Liwa Content Driven’s Rohit Arora explores how this year’s WARC Prize for MENA Strategy winners built relevance by having their finger on the pulse of local culture.

It’s clear that brands that talk to themselves, about themselves, in a vacuum, without acknowledging what’s happening out there in culture, and without listening to their customers, just aren’t relevant anymore.

Being on the cusp of pop culture, capitalising on what’s happening and sometimes even adding an influential cultural value is so important. In the process, brands may be inspiring, entertaining or simply useful – and that by itself is a good start.

Today, pop culture is the biggest source of insights. It’s all happening around us, but it takes chameleon-like attributes to be able to think across platforms and tap into cultural conversations. By connecting to their truth, brands can be more meaningful to people and evoke an emotional reaction.

Some of the winning work from the 2021 WARC Prize for MENA Strategy did just that. Here are my takeaways.

Learn to listen

Consider Clubhouse, pop-culture’s latest social media obsession: it's a community where people listen for hours. Brands need to embrace this paradigm shift. By listening to our communities and tailoring our solutions, we can help produce better content at scale and bring value to consumers.

Take KFC Arabia’s Shift+K+F+C as an example. Several brands had tried to capitalise on Saudi Arabia’s gaming culture, mostly through giveaways and sponsorships. Instead, KFC Arabia hacked its own ordering process to connect with gamers. It went deep in understanding gamers’ psyche, immersed itself in their world and designed its campaign like a gamer, down to the minute details of the menu to make it easy to eat while playing.

Stay contextually relevant

Switched-on brands care about the world and are acutely aware of political, social, and environmental problems that the people they serve face. In the new era of ‘actvertising’, we can’t just say things, we must live by them. Know our core values, contribute to society, and communicate our purpose. That allows us to build context in content easily.

Knorr’s Rooftop Farms did just that and made a lasting impact on the hunger crisis by empowering those living in poverty in Egyptian cities to grow their own food. This was replicable and scalable, a gift to the community that keeps on giving. The shift was from donations to solving problems, from selling Knorr to people to educating them on farming. Brand love is the real brand-equity impact when you start to participate in communities in a way that is not self-serving.

Similarly, Bose’s Noise-o-Meter solved a common, everyday problem during lockdown with home-offices being loud – something its noise-cancelling headphones could tackle. By converting decibels into discounts, Bose highlighted its value proposition in tough economic times by digitising its path to purchase and re-engineering how its product was bought.

Create a customer-obsessed culture

By building customer-obsession into the brand’s DNA, we can build a purpose that transcends biases in race, ethnicity, politics, or religion. Customer-centricity can become the hallmark of brands if we operationalise compassion and customer empathy.

Home Centre’s A Dad’s Job bravely tackled a cultural taboo to transform conventional Father's Day communications in the Middle East. By challenging that taboo, it won share-of-heart-and-wallet with Arab mums.

The Arabic-language daily newspaper in Lebanon An-Nahar, which has a long history of standing up for the people during all revolutions, reworded the national anthem to encourage positive action by playing its part in the cultural zeitgeist, eventually helping to raise the brand’s profile.

Put a new spin on trends

Sometimes the best way to connect with people is to surprise them with something unexpected.

Automobile brand LADA’s Thank You Russia campaign did exactly that. By using provocative messaging around its Russian roots, it grabbed the attention of drivers in Lebanon. Although it was stunt-like, it entertained and fetched results despite LADA being a brand that’s relatively less known and the product not matching-up with the features of the new-age makes.

Likewise, Burger King called on a celebrity doppelganger to launch its repackaged value items and increase sales in Saudi Arabia. It cleverly tapped into the zeitgeist, was COVID-friendly and closed with the message “we are saving on everything, except the quality of our food”.

In conclusion

Among this year’s winners, the best ideas were simple, honest, committed to making a difference in culture and humble in their approach. Strong campaigns that address marketing objectives have become the norm in the digital age of accountability, but the most outstanding work is that which connects marketing with cultural objectives.

It’s evident from the winning work that cultural relevance is no longer optional for brands that want to grow. By being plugged-into the local pop culture and current affairs, brands can tackle relevant moments with confidence, even when it comes to controversial topics.

Great ads don’t feel like ads and harnessing the power of pop culture can help build long-term relationships and true brand affinity.

An abridged version of this article appears in WARC's 2021 MENA Strategy Report.