News & Views

Opinion / The New Confidence of Global People in Local Markets

by Contagious Contributor
Joanna Brassett, director at Studio Into, explores changes in the mind-sets of consumers across the Middle East and Gulf Cooperation Council 

It shows something of a blinkered attitude to speak only of the Middle East, as this refers only to those countries of the Levant – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. The Arabian peninsula contains with the countries of the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar. However, these common identifiers mask a richly textured set of markets.

As mainly oil and gas exporters for years, the GCC has been home to rich, consumer markets. But the economies here are diversifying as one of Studio INTOs locally-based Cultural Guides, Noof Khonji told us recently. A marketing specialist and innovation manager from Bahrain who has studied in Beirut and London, Noof has been helping us navigate this complex region so that we can help brands communicate their values more successfully.

The mind-set of consumers across the Middle East and GCC regions are undergoing transformation. Having previously aspired to ‘Western’ values, blindly accepting Western brands, now a new confidence is emerging among a youthful population that ably mixes culturally-rooted attitudes with global perspectives influenced by cheap travel and participation in social media. This confidence is influencing all industries and local, home-grown brands are now seriously challenging foreign brands that haven't adapted to this new consumer mindset.

The food and beverages markets contain some of the most successful home-grown brands (e.g. Almarai), but the confidence in use of digital media channels is leading to creative expertise in this area too. Na3am are digital content producers that combines a drive to nurture Arab creativity with a commitment to social, political and cultural change. Their Saudi Girls Revolution (above) is quite simply astonishing: These young women symbolize female resilience and empowerment. They’re not constrained by any religious or political status quo.

In many cases, creatives occupy the roles of key influencers, with Instagram an important channel across the region, and YouTube strong in Saudi Arabia. Ahood Alenzi (above) from Kuwait, for example, mixes a confidence with the medium with the freedoms that are specific to Kuwaiti women. Bahraini comedian and actor, Ahmed Sharif with 1.7m Instagram followers, has his own YouTube channel with examples of his commercials. Internet penetration is high and mobile phone ownership is up to 120% in certain areas, with many people in the GCC region especially owning more that two phones. Yet while social media is booming, digital marketing is still relatively underdeveloped, though as Alenzi and Sharif show, product placement among digital influencers is gaining ground.

There are some international brands that understand cultural and social lifestyle nuances and that successfully create targeted content that attracts specific consumer groups. Coca Cola has experienced mixed fortunes in GCC and the Middle East, having been the target of a boycott from 1968 to 1991. Its response has been to take close account of the specific needs of each country it deals with in these regions, becoming 'nothing but a local company' (Your Middle East 2013). Any brand who wants to target the GCC or Middle East, needs to understand the vastly different cultural, social, political and economic realities that exist along with and in reaction to global forces. At least, to recognise the new confident identity of the Arab consumer as well as their newly emerging diverse lifestyles.