OPINION: Shrewd football tactics prove worth of PR for Dubai complex

It's not often that PR proves itself to be the ultimate communications tool, Dubai provides the location for a best-practice case study in marketing, and Manchester United defender Gary Neville becomes a poster child. But they all happened last week in a single surprising moment of marketing genius.

A few months ago, Saeed Ahmed Saeed, managing director of The Palm, must have been pleased with the progress being made on the extraordinary development off the coast of Dubai. After two years of unprecedented construction, the reclamation stage of The Palm, Jumeirah, was complete. More than 100 million cubic meters of rock and sand, 40 luxury hotels, 5000 luxury apartments, shopping malls, health spas and dive sites were rapidly approaching completion.

But Saeed must have also felt some trepidation. Now he had to fill the resort with customers. The Palm, which was due to open at the end of 2005, was aimed at foreign as well as domestic consumers. How should it be marketed?

The development was incredibly impressive in scale, but it was going to take more than satellite photos to get consumers to consider buying one of these apartments and putting down a deposit.

Step forward Hill & Knowlton. Like any good PR agency, and in contrast to its cousins in advertising, its activities are steeped in silence. But we can ascertain a few things. It certainly would have advised Saeed that PR's combination of subtle awareness-generation made it an ideal communication method for The Palm.

It also probably advised Saeed on a change of emphasis from promoting the remarkable structural dimensions of the project to one that focused on the benefits of The Palm from a consumer point of view. It may even have come up with the idea of using celebrity endorsement to build awareness of the development. It was also probably responsible for the approach made to the England football squad to enquire whether they were interested in a special deal on property at The Palm. With an affirmative in place from Beckham, Owen and eight others in the squad, Saeed then asked Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, chairman of The Palm, to approve a steep discount. The Sultan agreed and the deal was struck.

Hill & Knowlton could now spring into action. A press release was dispatched that included a story element - Beckham and Co buy villas next door to one another; photographs - a pensive Neville surveying a scale model of the resort; and the corporate content - the story of The Palm's construction, design and availability. The press release was timed to come out in the slipstream of Beckham signing for Real Madrid in July, when papers are hungry to fill their column inches.

And what inches they were: more than one million pounds of advertising equivalency consisting of stories about the England team purchase, which then spawned further stories on The Palm itself and then on the growing attractiveness of Dubai. The cost? Ten apartments (from a total of 5000) and Hill & Knowlton's very well-earned retainer.

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