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National Geographic, Other Global Brands Convey Shared Values

May 4, 2011

By Terry Adamson

Wael Ghonim is the 30-year-old Google marketing manager in Egypt who received considerable attention for his role in this year’s popular uprising in Egypt. At a recent TED conference, he reflected, “No one in Egypt was a hero; everyone was a hero; everyone contributed something.”

The ever expanding tide for more open societies is both historical, and a continuum. New communication technologies have helped strengthen collective action around protest movements, particularly most recently in Egypt and Tunisia. But there is another important ingredient in these demands for a better world and better institutions that is less recognized and that has been an influencing factor in the periphery: an increasing global desire for better quality of life resulting from products, values, education, and transparent institutions.

Was it not a plus to Ghonim’s credibility in the eyes of many that the youthful and self-effacing leader was known by his association with Google? Are not common values and beliefs discussed and fostered around tables at the local Starbucks in Cairo or Beijing? Or that cohesion and grounding and some synthesis of ideas flow from products and brands, whether emanating from Canon or Sony, Ford or Boeing, Apple or Microsoft, the NBA or PGA, the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, or National Geographic.

At National Geographic this past October, we launched an Arabic edition of National Geographic Magazine in a venture with Abu Dhabi Media Company. As a 120-year-old non-profit organization with a mission to inspire people to care about the planet and its people, National Geographic’s ability to bring that mission to people in their own languages is extraordinarily important. We now have 33 language editions of the magazine, in addition to English. I was surprised to learn that our new Arabic distribution in Egypt continued to grow during the early months of this year, even while the upheavals there were at their most intense. The established name brand no doubt helped, but a major part of the calculus is the thirst of a populace for credible, non-biased information about the world.

While thinking about this, vivid memories of an evening several years ago in Jakarta come to mind. I was privileged to be part of a celebration on March 25, 2005, for the launch of the Bahasa edition of National Geographic Magazine in collaboration with our partner PT Gramedia. It was just a few months after the devastating tsunami in coastal South Asia. It was happenstance that this event coincided with our global magazine cover and the subject of a television documentary on the National Geographic channel: a photograph of a skull found on the Indonesian island of Flores of a new species, homo floresiensis,  a woman more than 18,000 years old we affectionately called “Flo.”

homo floresiensis

Above, a skull found on the Indonesian island of Flores of a new species, homo floresiensis, a woman more than 18,000 years affectionately called “Flo.”

Flo, or “Hobbit” as some called her, was with us that night, along with some of the Indonesian archeologists responsible for finding her. Also participating was the democratically elected president of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. I learned at dinner that President Yudhoyono was a long-time subscriber to the English-language edition of National Geographic Magazine from his days as a student at Webster University in the United States. (Though he did later tell me that he would now switch over to the Bahasa edition.)

Terry Adamson meets Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

Terry Adamson, right, greets Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at a celebration to launch the Bahasa edition of National Geographic Magazine.

During the course of the evening, President Yudhoyono received a message at our dinner table that a serious earthquake had just struck the island of Nias, located on the western end of Sumatra. The news led him to talk in his remarks about an article in an old issue of National Geographic that he had seen on the unique culture of Nias, which I only later discovered was published in August 1931.

Such an occasion is quite sobering on one level and satisfying on another. Stewards of global brands that hope to build value for people around the world in all countries, cultures, and beliefs have the responsibility of sustaining and building that reputation by delivering quality products. One important byproduct is the possibility of contributing through these shared common attributes that are associated with our brands to the sea tide of events emerging through the Middle East and Asia.

Terry Adamson is executive vice president of the National Geographic Society. He is a trustee and former chair of The Asia Foundation’s Board of Trustees. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Indonesia
Related topics: Arab Unrest



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