Re-Enchanting Cultural Meaning in Dubai with Live Semiotics App, Cymbol

This week Space Doctors are presenting at ESOMAR MENAP 2017. In the heart of the so-called ‘City of Gold,’ Kourosh Newman-Zand will be investigating how our Live Semiotics app Cymbol can re-enchant brand meaning and engage with key influencers in the region.


Semiotics identifies the dominant visual stories in-market that often obscure the emerging culture, behaviours and expectations of consumers. Without a research strategy that sees through dominant stories, to capture and harness live cultural change, brands can become short-sighted and easily lose touch with competitors setting the pace.

The risk of ‘cultural lag’ is particularly acute in a city like Dubai with its extraordinary hyper-accelerated growth. Blink and you’ll miss the latest record-beating skyscraper.

For such a dynamic city, Dubai’s visual culture is dominated by a few over-bearing and slow-moving stories. Together, they risk obscuring real and meaningful cultural change in the city.

The Mirage of Luxury

The first dominant story is that Dubai is a distant and mythical mirage. Consider ‘The Royal Mirage Hotel’ or ‘The Atlantis Hotel.’ It’s most often adopted by resorts selling Dubai as a luxury pool-side leisure destination. In the 1990s Dubai re-defined the global luxury market, but we have to ask whether this image of superlative leisure resonates any longer with the contemporary resident and visitor to Dubai.

Burj Al Arab – leave the Ordinary Behind, 2011

Traditional Arabia

The second story is a frequent retreat into a traditional and ‘pre-growth’ version of Emirati identity. Wholesome family units, strong camels, starry night skies and falcon hunting offered stability and reassurance when all around residents, the vertigo of accelerated growth kicked in. Though this story played an important role in the genesis of Dubai, it is now less capable of resonating with a younger audience who hold no such memories of pre-boom Dubai.

City of Dubai, Spirit of Dubai, 2016

The Pleasure Dome

Thirdly, and most memorably for those with even the briefest understanding of the city is the story of Dubai as a palatial site of indulgence and material excess.. Full of glitzy supercars, lush golf courses and water parks sprouting from a barren desert.

Supercars in Dubai, 2013

These dominant – now overplayed – stories served Dubai well during the periods of hyper-accelerated growth, encouraging a huge boom in tourism and trade. However for those of us working with brands in 2017, dominant stories are holding us back from growing and stimulating Dubai’s brand and visual culture. They seem to do little to connect us with the real experiences of Dubai’s residents and consumers.

We need to find research avenues that see beyond these over-bearing stories, to help brands participate in a more meaningful future for the region. At MENAP 2017 we will show how Cymbol connects us with the influencers that are making a difference. And how we can use Cymbol to re-enchant the visual culture of Dubai.

Our Cymbol network in Dubai is a set of passionate, creative and inquisitive residents and consumers – with the app in hand, they captured and told us some of the stories and experiences in the city that are stitching together a new fabric.

Away from the hustle and bustle, new master-plan building developments encourage a more intimate and purposeful way of life. Emaar’s Dubai South construction say their city is “based on happiness of the individual.” And Al Barari ask us to “Feel. Live. Breathe.”

At Alserkal Avenue, Dubai’s arts and culture hub, the Cymbol network captured community-friendly creativity. Far from the pool-side luxury of Dubai’s seafront hotels, graphic designers, animators and artists at studios such as FN Designs and 1×1 Gallery are redefining the city’s economy and building a new, collaborative identity.

Josh Cox is co-founder of Sole DXB, the UAE’s first home-grown urban and contemporary culture platform. Each year they host Sole DXB, a flagship event staging Dubai as a convergent point for global urban culture. Hosting brands such as Nike, Puma, Adidas, Caddilac, Stussy and many more. Sole DXB work on collaborations for product merchandise, content and spatial experience. Josh spoke to us via Cymbol to explain how his experience of hip hop, fashion and design has led to a mature and sophisticated Dubai-grown movement with its own localised mark.

Brownbook are another success story to have emerged from Dubai’s creative scene. Brothers Rashid and Ahmed bin Shabib have brought to life a contemporary, Middle Eastern design approach in a beautiful magazine sold on shelves around the world. The magazine celebrates the local and intimate experience of life in the city. Exploring forgotten and derelict buildings from Dubai’s infancy, and shining a spotlight on local creators, designers and foodies.

Drawing together the personal material, conversations and insights of Dubai’s influencers, we can paint an emergent story of Dubai that celebrates authenticity, creativity and intimacy. Cymbol reached beyond the stale dominant stories into a secret Dubai that may not be so secret for much longer. It found the cultural experiences and activities at the peripheries of Dubai that are shaping the future of the city.

For brands wishing to develop a direct line to this emerging culture, holding ongoing and live conversations with the passionate and engaged influencers shaping tomorrow’s Dubai is crucial. Blink and you’ll miss them.

—Kourosh Newman-Zand