Middle East: Bridging the gulf

Increasing prosperity is delivering new opportunities to target women in the Middle East. But how best to approach them? Alicia Buller reports.

The similarities between people the world over are greater than their combined differences. But if you are looking to create brand conversations with women in the Middle East, there are a plethora of religious and cultural sensibilities to negotiate to avoid appearing clumsy or, at worst, turning them off for life.

In Saudi Arabia, for instance, women are becoming more outspoken about their wants and needs. The era of the ambitious Arab-Gulf woman, who knows exactly how she wants to live her life, has arrived, according to Tammy Jalboukh, the head of the consumer connections unit of the research company TNS. She should know, having recently masterminded a survey probing the attitudes of 16- to 25-year-old men and women across the Gulf, with Saudi Arabia a particular focus.

"Women are being increasingly verbal about who they want to marry, where they want to work and how they wish to spend their leisure time - often in ways that challenge conservative moulds," she says.

"On the other hand, men are relinquishing autocracy in favour of more inclusiveness with their families, especially their children. Young men today claim that they want a less formal relationship with their children than they had with their parents."

This societal change, combined with the country's increasing economic prosperity, means a freer Saudi Arabia offers a huge, and largely untapped, opportunity for marketing to women.

What's more, around 50 per cent of the country's 25 million population is female and under 25. But before marching forth into one of the region's biggest markets, there are several factors to take into consideration, according to leading local marketers.

"It's important not to stereotype," Kamal Dimachkie, the managing director of the Dubai advertising agency Leo Burnett, warns. "If you are going to attempt to run a campaign in any of the region's countries, you have to remember that each has its own cultural sensitivities and rules. What's OK in Dubai is not OK in Saudi Arabia. There's nothing worse than your target audience thinking that you've completely misunderstood them. You must take pains to do your research and get to know your audience first."

Likewise, Fady Karim, the chief operating officer of Focusadvertising Middle East, suggests caution when attempting to roll out a region-wide campaign to women.

"First, ask the question of how the rules are different in each country. Saudi Arabia is still very conservative compared to other Gulf countries, while the UAE reflects an image of being very Western and Lebanon considers itself unique and creative, following in the footsteps of Europe and the US," he explains.

"Evaluate these rules among themselves before comparing with Western markets. Probably the best and most obvious observation is that the rules in the Middle East are more conservative, depending on the country."

In 2006, TNS conducted the largest market research survey on females ever undertaken in Saudi Arabia. The project collated interviews with hundreds of local women in their own homes. The project's leader, Hana Balaa, noted that Saudi Arabian women are becoming more independent, more marketing-savvy and more financially and health-conscious.

Balaa identified some broad trends that shed light on how and why the Saudi market has changed over the past decade, noting that consumerism and branding are becoming more prevalent, accepted and even enjoyed.

Increasingly, Saudi women are seeking ways to express themselves and their individuality. A major driver of their new-found adventurousness is the availability of non-edited TV channels from all over the world and increased internet penetration, which provides the population with access to international trends and ideas.

Yet, there remains a paradox. Saudi women are proud of their heritage, traditions and families, but, at the same time, they are open to Western influences. Many want careers and financial independence. "Saudi women are running their own businesses nowadays," Balaa says.

"The younger generation is expressing its opinions more, and getting more and better education. Before, the best job a girl could get was a teacher, but now other opportunities are opening up: women can work in banks or ad agencies, for example. There are now private colleges for women."

Another societal shift - the emergence of the nuclear family - has also brought about a major change in the way women shop. Previously, family shopping was controlled by a woman's mother-in-law, but it's now thought that 30-40 per cent no longer live with their extended relatives. Instead, a new wife is often free to choose the shopping according to her own tastes.

What's more, with oil prices topping $100 a barrel this year, Saudi women, along with those in the UAE and Kuwait, are finding their purses increasingly full. In many ways, the new generation is better off than the last. There is a strong reliance on the consumption of luxury brands in order to define status. This trend is not only manifested in the purchase of flashy watches and lots of "bling"; it is also seen in FMCG categories, with premium brands being sought out, especially for consumption outside the home.

Robert Taylor-Hughes, the managing director of Beiersdorf Middle East, whose brands include Nivea, believes there is a massive potential to unlock the spending capacity of the region's female consumers.

"Saudi Arabia is the largest market in the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the potential of countries like Iran are still virtually untapped," he notes. "Nivea had its best year ever last year, with a growth of 46 per cent. More and more women are joining the workforce, running their own businesses, becoming more independent. With this comes a higher personal spending power, which translates into more selective brands. Products need to deliver not only basic efficacy, but also make women feel good, beautiful and more self confident."

With all the evidence of a nascent and willing market up for grabs, it's tempting for marketers to rush in with marketing campaigns that ply consumers with the glitzy, capitalist images of the West in an attempt to flog their wares. However, Chris Bell, the chief operating officer of the Dubai-based advertising agency Face to Face, urges caution and consideration of the region's sensitivities.

"While at least 90 per cent of what makes up a human being is the same everywhere, marketers sometimes get muddled up, thinking that the Middle East population must automatically want what the West wants. That's not always the case: while there's a lot of creativity and desire for expression in this part of the world, it doesn't mean that people want to express themselves in a Western way," he says.

"They want a balance between a freedom of expression and what's culturally appropriate for their country. This region is immensely proud of its heritage. While there are a lot of Western ideas they welcome, there are also an awful lot they wouldn't want."