Brands are trying to address people’s pain points in a way that drives long-term change.
Mennah Ibrahim joined J. Walter Thompson in autumn 2010, heading up the newly established Brand Intelligence team across the agency’s network in the MENA region. In this role, Ibrahim, a self-described “genuine peoples’ enthusiast,” has written widely on consumer intelligence and category knowledge. In 2013, Ibrahim launched an annual trend report that helps brands and brand practitioners worldwide converse with Middle Eastern consumers in a more meaningful and relevant way.
Ibrahim and her team have recently completed 10 Trends for MENA 2015. We got her take on why today’s brands need to be benevolent, how MENA boomers are reinventing aging, and what makes Arabic content cool.
Worldwide, we’re seeing more examples of brands showing their altruistic side. How are brands displaying this in the Middle East?
Altruism has always been deeply rooted in the MENA culture. But it’s taking on a very different form than in previous years. Usually, altruism has been about monetary handouts, but today it’s about transactions that drive long-term betterment, empowering people to live better lives. It’s a more sustainable effect than money. We’re seeing brands becoming more benevolent because across our MENA markets, there’s so much to fix. Brands are finding many ways to make a difference socially and environmentally.
We have brands taking a stand against corruption and brands doing things we’d expect from official institutions, for example Volvo conducting a campaign to promote traffic safety in Beirut. Another example is a campaign by Unilever’s Comfort fabric softener brand. During the Muslim holiday of Eid, when people are feeling particularly generous, Comfort conducted a huge washing campaign. They asked people to hand over their unwanted clothes, washed them, packaged them in individual bags, and sent them off to the poor.
In general, brands are trying to address people’s pain points in a way that drives long-term change rather than transient or temporary change.
We’ve heard a lot recently about the new baby boomers and the ageless consumer. But the demographics are different in the Middle East. Does the idea of the ageless consumer translate?
The Middle East has always been a predominantly young region. If we look at generation Z and millennials together, 42% of the population is 35 and under. But we’ve reached the tipping point. We’re now at the beginning of a demographic transition, and very soon we will not be predominantly young any more
That’s something we would like brands to start noticing and taking into consideration—that this generation is living with an ageless sensibility, and expecting experiences to match. Contrary to what one might think of older generations, our survey reveals that these consumers increasingly look for adventure and new achievements—we even have a lot of boomer activists who are hoping to make a difference in the world. Brands need to stop stereotyping them as a cohort. In our report, agelessness translates into what we’ve termed “generation b-old.”
This idea of an ageless consumer is also reaching entertainment. We have Egypt’s latest prime-time TV chat show host, Abla Fahita—she’s a puppet, a diva who speaks her mind and says “I’m proud to be an outgoing middle-aged widow making her later age even better than her first.” And I believe that’s the way most of our generation b-old thinks today. [Editor’s note: Abla Fahita is the property of J. Walter Thompson Entertainment and appears regularly on Egyptian television.]
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You’ve written about Arabic regaining its ‘cool’ factor. What’s driving this and where is it headed?
Up until recently, the Arabic content that people were exposed to was quite bland. But today, Arabic is becoming cool thanks to an evolving trend that we first noticed a couple of years back. In 2012, we noticed that the region began producing world-class products that people were actually proud to be associated with. People came to realize that indigenous Arabic products can be cool.
Now this mindset is spilling over into Arabic culture as a whole. We’re seeing a revival of Arabic music, art, educational content—all in our mother tongue, Arabic. Our name for this trend is “bil 3arabi”—which, literally translated, means “in Arabic.”
People are taking this even further and creating a whole new Arabic lexicon for today’s online communication. We’re seeing Arabic emoticons, Arabic keyboards, and new words and catch phrases catch on. Consumers will no longer accept old-fashioned Arabic content—they’re expecting brands to speak to them in Arabic, but in ways that are more relevant.
A majority of your respondents said the Middle East was becoming more liberal than ever before. What does this mean for brands?
Over the past three years since we’ve been looking at trends in the Middle East, we’ve noticed that people’s response to this sentiment is increasing. What we mean by “liberal” is becoming more open-minded to new ideas that are not long-held traditions. We attribute this to hyper-connectivity—the region is one of the fastest growing regions when it comes to smartphone penetration. This unlimited access to the world has really enriched people’s experiences and therefore their expectations. We’re seeing people experiment with synergistic elements of different cultures.
When we say the Middle East is becoming more liberal, it still never really departs from its core religious and moral values. Nonetheless, as a result of the Middle East becoming more open to new ideas, we’re seeing new social norms that didn’t exist before.
How would you sum up the differences between consumer trends in the Middle East and other markets?
On the whole, when it comes to behavioral trends, there are a lot of similarities between the Middle East and the rest of the world. But when it comes to technology, we’ve tended to lag behind.
What was interesting for us to see in the report was how fast the Middle Eastern consumer is catching up to the global consumer. We’re seeing slight nuances dictated mostly by religion, but otherwise aspirations and needs are becoming quite similar. It won’t be long before we’re on a par with the rest of the world, even in the technology sector.