and sometimes also operate) your food business. Local branding companies were generally unheard of in the Middle East and working to international standards was not to be expected in the developing region. Jump forward to today — is this still the case? I think not.

With the entire region racing towards maturity, it seems more and more branding, design and interior agencies are springing up almost daily, and I find myself wondering what, if any, are the benefits of flying in internationally recognised western brands with no local offices? Are they any different from our home-grown counterparts or the international companies that have invested in and held an established presence in the region for many years now?

Surely the only logical reason for hiring them is the belief that we will get a more creative/better solution for our food outlet, which will help it become a successful global brand. Well, if this is the case, I disagree.

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Emerging local talent is unrecognisable from a couple of decades ago and undoubtedly able to compete on a world stage.

So how do we go about developing our brands into globally recognised names? Emirates and Etihad have both successfully connected with global consumers but where are the local TGI Friday’s, Costa or Burger King equivalents? With everyone so keen to expand into the Middle East, there must be an opportunity for us to expand into the west. If attitudes remain set on bringing over western companies to design our brands how can we expect to change the game?

Let us rewind a second here. Before we take on the world, let us first get it right at home. We are a complex marketplace — many different nationalities, cultures and religions all sharing a common love of food. Which brings me to my next question; do the international specialists truly understand the market, and the wants and needs of a Middle Eastern consumer?

These western brands, while undeniably successful, have enjoyed the majority of their success in their home country, a country that they know, one their style is designed for and the customers respond to. Is it right to copy and paste that in the Middle East, and will it ultimately work? I have no doubt the initial outcome would be a stylish design, likely based on global trends such as the polished steel and wood finishings but will it stand the test of time?

An example that comes to mind to illustrate this, while not referencing an actual agency, is Noma; the best restaurant in the world, yet impossible to recreate anywhere else as its success is firmly based on the fresh vegetables and herbs foraged from the land surrounding the restaurant. You could replicate the design of the restaurant easily enough but you could never understand the food and the true personality outside of the original.

I’m not suggesting we ignore the global market, but rather, let us learn from the international trends then carve our own identity. After all, the Middle East is known for its brave, outspoken characteristics... so why follow when we can create and let others copy instead?

Sanjay Murthy is the managing director of Figjam, the Dubai-based food & beverage agency. Figjam combines the disciplines of branding, interior design and operations to deliver complete design solutions. Visit

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