Nielsen Media’s consultant Laura Chaibi explores the WARC Prize for MENA Strategy winners which combined empathy with participatory mechanics to empower consumers.

‘Brave’, ‘clever’, ‘impactful’, ‘locally relevant’, ‘struck a chord’, ‘hits home’, ‘creatively executed’, ‘strategically insightful’… are terms that have come up often to describe winning strategy papers in the MENA region over the past five years.

Why do we even do awards? Some might say for the accolades of ‘job well done’ and business dollars and dirhams well spent.  

As judges, what we are really looking for are the standout cases we want the rest of the world to know about and copy because they are so good, we all benefit from more of them. 

The number of times I have witnessed behind closed doors other judges saying, “this paper was so moving it brought tears to my eyes and it made me remember why I came into the industry.”

To lead on projects that make a difference, with positive contributions and outcomes… and proof it is deliberately planned and working, that is what the WARC Prize for MENA Strategy is about.

Winning cases stayed true to their branding, their core values and strategy towards equity-building while pivoting on messaging to make sure they were not tone deaf or insensitive to real-world issues.

This year, one standout thread among winners was how several brands empowered consumers through engagement strategies, letting them play, interact, and become advocates for the brand using empathy, trust and understanding.

Leading from the heart

From insight through to ideation, tone and delivery, these winners showed a high level of emotionally intelligent responses and communications.

As many people faced income reductions during the pandemic, Burger King trusted customers to put in their pay-cut percentage to be turned into a discount on their order. Knorr’s Rooftop Farms was praised for shifting the focus from donations to educating people on how to grow their own farms.

Several winning brands featured real people or relatable characters in their comms – lending humanity to brands and playing to the strengths of authentic, emotionally intelligent storytelling.

Home Centre’s ‘A Dad’s Job’ highlighted how single mothers do all the parenting roles from fixing bikes, playing basketball, and winning at video games – all while being under lockdown – remaining brave heroes to their kids. Elevating this audience segment in communications – which to some is taboo – also meant in parallel Home Centre was strategically preparing for a negative backlash by focusing on single mums in real situations.

One judge commented: “…beautiful, emotionally evoking. It hits home for a lot of people in terms of the value of mothers. The creative execution was wonderful. New age mums want to see that brands are emotionally intelligent like this.”

Decisive strategies and authentic actions

Creativity, emotionalism, and distinction were coupled with speed and decisive decisions; COVID has been the ultimate test for many.

The big winners this year were those which supported and empathised with consumers by acting as a channel for them to express themselves. Essentially, they made the consumers themselves the protagonists of the work, for example through enabling participatory mechanics as part of campaign deliverables.

As it was lockdown, Home Centre’s teams had to take the decisive decision to pivot productions to real single mums in their homes with their kids recording themselves with remote guidance.

Travel brand Almosafer showed support to Muslims worldwide by encouraging them to submit their ‘stories of Mecca’ at a time when the pilgrimage site was empty because of lockdowns.

Other brands had to show quick thinking when they found themselves suddenly being moved from an everyday accessible product to a luxury or discretionary purchase.

This was the case for Burger King’s Doppelganger. What made it standout is it didn’t compete on product pricing wars and discounts. Burger King authentically said it couldn’t afford the leading talents and used an influencer lookalike instead to showcase alternative, less purchased but equally good menu items, achieving targets at the same time.

One judge said: “It was clever in so many ways: it tapped into the zeitgeist and was COVID friendly. Burger King is a brand that wants to participate culturally, and here it did it in a very Saudi way.”

Relatable everyday people

So many winning papers tapped into relatable everyday people, and we saw a marked move away from influencers and glamour. From Home Centre’s single mums, to Burger King’s doppelganger and Knorr’s families on rooftops.

Diari’s ‘A journey across Tunisia’ was a campaign that went across Tunisia and into the homes of families known for the best traditional homemade couscous dishes and recipes.

One judge commented, “If you look at food brands, most of them come up with new recipes, but here, instead of trying to come up with something new, they decided to celebrate the traditions of Tunisian culture. It showed a sense of pride, sort of like creating a cultural archive. Results are brilliant. It’s important to remember that couscous having a fixed price in Tunisia, it’s harder to create differentiation.”

We hope more brands from around the world copy this idea and invest in cultural archives.

While on the opposite end of the spectrum, Emirates NBD strategically positioned itself as a bank that works with you to give you something back.

Its lead character epitomised an everyday person, relatively deadpan and leaving no distinct impression. Judges commented that in a saturated competitive category, it was a daring choice of tone, talent casting and format that strategically worked. It was noted that, “As Arabs, we love to think we are beating the system. The strategy was bang-on: the bank was speaking people’s language and it was not a tactic, it was a campaign.”

The payoff in human strategies

There was an element of goodness that came through so many papers, the kind that judges hope will show up year after year to affirm authentic commitment to strategies that have heart as well as science to explain success.

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