Turning tides – by Starcom’s Jad Saab

Saudi Arabia represents a unique opportunity for marketers to rethink how they speak to youth and women, writes Starcom’s general manager, Jad Saab

Change always begins with a small ripple. Give it enough time, support and nurturing, and this ripple will develop into a tidal wave. Yes, this statement might come across as somewhat dramatic, but in Saudi this is exactly how change started, and over the past three years we have seen these tidal waves in the form of cultural, societal and behavioural changes. The most widely acknowledged facet of this change has undoubtedly been the drive of empowering youth, and particularly women, in the Kingdom.

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Everyone around the world has either heard or discussed how the status of women in KSA has changed significantly over the past few years. From the right to drive to the fact that women are no longer required to be fully covered in public, and more recently the 2020 Saudi court decision allowing women to move out of their family home and live independently without a male guardian’s permission, everyone has had something to celebrate or propagate. Meanwhile, with these new reforms coming into play, KSA has become an open canvas for youth to freely express themselves and pursue what they love without worrying about social acceptance. A young female DJ, a female race driver, an astonishing young photographer, up-and-coming artists, etc. Many inspirational stories are arising from the Kingdom every day. Many talents are being nourished and, most importantly, young voices are rising to tell their story and, in doing so, are showing the world the true beauty of Saudi.

Whilst this is all great news from a humanitarian perspective, it also poses immense potential for brands and marketers. Think about it: everywhere else in the world, the style of communication or basic marketing norms have long been established and there’s little left by way of innovation. But in Saudi, any celebration of what it is to be a woman or a young talent will come across as significantly innovative. This means our industry has a responsibility in not trivialising how we address this opportunity. A woman is not a second-grade individual, and we should at all costs avoid patronising her or ‘mansplaining’ things. We have the essence of decades of evolution in communicating to women, which we can use as the starting point for how we advertise to them in Saudi. This should inherently be married to the pride a Saudi national feels in belonging to this great nation, and to celebrating the ever-evolving heritage.

Having worked in this market for a good portion of my career, before and during the transformation, I would say brands need to shift efforts into understanding how they can play into this changing narrative and capitalise on the evolving opportunities. It can be easily done if they simply connect, collaborate and convey.

Connect: Understand who consumers are. And I don’t mean just collect their data signals to understand their behaviours. Understand who they really are as humans, their aspirations, their dreams, the message they want to convey to the world. Think of Airbnb and how it connects hosts across the globe.

Collaborate: Instead of force-feeding brand values through borrowed voices of influencers or proxies, endorse them in real life for a stronger representation. Help them explore the value you bring to this world and share theirs. They have a story to tell, and we are the best story tellers. Help them narrate a story that is in line with their purpose and yours. Think of Red Bull and how it collaborates with cultures and athletes.

Convey: Think beyond commercial delivery. Once you connect and collaborate with them, you will be able to tell authentic stories. Don’t think of them as an advertising channel; it is our social responsibility to help them convey their story to the whole world. Think of how P&G celebrates mothers every year.

That tidal wave I mentioned earlier has started to take shape, and it’s happening fast. Saudi youth are driven, inspired and eager to embrace meaningful change. While it will be affecting everyone, women are huge proponents of this drive. They in particular want to prove something to themselves and to the world. So next time you’re thinking about your brand, think of the small acts that would empower these two groups and help them play a pivotal role in bridging the global perception chasm. Who knows, maybe your work will end up representing the new face of Saudi.