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No stain on Jewel Changi despite copying accusation, say industry players

Jewel Changi Airport has become a shining icon for Singapore. Making headlines, the establishment which reportedly cost SG$1.7 billion to build even had Singapore Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong touting it as one of the “instantly recognisable icons of Singapore”. Working hard to keep up the longevity of the buzz, CAG’s marketing teams even recently dished out dollars to embark on a musical content collaboration with singer-songwriter JJ Lin.

The complex, was said to bring to life Singapore’s reputation as a “city in a garden”. But amidst all its efforts, a shock came to many as headlines emerged that Jewel Changi Airport’s iconic design was a copy of Doha’s Hamad International Airport’s design. This acquisition was made by Qatar Airways CEO and Hamad International Airport CEO Akbar Al Baker who, without explicitly mentioning Jewel Changi, said to the media that the design was “copied by individuals from that country” and the main difference was that between the two was that “one is a shopping mall, and one is an international airport”.

International media outlets such as Bloomberg, South China Morning Post and Mashable all carried the news of the allegations made by the Qatar Airways CEO. The Singapore icon that was featured in the New York Times months ago as “a trip to the future”, was under the spotlight for a case of design theft.

However, the silver lining came as despite the outspoken CEO’s alleged accusations, netizens in Singapore seemed to be standing behind their home grown brand. According to the Meltwater’s research, the sentiment online was a balance of positive and neutral views. Meanwhile, Marketing’s readers voted on a poll on the initial article that they did find similarity between the two.

 

Edwin Yeo, general manager of SPRG told Marketing that he felt the allegations certainly added fuel onto skepticism of Singapore’s lack of creativity, but doubts that it had any “real damage” done to Jewel Changi. The accusations by the Qatar Airways CEO, in his view, was simply intended to draw attention to Hamad International Airport’s expansion plan – which worked as it became an international talking point. However, it was for only one news cycle.

“I would argue [the damage done was] not much, as it remains a marvel in architecture – no matter how one cuts it,” he said. Citing other examples, he was of the opinion that the Tokyo Tower looks similar to the one in Paris, but has not hurt Japan’s reputation much either.

Yeo also highlighted that Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al-Baker has a penchant for controversial comments, which should also be taken into consideration in the whole “copycat” fiasco.

In fact, just last year, the CEO had to tweet an apology through Qatar Airways’ official Twitter account for saying that only a man could hold his “challenging” job. This was a response he gave when the media posted a question on gender inequality in Middle East aviation. In his apology note, he said Qatar Airways believes in gender equality in the workplace, and is made stronger by its female employees whom he holds the highest regard. Prior to that, several media outlets reported about his unflattering description of US flight attendants as “grandmothers”, in contrast to the average age of 26 for cabin crew at Qatar Airways. Condemned as both sexist and ageist globally, Al-Baker then said in a BBC article that his “careless” remarks does not reflect his “true sentiments about cabin crew”.

“At the end of the day, this was a PR exercise for Hamad International Airport, but it might also have the effect of gaining more international awareness to the beauty of Jewel’s fountain as well,” Yeo said.

Echoing the same sentiment, Lars Voedisch, founder of boutique firm Precious Communications, said having this claim out there and circulated by credible media certainly raises eyebrows. But Jewel Changi has already “won” the race by being the first to the market, and speaking about its success to press.

He lauded Changi Airport Group’s CEO statement to the press as being factual, and taking the “high road”. Not acknowledging the allegations made is a good approach. According to Voedisch:

By not providing any further attack surface for the Qatar side, CAG takes the wind out of the whole debate.

Creativity is not just about original thinking. It’s about who gets there first.

From a design perspective, Katie Ewer, head of strategy, JKR Global said to Marketing that “placemaking is an important tool in country branding. Moreover, some of the most iconic buildings have become symbols for the values of cities or nations it represent. According to Ewer:

Buildings are like logos, they’re a symbol of the brand they represent and they hold meaning.

Despite the ‘copying’ allegations on Jewel Changi, Ewer said that this will not damage Singapore’s brand, as according to her, “Creativity is not just about original thinking. It’s about who gets there first.”

Citing the Eiffel tower, she explained that the tower was adopted by people all around the world as an emblem of democracy after the Charlie Hebdo extremist attack, while architect Zaha Hadid’s bird’s nest stadium in Beijing which was unveiled in 2008 (the year China hosted the Olympics) since become the country’s symbol of progress, innovation and international stature. Adding a local context, Ewer was also of the view that Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands have been touted by some as pivotal in transforming culture and business in the Little Red Dot.

Meanwhile, Andrew Crombie, managing director of Crombie Design said whilst there is conjecture about who came first, it is unlikely to stain the image of Singapore. He explained that in reality, Singapore’s design of Jewel has already been built, is operational and generating social buzz, while Qatar’s is yet to be.

“Regardless of who borrowed from whom, the one that is best executed in a unique overall experience will be raised to icon status as a leader and not a follower. It helps to first to establish the benchmark,” he said.

Crombie too agreed with Ewer that the uniqueness of the design is important to the branding of Jewel Changi Airport, but was quick to add that it is not the only thing.

“The context in which it is placed, and the overall experience also contributes to elevating a merely unique design to an international icon, and a ‘must visit’. The design of the Jewel is interesting and the water fountain and interior volumes quite awe-inspiring, but it is the theatre of the overall experience that takes your breath away and has you raving about it to others,” he added.

According to Crombie, there are several bridges such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, some which pre-date it, but none that match the former’s overall majesty.

There is only one Eiffel Tower yet plenty of similar designs from before and after.

“You need Sydney and Paris to complete the ‘uniqueness’ of their overall experiences,” he said.

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