The search for value in the Middle East: Redesigning brands for evolving definitions of value, by Kantar’s Dina El Sehrawy

By Dina El Sehrawy, head of qualitative research, Middle East, Insights Division.

Key socio-economic events challenge consumerism existentially. Financial market crises, currency devaluations, substantial lifting of subsidies, subsequent inflation – and of course, a global pandemic. In moments like this, the singular emotion consumers feel is that of existential vulnerability. Priorities are reorganised. Choices and expenditures are scrutinised. Prevailing perceptions of value become distorted. Consequently, many categories become delisted from baskets. Among any remaining categories, brand loyalties are often challenged.

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In the face of forces majeures, consumers are more sensitive and prone to dichotomous discrimination between needs vs. wants and luxury vs. necessity. They agonise to resolve tensions in the space between long-termism and short-termism, e.g., finding pleasure in life vs. doing the ‘right thing’, indulgence vs. prudence, living well today vs. buffering for the future, connecting with others vs. keeping a safe distance, and so on.

So, how can brands survive the flux, ensuring they are redesigning for evolving definitions of value?  Traditionally, this complex and elusive question has been addressed simplistically. A basic and valid view of value is that consumers seek to maximise benefits or utility derived from a product or service versus what they pay for it.

It is all too easy to confuse the bigger notion of value with a single, more tangible manifestation of it: ‘affordability’. Too many brands’ efforts target reducing price as is evident in the plethora of chronic promotional activity. In many respects, it is an easy fix with short-term returns, but can be unsustainable and potentially detrimental to brand-building efforts in the longer term. Price erosion as a perceptual ‘value-building’ strategy risks category commoditisation, brand disloyalty, diminishing long-term margins and meaningfulness to consumers.

Undoubtedly, the Middle Eastern consumer is more sceptical than in the past – adopting a more ‘prudent’ mindset than the ‘abundance’ mindset of past times. To stretch every dirham, riyal and dinar as far as possible, consumers are more aware of expenditure, consumption, and wastage. They are adopting, adapting, and deploying strategies to find, maximise and retain value. These include reshuffling priorities and trade-offs (often trans-categorical and non-linear), buying smarter, skimping and splurging where it matters most, deferring payment, managing waste, and reducing risk.

But, ultimately, the subjective sense of value is not measured exclusively in monetary terms. In this realisation lies the opportunity for brand builders to also build value creatively, without the long-term conflicts associated with taking a purely monetary approach to the value equation.

So, what do consumers really value? Kantar Qualitative Practice’s research demonstrates there are six ‘currencies’ consumers are now willing to trade in exchange for value:

Money: financial liquidity and savings

Though the most common treatment of this currency often incorporates discounts, instalments, and deferred payments, it needn’t always be the case. A good example from the Middle East of a creative mobilisation of the money currency to create value comes from Burger King’s ‘Pay Cut Whopper’ campaign. At the peak of job losses and pay cuts, the fast-food giant showed fairness and empathy to consumers during the toughest time by offering discounts to match their pay-cut percentage to ensure they can continue to enjoy a favourite meal.

Time: for the things that matter most and the capacity to do ‘more’ 

Time is an increasingly valuable and scarce currency that the Middle Eastern consumer is starting to be more careful with. A great example of this ‘time currency’ in action comes from IKEA UAE. Armed with an understanding of the intricacies of competing temporal priorities and high opportunity cost to consumers and brands alike, IKEA allowed consumers to pay with their time. Time spent on relatively longer commutes to an IKEA store is valued and traded in-store, based on an estimate on average salaries in Dubai. Consumers can choose to exchange money, time, or a combination of both at the tills. This time-currency initiative resulted in a significant spike in footfall and earned media.

Connection: discernment and empowerment to engage in authentic, supporting relationships

The Middle East is largely collectivistic. At the onset, Covid-19 heightened the sense of shared humanity, community, and solidarity. Now, consumers are re-emerging from the pandemic experience (e.g., lockdown, social distancing, deprivation, sickness, bereavement) with a stronger sense of judiciousness about the quality and not necessarily the quantity of relationships. They value meaningful, authentic, quality connections more than ever. Equally, they value brands that facilitate or enhance these rich human encounters or the occasions they exist in, which has given rise to this ‘relational’ currency.

Vitality: a combination or one of immunity, energy, wellbeing (both physical and mental) 

If Covid-19 has taught consumers one thing, it is the value of physical and mental health, energy, resilience, and wellbeing. Products, services, and media that help promote one or any of these have made significant gains, whether they have communicated localised vitality (e.g., skin, hair, immunity) or more general wellbeing. The appreciation of vitality as a currency will not regress easily and will fuel and propel future consumer choices and valuations of worthiness.

Although medicinal, natural sourcing or immunity-boosting ingredients and the like may be top of mind for this currency, it is accessible and opportune to many more. A brilliant example (and personal favourite) comes from Maltesers UK. #TheMassiveOverShare March 2021 campaign aimed to normalise the conversation around maternal mental health and help-seeking by tackling taboos and stigma. Despite the seriousness of the issue, Maltesers tackled the issue both authentically and humorously, in the true essence of everyday chocolate.

Safety: physical and financial safety

The need for safety and security, especially in moments of crisis, is paramount. Retailers and malls across the Middle East were quick to make brick-and-mortar shopping experiences physically safe and hygienic, then communicated this.

Impact: a positive contribution to a societal, environmental, ethical, or other cause

Conscious consumerism and the path to sustainability are only just budding in our region.  With top-down mandates and initiatives on SGDs and sustainable futures from governments as well as increasing responsibility for global brands and social media influence, the Middle Eastern consumer will eventually catch on. The mainstream consumer may not be ready to pay extra for positive impact trade-offs immediately, but awareness is rising strategically and will eventually impact on perceptions of value.

So, how can brands persuade and reframe value for these emerging currencies and evolving times?

Here are a few tips to help us move beyond a simple monetary treatment of value:

1 Reframe value by creating unexpected motivational pairings:

Consumers are now making non-linear, trans-category trade-offs, actively exchanging one or more currencies for another. This creates opportune spaces for brands to talk about new trade-offs. In moments of change, fusing motivations that are at seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum can be combined to create value in novel ways.

For instance, a home baking kit or pleasurable snack can be reframed as facilitators of family quality time and emotional wellness for everyone involved. Equally, an expensive morning cereal can be reframed beyond value as a nutrition-packed meal that ensures the family busts its morning hunger.

2 Design for the moment rather than the activity:

Since the pandemic started, most value-creation brand work has been reactive in nature. Simulating strategic growth requires taking an expansive view of the whole moment we are marketing to. This requires moving beyond specific activities to understanding demand spaces and occasions. Value creation for a moment includes giving permission, designing new rituals, and granting accessibility.

A good regional example comes from Unilever. Though the culinary brand Knorr has its heartland in cooking, Unilever now focuses the brand efforts on eating and not simply cooking. This broadens the brand opportunity to include more nuanced needs, behaviours, rituals, emotional facets, innovation platforms and more.

3 Allow contexts of permission:

Some decisions consumers are making, especially in relation to categories and occasions that involve ‘letting go’, can give rise to emotional uneasiness. This is particularly true where the physical or socio-emotional consumption context is lacking because of the macro challenges and changes. Factors like managing spatial challenges, intergenerational tensions and the inability to let go or indulge outside an immediate peer group can be big barriers. Brands have been investing in getting the product, pricing, and supply right for in-home or out-of-context consumption but not many are creating the permissive contexts of consumption.

A social media post by Maltesers UK reads: “What feels like a crime but isn’t? Keeping chocolate in the fridge”. A regional example comes from a simple promotional activation by Magnum ice cream in UAE, where the single purchase of any SKU offers a one-month free subscription to OSN. This is a great example of a brand-enhancing a moment and giving permission for a fully indulgent experience that may otherwise have been guilt-ridden.

4 Create value within a new risk landscape:

Consumers’ assessment and notions of risk have changed due to the mega changes that have unfolded since 2020. To stimulate growth, brands need to help mitigate these novel notions of risk, rebalance everyday risk and buffer the future against unforeseen scenarios. To do this, value creation efforts need to focus on two pillars: contingency planning and current information.

Middle Eastern Airlines’ move to offer fare flexibility, rebooking arrangements and adjustments to cancellations and refunds create value by helping travellers mitigate risk and engage more confidently.

It’s easy to think that with the easing of restrictions and resumption of ‘normality’ as it once were, consumers will boomerang back to old ways. The reality is, they won’t. The seismic change in behaviours means the heightened need and chronic hunt for value is inevitable and here to stay. There is an urgent call for all of us to rethink how we create and deliver value to stakeholders. The centrality of framing value at the heart of everything we create, market and retail is integral to stimulating growth in a tough time of evolving behaviours.