Marketing to the magic Kingdom

Posted by Becky


Unlike many of its Middle Eastern counterparts, Saudi still remains shrouded in a degree of mystery both from a cultural perspective and also its potential as a marketing destination. Yet this part of the world is wealthy and a booming area of growth making it an essential destination for any serious forward thinking global marketeer.

So how do you market to this vast country of desert and camels that makes most of its’ money purely from oil and gas? What other things would the Saudis like to buy? Western food chains and franchises are in the big cities and most of the leading fashion and high street stores now retail there. A little known fact is that Saudi’s second largest income is actually from tourism due in main to the mass yearly pilgrimages for the Hajj. What golden marketing opportunities does this conjure up?

Find yourself a limey with 3 years of living and working there and tap into her brain. Whether it’s an Eastern Province business sheikh, a Saudi playboy with houses and jets all over the world, a second Saudi wife who shares her life and husband with another woman or a young, fully-veiled Saudi graduate fresh out of University trying to make her way gently in a culturally complex world, she’s met and worked with them all.

With exponential population growth in the past 15 years to around 28 million, the arrival of both mobile phones and the Internet in the last 5 years, KSA is a young society in both population (70% are under 18’s) and mindset, developing at a rate that is music to a marketer’s ears. It is true that Arab culture is certainly keener on everything that sparkles, fashion is more glitzy, cars are more polished, marble abounds in every Saudis home and designer labels flourish. That said, it is a culture of convenience and the fast food chains have flourished leading to a serious diabetes and obesity issue. There is no doubt a marketing opportunity for healthy eating products and programmes right now.

Learning how to market your product or service effectively as with any new market is key to success. Research is essential and a cultural signpost invaluable.

Culturally there are a whole host of considerations, women and men are segregated unless married or related, only men tend to work in all the stores and outlets, 5 daily calls to prayer daily ensure the shops and their customers drift away throughout the day so timing is everything and all restaurants, coffee bars and eateries incorporate both bachelor and family sections that operate independently. And this is just the beginning!

So which communication channels do and don’t work and how do the Saudis buy?

No residential postal system exists in the Kingdom ruling out any conventional direct mail campaigns. Much closer to a young Saudis heart is their mobile and many successful high street fashion chains, car manufacturers, competing mobile providers and in country competitions use this marketing method extremely effectively via SMS campaigns, offers and competitions both locally and nationally.

Shopping is a major Saudi pastime and large modern air-conditioned multi-level malls are a feature of all the major cities. During the Saudi weekend of Thursday and Friday, the hallways teem with people looking to spend money. Central sales promotions for samples, new products, special offers and tasters all work well in these vast hallways.

Social media is huge amongst the Arab population but unlike the business focused Linked In used in Europe and the USA, both leisure and business is conducted solely on Facebook and the other social sites. During the first few weeks of pre-launch excitement for kids’ play centre Gymboree in October 2010, more than 550 friends pre-registered showing this type of commitment to work.

Large signage and roadside billboards are used much as they were in 50s America with big bold statements on every street corner. Relatively cheap and easy to change on a regular basis, these form a key part of the advertising backdrop in the Kingdom although as seen in recent weeks, it is always wise to tie in your message with an acknowledgement to both your host country and King.

Online portals work to build brand awareness and general interest as more and more Saudis use the Internet however cash is still king when it comes to making the actual purchase and any marketer hoping to sell online will be received nervously for now and needs an alternative purchasing plan.

Across the country, events and conferences are well attended in many fields, as the desire to be highly educated is endemic in the culture. The professional organizer is faced with segregating everything from registration to coffee, workshops and seminars to lunch break into genders and recognition for VIPs. The presentation of awards, acknowledgments, speeches and fanfare is all a normal part of running a conference in the Kingdom and should always be incorporated into the planning. As you can tell, a logistical challenge second to none and an on-site male event organizer is an essential.

This may all sound like a complicated web of do’s and don’ts but if the marketer Is prepared to put in the research and do their homework before arriving in Saudi (subject to business visa approval), the wealth and youth of this vast country makes it a place of great potential.

Becky Walsh is Marketing Director of Lime Creative and Marketing Consultant to the Saudi Cancer Foundation and MagiKats in the Eastern Province, KSA.