Genghis Khan, a 21st Century marketing phenomenon

by AFP/Karl Malakunas, Oct 8, 2006 | Destinations: Mongolia

ULAN BATOR, July 23, 2006 - Fifteen years after Mongolia emerged from 70 years of communism to pursue open-market economics, ancient warrior hero Genghis Khan has emerged as the nation's all-conquering advertising brand.

Images of a steely-eyed Genghis Khan are ubiquitous in the capital of Ulan Bator -- with the national icon commanding his citizens and foreign tourists to buy a myriad of products that are named after him. The 13th century emperor was famously fond of alcoholic, fermented mare's milk, so it is perhaps fitting that he is being used to endorse at least four different brands of vodka, while a beer is also named after him.

The Mongols' extraordinary stamina as they roamed across the world conquering cities and civilizations has not been lost on the modern-day makers of a local energy drink, with that man once again on the label.

Across the city, it seems everyone is out to make a buck from Genghis Khan, with antique shops, hotels and restaurants named after him and his image appearing on products as diverse as postage stamps and matchstick boxes.

As Mongolia celebrates the 800th anniversary of the Mongol Empire that Genghis Khan established, he is also the main drawcard for the government in its bid to attract a record 500,000 tourists to the country this year.

Even the international airport in Ulan Bator, known formerly as the much more forgettable Buyant Ukhaa Airport, was renamed after him at the start of the anniversary celebrations in an effort to kick-start the tourism mini-boom.

However with Mongolians revering Genghis Khan as a near God-like figure, there is growing disquiet about the exploitation of his name. "Everything is named after Genghis Khan. It's too much," the president of Ulan Bator's Chinggis Khaan University, Kh. Lkhagvasuren, told AFP.

"There needs to be significant things done to remember him and learn about him. But people are only interested in making a business out of him... it doesn't respect his reputation."

One of Lkhagvasuren's university colleagues, Professor O. Sukhbaatar, was particularly disgusted at the use of Genghis Khan's name to promote alcohol.

"No-one else in the world names their vodka or alcohol products after their heroes," Sukhbaatar said.

Amid such sentiments, a draft law is working its way through parliament that would make the Genghis Khan "trademark" the property of the state.

Under the draft law, tobacco companies would be banned from using his name or image and as yet unspecified taxes imposed on the firms who do have permission.

However even if the use of his name is curtailed in Mongolia, Lkhagvasuren said there was little anyone could do with people outside the country exploiting Genghis Khan's reputation.

Lkhagvasuren was particularly unhappy over the use of Genghis Khan's name in neighboring China, a historical rival which now has control over Inner Mongolia, a territory many Mongolians continue to regard as theirs.

"The Chinese have hotels, restaurants and tour companies named after him. In Inner Mongolia, they even claim he was buried there so they can have a stronger claim to him," Lkhagvasuren said.

Further afield, Genghis Khan is a favorite for restaurants across the globe. An Internet search on "Genghis Khan restaurant" returned thousands of hits.

For diners from Sydney to Tokyo and Seattle, the famous warrior's greatest legacy appeared to be the "Mongolian barbecue".

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