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The role of women in Saudi Arabian society is undergoing a subtle but steady change. More women are working – not just in the private and public sectors – but also running their own businesses. In 2012, two Saudi women, judo-player Wojdan Shaherkani, and 800-meter runner, Sarah Attar, participated in the Olympics for the first time. Bayan Mahmoud Al-Zahran became the first Saudi woman lawyer to be issued a license to practice law in the Kingdom – after the authorities lifted a ban preventing women law graduates from practicing – following which, she launched the first female law firm for the benefit of Saudi women in February 2014. As recently as last year, physical education was introduced to government girls’ schools. In early 2014, Somayya Jabarti became the first female editor of a daily newspaper, the Saudi Gazette.

Saudi women are pushing for changes in the laws. In addition, more women than men are now pursuing higher education as women-only universities continue to grow in the country.

Technology is a strong enabler of this change and has allowed women to express themselves more freely, as can be seen from some excerpts from Saudi blogs: “If there was one word to describe what it is like to be a Saudi woman, it would be the word “patronized”. No matter how long you live, you remain a minor in the eyes of the government. In Saudi Arabia, we take patriarchy to the extreme. The fact that the culture, like many others around the world, is male-dominated is not the major challenge. The real challenge is that the government has allowed this patriarchy to dictate how it deals with citizens.” – Saudiwoman’s Weblog.

“The fact that we shot a film in Saudi Arabia with permission and everything says a lot about the country. It says the country is embracing art.” – Haifaa al-Mansour, director of Wadjda, a film about a ten-year-old girl based in Riyadh.

How do these changes impact brand builders? What are the themes that brand builders need to work with in order to build more empathy and connect with women in the Kingdom? Do clichéd stereotypes still work or is there more to communicating with the modern-day Saudi woman?

To answer some of these questions, Millward Brown mined our extensive database of ads tested in KSA to come up with key themes that resonate well with women.

1. Change as a theme works well with women 

Ads depicting a change in the woman’s present predicament and showcasing this change in a powerful way strike a chord with women. Many personal care brands such as Fair & Lovely, Sunsilk and Garnier, have successfully taken this route by showing a visible change in women’s appearance in terms of their hair or skin after using the product being advertised. Furthermore, change showcased with a powerful pay-off like appreciation or recognition tends to make the proposition more persuasive.

2. Talking down to women does not sit well with them  

They like being provided an equal status in relationships. Ads where the husband and wife are shown having a more equal relationship with an element of fun, romance or banter between them generates positive emotions. In comparison, when an ad shows the husband criticizing his wife’s food by running away, for instance, women take offense at the whole approach and want the husband to behave in a more constructive manner.

Similarly, a brand talking from a position of power does not work as well as telling women what’s in it for them. Ads that are clearly based on consumer insight or which focus on a benefit are far more powerful in convincing consumers than claims which focus more on aspects such as leadership or being problem solvers.

3. The portrayal of a protagonist who is more modern and aspirational works well

Saudi women aspire for change in their daily lives and therefore like advertising that reflects those aspirations. For example, ads that show a mother as someone who has time for her self, whether that is to go and exercize or just sit and browse on an iPad, tend to resonate with customers, as they show her being more active, in control and engaged with her motherly duties. This is brought to life rather successfully through some of the work by brands such as Kraft, Dettol and Tang.

Similarly, situations showing a group of friends going out shopping, hanging out at work or outside and having fun while doing so – a situation commonly used by brands such as Lipton and Nescafé – work well. Comparatively, more downbeat portrayals of women, who are less in control or look tired, don’t resonate well.

4. Beauty and femininity are alternative means for women to express themselves and hence hold a lot of value for consumers  

A look at the popular characters from the field of music and cinema reveals a liking for young, confident and outgoing characters. Even in ads, women like protagonists who are youthful, playful and confident. From an executional standpoint, this manifests in the liking for flowing hair,

international or trendy depictions of protagonists, bold delivery with the protagonist looking straight into the viewer’s eye, and expansive and uninhibited movements as depicted in the L’Oréal and Maybelline adverts. So when an ad shows the protagonist walking through the streets of Rome and playfully interacting with people – including men – it is liked by Saudi women.

5. Codes of wealth, luxury, and premium-ness are appreciated and go hand in hand with Saudi women’s aspirations

For instance, premiumness in depicting product windows, cues of glamour and style through use of metaphors such as a Paris skyline or the use of opulent colors, such as gold and black, work well to make the whole setting more appealing. Not only does communication that takes into account the modern realities and aspirations of today’s women resonate better with them, but it also makes the brand far more desirable.

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