Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Branding on the Moon: Marketing in The Middle East

Seven years ago I landed on the moon.

Well, at least that’s how I felt when I moved to Dubai. The Middle East was, for a Brazilian advertising man, as alien as it gets. Just like an astronaut of the Apollo missions, I looked around and thought, “Was this worth all the effort to get here?”

For the untrained eye, the landscape looked barren, but then I started noticing details that had escaped the first probe.

For one, there were inhabitants, and where there are inhabitants there is culture. In some Middle Eastern countries, expatriates outnumber locals by as much as 6 to 1. In the UAE, for example, just 13 percent of the population is local. The other 87 percent? A melting pot of Indians, Pakistanis, Australians, Filipinos, Brits, French, Lebanese, Jordanians, Egyptians and many more. Even the region’s giant, Saudi Arabia, has an expatriate population approaching 33 percent.

It was also easy to notice the contradictions of a conservative local society that coexists, in an uneasy truce, with an unparalleled consumerist drive.

In a place with one of the highest Internet and mobile penetration rates in the world, there are too many communication channels to keep track of. A once isolated society is now exposed to democracy, Jimmy Choos, Rolexes, “Sex and the City,” Doritos, social revolution and “Modern Family,” The impact of all this is still not fully understood, whilst Westerners still rely on outdated stereotypes spread by the international media as the main source of information to make sense of the region.

The moon, with automated probes dedicated to map every single inch of its surface, is probably less mysterious.

With so many changes happening in these economies – with some of the highest GDPs per capita in the world – one would think that any global brand would be willing to send more manned expeditions to the region. But the fact is few brands have invested the time or resource to understand the local markets, and even fewer are doing more than Marketing 101. The ones that do are thriving, even when the outlook for the global economy looks bleak.

For an ad person who strives to challenge conventions and champions innovation, creativity becomes an exercise in finding small gaps and cracks that enable one to push the envelope. The challenge is delivering campaigns that are not only culturally relevant but humanly relevant too, taking into consideration the diversity of the region’s society whilst outmaneuvering the limitations imposed by the local authorities eager to protect their cultural, social and religious integrity. Ouch!

Nobody said it would be easy – but it can be fun.

I remember a story about the owner of a shoe company who sent two candidates for a sales position to a remote country to check for the business opportunities. They both returned and the first candidate gave his report: “The prospects are not good. Half the population there doesn’t even have shoes.” Then the second candidate gave his point of view: “The prospects are amazing. Half the population doesn’t even have shoes!”

Well, the moon, I mean, the Middle East, wants shoes, lots of shoes. And cars, cell phones, mayo, soft drinks, design, gadgets and clothes. The landscape that initially looked deserted, bleak and inhospitable is in fact full of challenges, opportunities and amazing things to discover.

So why haven’t you landed yet?

Guilherme Rangel is executive creative director at gyro Dubai.

Originally published at Ignite Something on the Forbes CMO Network

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