Public Relations in the Middle East: How to do it right.

Despite political turmoil, the Middle East remains a valuable consumer market. With several trillion dollars in GDP and a burgeoning middle class, the Middle Eastern consumers represents a huge opportunity for growth-oriented companies that want to expand internationally.

Whenever you read a report on this emerging market, you will always find facts and figures showing the strong increase in digital activity in the region. Much of the momentum of the recent Arab Spring was attributed to social networks and the ability for crowds to communicate freely and arrange demonstrations (something strictly prohibited in many Middle Eastern countries). This trend is mirrored both in the popularity of devices (laptops, smartphones etc.) and also the simple ability to have internet access (in 2012 the level of internet accessibility in the UAE was 70% compared to just 34% back in 2005).

However, this seems to be stuck on the social level – the rise of eCommerce in the region has been following nothing like the same gradient. Despite the clear rise in demand, and the many channels of supply, the two don’t seem to be converging. This is surprising since, on the face of it, most forms of digital marketing are created for a single purpose – to drive consumers to a company’s website. This could be for a promotion or a coupon or simply engagement between brand and consumer. So why aren’t businesses in the Middle East exploiting this great opportunity?

Part of this can be put down to mundane reasons, in particular in the area of payment. Safe and secure online payment systems have taken a long time to arrive and people have become used to alternative methods. Even today you can purchase a new MacBook Air from an electronics retail website and still choose to pay cash on delivery. However, this is changing and the more safe and secure payments systems are implemented (and, more importantly, trusted by the consumer), the more online transactions and use of digital marketing will come into effect in the region.

A more significant obstacle to overcome is the lack of experienced digital marketing providers in the region. Although a new generation of consumers is growing up in a mobile, digital world, marketing still has its foundations firmly based in bricks and mortar.

In contrast to Europe and North America, even to East Asia, where large numbers of talented digital marketers are available, internally and externally, to guide businesses through their first steps, in the Middle East there is a distinct lack of management buy-in for increased digital marketing budgets. The decision-making becomes polarized – either sign up to a service and have your digital marketing managed by someone several thousand miles away, or use a free tool online which requires training and often won’t achieve the desired effects that the marketer actually requires.

Here are our top three tips for marketing to the Middle East, with respect and power.

#1: Recognize Local Differences.

The Middle East is a varied landscape, and different countries in the area have various economic and cultural distinctions. Qatar, for instance, has an extraordinarily wealthy upper class and a culture of conspicuous consumption, whereas larger countries such as Egypt might have a more diverse and cost-conscious middle class.

These regional differences also extend into various aspects of local culture, politics, and methods of media consumption. Yemen has an internet penetration rate of just under 20%, whereas countries such as Kuwait and Bahrain actually have a higher percentage of their population online than the U.S.

Too many people in the western world still rely on ignorant stereotypes when they consider the Middle East. It’s important to do extensive local research on your intended market and differentiate your marketing for different countries in the region.

#2: Religion Matters.

Of course, there is still one popular conception about the Middle East that holds true. Religion plays an extremely important role throughout the region. There are significant minorities of Christians and Jews throughout the region, but Islam is of course the most powerful force in the region.

Danish/Swedish company Arla Foods had been extremely successful at marketing its dairy products in the Middle East up until 2005 when the famous scandal emerged where a Danish paper published a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad. A boycott of Danish goods ensued, and it took over five years for the company just to get its revenues back to where they were before the scandal.

This doesn’t mean your company should start using a bunch of religious imagery in its advertisements. Quite the opposite, many failed campaigns have shown that people in the Middle East prefer to have some separation between religion and commerce. Instead, you should aim to blend into the landscape.

#3: Know The Media Regulations.

For reasons religious, cultural, and political, advertisers in the Middle East face a variety of strict regulations. The United Arab Emirates, for instance, has rigid consumer protection laws that crack down on commercials with claims that could be construed as misleading.

In conservative Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, there is strict censorship of advertising material that does not conform to the Royal Family’s view of Islamic morality. The rules aren’t as severe as some might believe, you can show ads with women in them, but they definitely limit what some companies might normally show in their marketing.

Iraq, on the other hand, has relatively limited government regulation of advertising. It also has a varied media landscape with plenty of prominent independent voices such as blogs and radio shows.

Have you piloted a marketing campaign in the Middle East? What are some tips you can share with us? Share them in the comments section below.