Stigmas and constraints: Overcoming the marketing challenges for regulated brands, by RELX’s Robert Naouss

By Robert Naouss, External Affairs Director – MENA & Europe, RELX Technology

In the marketing realm, brands in highly regulated industries are confronted with extremely challenging situations. Besides the very restrictive parameters in which they operate, brands must simultaneously find ways to compete fairly while ensuring they do not fall afoul of the law or inadvertently attract unintended audiences. Bound by sector-specific government rules, enterprises are now determined to enter a new normal in their own right and attract target audiences, generate interest, and accelerate sales. As marketing continues to evolve, brands are eager to do the same. Many have a newfound enthusiasm to adapt to their marketing environment and establish advantages ahead of competitors, doing so while remaining within the confines of regulatory frameworks.

It’s true that the Middle East region does differ from other areas around the world in terms of marketing restrictions. However, the acceleration of digital transformation, changes in consumer exposure trends, and lasting loyalty for designated brands are all reasons to be optimistic. For regulated enterprises striving to achieve commercial and critical success, there are various ways to adequately elevate the profile and popularity of their brand while adhering to regulations.

To overcome challenges, achieve exposure aspirations and reap the rewards, it is important to acknowledge that business purpose should translate into responsible purpose – promoting products with the best of intentions. By following this basic principle, brand honesty and integrity will reflect in communications – building trust with consumers in the process.

From the perspective of an e-cigarette brand operating in the region, doing so is fundamental not only to successful marketing campaigns but also the level at which they are successful. By 2025, the Middle East and Africa (MEA) e-cigarette market is forecasted to reach $485m, growing at a rate of 9.74 per cent during this period (according to Mordor Intelligence). “The growing popularity of vaping means the target audience – adult smokers looking to switch to better alternatives – will expand in the coming years, opening up the possibility of attracting a substantially higher number of adult smokers through proactive, tailored, and most importantly ethical campaigns,” says Jonathan Ng, Global Head of External Affairs at RELX Technology, which has quickly managed to become Asia’s leading e-cigarette company, seeking to expand on a global scale, encompassing MEA markets.

Taking the example of how RELX perceives an e-cigarette company’s marketing and consumer engagement practices should be shaped and carried out, the company supports effective legislation and regulation to prevent the purchase and use of its products by minors. Since RELX’s inception, it has abided by an unyielding commitment to prevent and discourage the use of e-cigarettes by minors and people who are not smokers or vapers. In order to protect minors from accessing e-cigarette products, RELX developed the Guardian Program, a company-wide initiative that guides it from product development to sales and marketing, leveraging facial recognition technologies, GPS data and cloud technologies. “RELX opposes minors using e-cigarettes and anyone using them in the presence of minors,” says Kate Wang, the founder and CEO of RELX. “To that end, we created the Guardian Program to deliver this promise to the best of our ability.”

In line with its mission statement of ’empowering adult smokers through technology, product and science,  ethically,’ RELX has printed bold reminders on the packaging of its products and product manuals with the words, “Not for Minors,” “Keep clear of Children” and “This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.” The health warnings displayed on RELX packaging are not required by the local laws of many countries where the products are sold, but the company voluntarily includes the warnings on its packaging as it recognises that consumers need to be better informed about the products they are purchasing. RELX’s official websites are age-gated to deter minors from purchasing its products. All marketing materials produced by RELX do not feature cartoons, youth-oriented celebrities, models who are or appear to be under the age of 25, or lifestyle activities that could appeal to youth in particular.

Yet beyond e-cigarette brand specifics, enterprises from other segments face not only the same challenges and opportunities, but also the same need to fully understand marketing fundamentals to overcome roadblocks and witness successful marketing campaigns unfold:

Remain familiar with the landscape

Content or messaging incorporated into campaigns, whether omnichannel or not, may be perfectly feasible to convey one day but not the next. In the marketing arena, the unexpected can always occur at any given moment, and campaigns exceeding set objectives and enjoying tremendous visibility can sometimes be in breach of parameters unintentionally. All concerned parties should be mindful of this, and constantly check or receive updates for regulations specific to them, so they are informed if changes are imminent. Regulated brands must be fully aware of their respective industries’ specifics, including potential compliance changes that come into effect. The responsibility to comply with set guidelines is that of the brand. Should such a situation arise where the material in the public domain breaches regulations, the marketing campaign will, most likely, not recover.

Proactive engagement

Failure to appreciate the target audience and consumers will hinder campaigns and potentially damage the brand long-term. Responsibility in the world of marketing is crucial not only to success but also longevity and gaining admiration and respect. Campaigns do not solely revolve around self-promotion and sales; they also involve sharing ideas and driving conversation through communications. What’s crucial to note is that, should content gain approval of the relevant regulatory bodies, it is a viable platform from which to engage and develop brand affinity. A prominent example for doing so is through social media, as these platforms provide an ideal setting to interact, or at the very least take the first step towards interaction. Even at the earliest stages of being exposed to audiences, new content, ideas, infographics, and images can be distributed to attract customers and potential customers from near and far.

Internal auditing

Internal communication is as important as external. It is, of course, integral for brand growth to frequently engage with regulators to ensure compliance with the law. But at the same time, negligence from within could also hinder growth and development. Brands must evaluate any potential situation related to regulators and envisage the unpleasant scenario in which they have breached protocol by including content that they did not verify prior to publication. Admittedly, reviewing does take time, even more so following the content creation process. Therefore, all employees under the umbrella of regulated brands must have the ingrained mentality that they all play a critical role in being vigilant to safeguard the company’s reputation. This should be present across the entire organisation, rather than be perceived as the sole remit of the legal or external affairs team.

Overcoming marketing challenges for regulated brands will always be a challenge in itself. Thoroughness is required at all stages of the process, as is being responsible. With these two traits, and considering the areas above, campaigns will have every chance of success.