Media & Entertainment

August 20, 2017,   11:00 AM

The Secret To The Success Of Elissa Lies In More Than A Love Song

Nadia Al-Dhahir


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As the Middle East’s “Queen of Romance”, Elissa’s records have made her one of the Arab World’s most loved artists. As an astute businesswoman and powerful role model, her influence has also made her one of its most recognized and respected ambassadors.

Having sold over 30 million albums worldwide, with a reported estimated wealth of over $41 million and well over 43 million followers on social media, Elissa has built a reputation that’s both fierce and elegant.

But her value can be measured in more than dollars or followers—she’s also an outspoken advocate of women’s rights, a fashion icon and an admired voice among music industry heavyweights. It’s little wonder she finds herself so busy.

In her role as Arab music superstar, Elissa today is working on her new album, set for release in 2018, as well as preparing for concerts in Paris, Lebanon and Egypt, and gearing up to retake her seat as a judge on the next series of X-factor Arabia.

In her role as the face and symbol of some of the biggest companies in the Middle East, she is equally industrious. In May this year, she announced that she is the new face of Freshlook Air Optix Colors, an innovative line of cosmetic contact lenses.

Within two months of the announcement, chatter around it had accumulated over 17,000 tweets, retweets and likes on Twitter.

That is the kind of influence that brands dream of. And it is the latest in a long line of endorsements that have seen Elissa capitalize on her icon status. But she doesn’t give her name away lightly. As Mazen Hayek, MBC Group’s official spokesman says, “Elissa knows how to say no”.

Her rule is a simple one: brands must represent her as well as she represents them.

Representing Elissa is no easy task. She is known to be bold and controversial, a reputation she has courted since first arriving on the Arab music scene. “She’s a calculated risk taker,” says Hayek. “And she wins against all odds. She’s carved out her niche.”

The fearless singer first proved herself with her debut album, Baddi Doub (I Want to Melt), in 1999. She maintains that from the moment she started, she studied—whether that meant working on songs, choosing who filmed her music videos or determining the storyboard. Teaming up with Spanish singer, Gerard Ferrer, for her first album’s hit song, she established herself as an artist able to draw in different sounds, intertwining them to create something new.

Elissa was revealed as a member of a new breed of Arabic female singer; one brave, progressive and in control. Her nerve in including a second language in her first single did not go unnoticed; in the same year, shampoo brand Head & Shoulders took her on as the empowering and bold face of the company in the Middle East.

Since the first big hit and the first big brand deal there has been no limit and no pause. “There is always something more you can do or a bigger dream to fulfill,” Elissa muses. “This keeps me alert and passionate about where I’m heading in my life, no matter what I plan to do next”.

After the success of her third album “A’ayshalak” (I live for you) in 2002, Elissa was at the peak of her career when she filmed in Paris, dressed by Christian Dior.

It was the first time Dior had worked with an Arabic artist. By the following year Elissa was the Middle East’s brand ambassador for Pepsi—a title she held for four years.

As she continued to develop as an artist the firsts kept on coming. In 2005, she became the first Lebanese singer to ever win a World Music Award for Best Selling Middle Eastern Artist. Then she did it again—twice—in 2006 and 2010.

As her fame grew so did her market value. Soon after her 2005 win, Elissa signed with watch brand Corum, a partnership that went on to last nine years. She again proved her business talents in 2007 by creating her own line of fragrances, Elle d’Elissa and L’Eau d’Elissa, with French company, Georges Stahl.

A year later she signed with jewelers L’azurde, a brand she still stands for as ambassador. Ayman Al Haffar, Executive General Manager of L’azurde says the reason why Elissa was first choice is simple—the strength of her appeal is something that resonates with consumers.

“We conduct consumer research that assesses different parameters, such as the popularity of a celebrity and their fit with our brand,” he says.

“Elissa is a superstar with a wide fan base across all Arab countries. She is a symbol of beauty and elegance and personifies an independent woman that only settles for the best.”

These traits are not simply symbolic. Elissa has demonstrated her strength and determination time and again, tackling issues such as domestic violence, abuse and suicide through her music videos—a stance that has sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East.

Elissa says she’s “not afraid” when it comes to taking on controversial topics. And far from being off-putting, her position seems to add to her appeal among millions of fans. “Elissa never leaves you indifferent,” says Hayek. “You either love or hate her. She attracts you immediately.”

Her ability to attract both attention and loyalty is enviable. A social media sensation, Elissa has racked up 520 million views on YouTube and 12.1 million followers on Twitter, surpassing her fellow Arabic singers with record engagement. “One of Elissa’s unique points is her strong relationship with her fans,” agrees Haffar.

Elissa herself confesses to feeling a sense of responsibility in her identity as an Arab woman. Embracing social media has opened her eyes and enabled her to make a global connection with fans from across the world.

“I used to think that releasing a song in English may help me reach a larger audience, but now I believe music is an international language. My fans have made me realize this—my music videos are now in the top 100 of most viewed on YouTube,” she says.

Unusually for many celebrities, Elissa is the sole poster on her Twitter and Instagram accounts and, as with her image and her representation, she is in total control of her online presence, believing absolutely that the advent of social media and the digitization of the music industry is the backbone of the modern world.

She’s clearly good at it. Within a week of its release, her latest single, Aaks Elli Shayfenha (The Opposite of What You See), entered the top 10 in Lebanon for iTunes downloads and accumulated three million YouTube views.

“We can’t avoid that consumers will be downloading from iTunes instead of going to a physical store to purchase an album,” she muses. “The key is to stay relevant in the industry and that means getting to grips with technology.”

And she has gripped it with gusto. Elissa has taken over social media platforms in the Arab world, similarly to the way stars such as Taylor Swift and Jennifer Lopez have in the west, building multi-dimensional careers and establishing themselves as powerhouses of influence. Elissa has taken full advantage of the benefits of the digital age and used it to get ever closer to her fans, interacting with them online and even following them back.

Far from just posting selfies or promoting her music, Elissa maintains an active presence, including carrying out social media campaigns for the brands she represents.

Justin Khaksar, Managing Director and Senior Vice President for EMEA & APAC at social analytics company Crimson Hexagon, says that these types of campaigns can have untold sway, giving brands and marketers a powerful opportunity.

“Online communication by celebrities can be very impactful as they have the power to be exposed to broad audiences,” he says. “Elissa can count on several million followers on her social channels, which makes her posts easier to go viral and generate further interactions and engagement.”

Since rebooting her partnership with L’azurde in 2014, Elissa’s name has been mentioned alongside the jewelry brand more than 66,000 times on Twitter—and that’s just in English.

Taking a broader view, in the first half of 2017, Elissa’s official handle on Twitter generated more than 1.1 million interactions, with almost 200,000 retweets.

This level of reach across all audiences and platforms wields enormous power in the Arab world in particular. Consumers in the Middle East post over 17 million tweets a day, with Saudi Arabia home to the highest number of Twitter accounts with 2.4 million users—more than 40% of all active Twitter users in the Arab region.

Saudi Arabia also hosts the highest per-capita YouTube use of any country in the world. And these numbers are only set to rise, with online statistics portal, Statista, stating that the number of global users of social media will jump to 2.95 billion by 2020—that’s around one in three people on Earth.

Elissa’s control over her image and her voice—whether on stage or online—is not something she will ever relinquish. And, unlike her American counterparts, she maintains resolutely businesslike and measured in her choices and her posts, preferring to keep her personal life to herself.

“There is a very clear red line between my private life and my public life that never gets crossed. There is too much over-sharing these days and that is something I stay clear of to maintain my image,” she emphasizes.

It’s this ability to keep control that has continuously set Elissa apart and spurred her rise as a businesswoman, bold role model and brand.

“I love to be part of something bigger,” she explains. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to follow my heart in whatever I pursue. I was able to learn to trust myself because people trusted and believed in me, which gave me a sense of responsibility.”

In 2013, Elissa followed her heart onto the judging panel of X Factor Arabia, alongside Hussain Al Jasmi, Wael Kfoury and Carole Samaha. Unfortunately, the CBC production failed to live up to expectations that year and was cancelled after one season, only to be picked up again in 2015 by broadcasting group, MBC.

They didn’t hesitate in inviting Elissa back. “An amazing woman—bold, courageous—she’s an in your- face sort of an artist, who is not afraid to voice her beliefs,” says Hayek. “As an X-Factor jury member she is spontaneous, and she can tell someone ‘you don’t sing well, you don’t fit in the program’.”

Her fearless risk-taking was demonstrated further in July this year when she released the music video for Aaks Elli Shayfenha. In it Elissa acts out the famous story of Lebanese belly dancer, Dany Bustros, who committed suicide in 1998—once again bringing a taboo topic to the table and forcing a discussion.

In her art as well as her business decisions, Elissa is unyielding in her determination to speak up. Elissa herself remains calm and graceful as her commitments mount up, taking her time as always to make the right decisions for her style and her personal identity.

“I always take long to record an album because it represents more than just my voice or style of music; it is who I am as a whole,” she explains. As one of her closest affiliates, Hayek is bolder on what he believes is the secret to her success.

“Elissa is someone who dares,” he maintains. “And who dares wins.”

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