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Saudi Industry Snapshot: Steven Hetzer, Sweetwater

Steven Hetzer, CEO & founder, Sweetwater

How have consumers changed in Saudi Arabia in recent years?

You often hear how the Saudi consumer is either wary or excited about change. The truth is that Saudi consumers now widely expect change, but what they’re worried about is whether that change equates to progress for them, too. They’re asking themselves: ‘Is this going to bring me and my loved ones forward with it, or leave us behind?’ Brands must focus on bringing everyone along for the ride in both strategy and comms tonality. The key lies in making sure progress is happening from a Saudi perspective. We discovered that many Saudis aren’t upset by the new; they were upset about the idea of imported things that lacked an authentic Saudi voice. While part of the answer is bringing more Saudi talent into the room, another crucial piece of the puzzle is to have genuine empathy, respect and love for the nation and culture. There’s no creativity or slick packaging that can compensate for a lack of empathy for the market, and global agencies need to educate their teams or leave the work to regional agencies who really listen to, respect and engage the consumer.

What are clients asking for in Saudi that’s new?

Strategy has always mattered – but it matters more than ever now to our Saudi clients. They ask tough, clear questions, and are focused on the consumer insights more than ever. We find that Saudi clients are extra focused on the ‘why’ – which is a very promising sign for a market that’s rapidly emerging. The shift from an execution-oriented mindset that focused more on output, to a strategic mindset that asks questions and builds a strong foundation of truth before embarking on executions is very real and promising. We’re excited about this development and think that it’s a sign of a marketing maturing in approach.

Where do you see the biggest potential for growth in Saudi?

Local brands from Saudi already have a strong consumer base at home – the opportunity lies in them leveraging that relatively solid home market to take risks and succeed across the region and world. Expansion of the local into global markets is the single biggest challenge and opportunity on the horizon. If you can make it work in Saudi, suddenly the GCC and MENA are easy expansions for the taking. But the real magic lies in taking Saudi and making it global.

What are the biggest challenges you face in the Kingdom?

Production standards can be at times inconsistent when it comes to live engagements, activations and media executions, and even though the bar is rapidly being raised, the change (and boom) in the live experiential sector means that events and brand activations need to work extra hard, and spend more to achieve the kind of quality needed. We see things moving in the right direction already with suppliers stepping up their game, but there’s still a way to go to being the regional leader that we believe Saudi could eventually be in this category.

How have you changed your offerings to reflect changes in Saudi Arabia?

Our biggest change is that we have upped our engagement with local creators rather than influencers. We see a clear preference in Saudi vs. other GCC markets for those who have an authentic ‘do’ besides having great media reach. Local clients and consumers have a disdain for the media-hungry influencer type, and a focus on authenticity that is refreshingly different from many markets. This works well for us as we have long been big advocates for working with local music, graffiti, fashion, and design creators. We hope to continue building relationships with true Saudi creators like Arwa Al Banawi to help them step out onto the global stage – as she did with her 2021 global collab with adidas, a first for the region, and a sign of the kind of voices brands should be putting their money, partnership, and weight behind.