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Communicate Online | Regional Edition | Advertising, marketing, public relations and media in the Arab world and beyond


Freedom call

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been referred to as the land of many things: traditions, dichotomies, misconceptions. Regionally, advertisers are constantly grappling with the challenge of reaching this particular group of consumers. As the largest and most youthful population in the GCC by far, the need to tap into its potential is growing and yet being approached with a certain delicacy. The cultural dichotomies are specifically present where the Saudi youth are concerned; still steeped in tradition, culture and pride, young Saudis are moving more rapidly with the tide of the digital age than any other MENA population. As the marketplace attempts to connect with these unique consumers, advertisers must gather insights that exhibit the pull from both their conservative and modern sides. As Hani Dajani, general manager at OMD Jeddah, puts it, “Digital has served as a medium to understand the Saudi consumer better.”

Setting the stage

According to a Nielsen survey titled “Capturing the Fascinating and Intriguing Journey of the Saudi and Egyptian Youth”, of the roughly 30 million people inhabiting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a staggering 60 percent are under the age of 30. These are faced with a rare set of circumstances that has, in some ways, set them apart from their global counterparts.

Jad Ibrahim, general manager at Initiative KSA, explains, “The KSA youth do not have a lot of access to entertainment beyond shisha, soccer and social media, whereas youth in other cultures have more options and activities to do.” Moreover, as Dajani says, “There is no mixing between genders, even in schools or malls, but, at the same time, they are very connected digitally. They’re always chatting and news can spread very fast; they like to share.” There is a strong national identity tied to the culture and religion from which the youth are not currently straying; however, they are connected to the outside world in a way that differs vastly from the country’s previous generations.

Rob Beswick, group vice-president – brand at Virgin Mobile MEA, indicates, “There is a youth culture in Saudi Arabia that is celebrating the cool stuff that is happening locally and fusing it with international influences. They create their culture online, using their mobiles.” This is probably why Beswick says, “For a mobile brand that serves the young and the young-at-heart, Saudi Arabia is an exciting place to be.”

Highlighting the unique dynamic of this generation, Ahmad Haider, managing director at Carat KSA says, “This is a generation that has never known the world without the Internet; they are the most diverse, educated and populated generation in KSA to date.”

Techie effect

With statistics to back his enthusiasm, Beswick illustrates the mobile landscape in Saudi Arabia: “There are almost twice as many mobile phones as people, with a penetration of [approximately] 183 percent – smartphone penetration alone [stands] at 74 percent.” Traditional media is still a key player in KSA. However, as Dajani reveals, 77 percent of Saudis are using their smartphones while watching TV. On their phones, the younger generation in Saudi Arabia is engaging with all aspects of the digital sphere, especially on social media platforms, such as YouTube and brands’ sites, both local and international. This behavior is due in part to the fact that their main source of entertainment lies on their devices, but it is also related to the freedom they can exhibit online. Walid Kerbage, group managing director at Impact BBDO KSA, digs deeper into the young Saudis’ need to be online, saying, “Because of restrictions in the country, the youth are more connected: this is their only doorway to the world. Whatever they want to [experience] as young people and can’t [in reality], they [do] it online, which makes their need for connectivity huge, [so much so that] it’s practically a matter of life and death.” Although the online medium does provide some freedom, it is relative, cautions Kerbage. “Restrictions are not only religious, they are social; people can’t say whatever they want online,” he says. However, it is private messaging platforms  such as WhatsApp or Facebook Chat where “people are freer and can establish virtual relationships”, says Kerbage. That’s why the social video network Keek  has its second-largest consumer base in KSA. Initiative’s Ibrahim expands on the appeal of social media and video platforms further, saying, “It gives them a place to express themselves to a larger community, the youth of KSA want their moment of fame.”

Not only are the Saudi youth mobile-savvy, but  they are also tech-savvy in general. “Saudi youth are the most tech-savvy demographic in the Arab world. They are the early adopters; they embrace the technology before any one else and know how to use it,” says Kerbage. While this might seem like good news, it could actually be dangerous for advertisers. “If you try to talk to them like basic people, you will miss them. You have to talk to them like advanced techie people,” warns Kerbage. This means that brands now have a larger role to play in the life of consumers – one that goes beyond just selling to them. Racha Makarem, managing director of research and insights, VivaKi MENA, explains, “Because of the pace of change, including tech and people’s desires and aspirations is creating completely new roles for brands to become much more personal and relevant.”

Saudi Arabian youngsters are also consuming media with more vigor than any other Arab country and, in certain cases, more than any other country in the world, specifically on YouTube, at 90 million video views per day on the platform. As Beswick points out, the YouTube consumption is notable, but what’s more notable is the “amount of great content that is being created in this country”.

“There are lots of social media stars in Saudi Arabia; these are the people who are most influential among Saudi Arabia[n] youth; they are real innovators and disrupters,” he says. Additionally, according to Haider, KSA is currently home to 15 million of the world’s 1.44 billion Facebook users, creating another entire online ecosystem through which brands can get personalized access to this consumer base. That’s why Virgin Mobile’s strategy in KSA is targeted toward social media: “As a digital and mobile brand, Facebook, Twitter and Google have been critical, we are building communities that enable us to engage in conversations with our target market,” says Beswick.

Learning curve

As the advertising industry struggles to keep up with the rapid penetration of digital among Saudi youngsters, the first step should be to understand where the consumers are and then work to reach them there. Dajani admits, “Advertising on digital in general in KSA has not developed as much as in the UAE; brands are still in the learning phase.” Kerbage explains that even with this amount of consumption happening, mobile advertising budgets are not meeting the mobile usage. “The media environment is regulated by a lot of players, so mobile is still underdeveloped,” he says. Makarem agrees: “The biggest challenge advertisers are facing right now is that people are moving at a much faster pace on platforms and devices than they can keep up with.” She continues, explaining, “Another challenge a lot of brands have is that you have a bunch of expats sitting in Dubai planning for the Saudi market.” However, Dajani points out that, other than this fact, there are also several Saudi clients that are still in the learning curve. He compares it to the old days of TV when clients wanted to advertise on a particular channel just because people they knew watched it. When it comes to digital, “they want to be on specific sites that are [visited] on a daily basis like Facebook”, just because everyone they know is on Facebook, says Dajani. He emphasizes that “Facebook is not [the] only social medium today”.  Moreover, traditional media is still making money for brands, which would explain the slow adoption of digital, according to Kerbage.

A work in progress

Although the advertising and marketing industries in KSA have not quite kept up with their digital consumers, there is certainly a progress and evolution currently happening to match the shifting technologies and trends. Moutaz Jad, group account director at Horizon FCB Jeddah, points out, “With advertising today, the trend is going to be more about [the] dialogue between the brand and consumer, as opposed to a monologue, or a brand speaking about itself and hoping that whatever it represents can resonate with the consumer.” Social media is a particularly helpful tool through which brands can interact directly with their consumers. As he puts it, “A brand can receive instantaneous feedback from the local consumer.” Dajani provides one example of how advertisers are trying to reach their consumers through insights gathered: “Content creation in Saudi is high, so brands are talking to them using their language, asking them to create their own content to win something.” Another example of this comes from Initiative’s Ibrahim, who explains, “Most of the investment behind advertising is going toward offers, discounts and promotions, because KSA’s consumer population is very receptive to these [tactical] messages.” Brands in Saudi are slowly but surely adopting culture-specific ways to reach the youth in the kingdom on their digital spaces.

Haider simply sums up the goals of the advertising community, saying, “You need to understand these consumers in order to create youth-specific campaigns and improved customer experience and ultimately, sales.” Due to the Internet and, more specifically, video penetration, young Saudis are likely to be exposed to what is happening with brands internationally and want a their local advertisers to step up to the plate. Jad confirms this by saying, “The consumer’s [have] high expectations now; they see stuff being done outside and they don’t see it here in their market.”

Like a pro

Perhaps the first place advertisers should start when trying to understand the untapped regional marketplace of KSA is from within their own workforces. Across the board, agencies seem to agree that recruiting more young Saudi talent would greatly enhance their ability to properly target these consumers. Jad says it simply: “The best people to advertise to the Saudis are the Saudis.”

One challenge is that the advertising industry is not currently piquing the interest of young Saudis. Dajani notes that even those to whom the industry does appeal “prefer to be on the client side”. Jad believes it to be a matter of nurturing and fostering the communications environment for recent graduates: “We have to open doors and give more opportunities to more Saudis; a lot of talented people are graduating from universities and are bringing a lot to the table and it’s up to us, both client and agency, to nurture the talent and make sure it’s focused in the right direction so both the agency deliver better creative and clients get better relationships with the customers.” That’s why Horizon FCB is working with Dar Al Hekma University and  University of Business and Technology to encourage graduates to join the industry.

However, it seems to go deeper than fostering the career paths of those exiting university. As Ibrahim indicates, “The majors at the universities aren’t pushing hard for advertising. When it comes to media agencies, for example, given the hectic nature and long hours, students come to the conclusion that they should go into banking.”

Coming at it with a slightly different approach, Makarem agrees that Saudis know the cultural nuances, but for non-Saudi nationals, hope is not lost: “It’s about having the people who are curious enough to understand the Saudi culture, it’s an open market and you have access to so much culture if you really want it,” she says.

Mistaken identity

Aside from the industry not being heavily saturated with a Saudi-influenced workforce, there is a vast array of misconceptions shrouding Saudi Arabia that are, in some ways, projected in the local advertising and therefore holding the industry back from truly making a sound connection with these consumers. Jad claims that the conservatism of the culture is misunderstood and that because of its traditional nature, it’s forgotten that Saudis are well-read, educated, traveled and very exposed to the international pulse. “[Most] brands have the tendency to have a condescending view toward the Saudi consumer,” he says. While there is a certain “censorship that should be observed, the thinking and creative strategy could be a lot better,” he adds. OMD’s Dajani points out that another gross underestimation of the Saudi youth is that they are lazy and do not want to work, which is untrue of this generation. He also explains that they are perceived to be searching for an identity they don’t yet have – wrong again; they are very connected to their culture and to the outside world and forming a generation of Saudis that has never been seen before. As Virgin Mobile’s Beswick puts it, “People are always surprised by just how vibrant the Saudi Arabian youth culture is. For example, there is a rich street scene in Jeddah and online entertainment companies such as UTURN have turned popular culture on its head.” He continues, “You only have to browse through Twitter to see some of the phenomenal creative talent and culture of filmmakers, comedians, photographers, digital designers, fashionistas and entrepreneurs. It’s all there and growing.”

Get to the point

Part of getting at the root of the issue of better understanding the Saudi youth culture is through research. However, in KSA, the research climate is also unique because there is a different reality faced when attempting to get access to the people. In the past, when research consisted of field work or surveying, getting a real pulse of the people was challenging due to the conservative nature of the environment. For example, a field worker could not simply go door-to-door collecting representative samples from locals. Even with the mobile penetration, research still has its limitations: “They don’t like to talk or be filmed, especially females. It’s very tough to go into the houses of people. Maybe you can talk to the masses but talking to other social classes is very difficult and complex,” explains BBDO’s Kerbage. Makarem confirms the challenges, but adds that with the technological advances, the advertising industry has much more access to their target audience. This is in part due to the large amount of passive conversation floating around on social media, “so you don’t need to probe and analyze; just looking at [social] conversations gives you so much insight,” says Makarem. Moreover, “being on mobile platforms, you can have 24/7 access and constant dialogue and engagement, just by creating the right kind of products and the right incentive for them to want to be part of this gathering of information,” she adds.

Best in show

Some brands are good examples of those who are more successful at localizing and reaching their audiences at this stage than perhaps others whose tactic is less developed. Jad uses McDonald’s Arabia’s localized menu or Al Marai’s presence on social media as examples of brands making the attempt to reach their audience. He continues, “Some brands just translate things to Arabic and assume that strategy should work in any Arabic-speaking country, but you get more leverage as a brand if you understand the local insights and tap into them.” BBDO’s Kerbage cites brands like Pepsi, Mirinda and 7UP as those leading the digital localization charge: “We have been developing advanced digital platforms for them, starting from social media and spanning into other digital activations, promotions and content development,” he says.

What lies ahead

It seems that, for the future of digital advertising to the Saudi Arabian youth, there is nowhere to go but up, due to the digital penetration and the marketing experimentation that is currently happening. Beswick concludes, “It all comes down to approach and insights – working with the target market segment and giving them the space to lead is key.” He continues by explaining that young Saudis must be brought into the professional marketing space to help cater to their peers; “Our social media team, for example, sets their own agenda and are given the opportunity to be creative and this delivers fantastic online moments for our members every day.” But to really move into the digital realm, Beswick believes the industry needs to be flipped around: “Traditionally, agencies start with outdoor and TV campaigns then overlay digital; we need to shift – start with the social and online story and then elevate that to traditional media. Haider assures, “Content, apps and mobile-optimized sites are the only way to capture and retain the youth’s attention.”

Brands that are not operating on this space, even from a global perspective, are in danger of missing out on connections and conversions – specifically in Saudi where penetration rates are unprecedented. Jad illustrates that, although the industry has moved “leaps and bounds in the past ten years, we are really behind the curve, it’s going to speed up more and I predict that Saudi is going to be one of the top creative markets in the world.”

Clearly, the young consumers of the Kingdom are far from conservative, even if their roots are entrenched in culture and tradition. It’s now time for brands and advertisers to follow suit.

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