FP7 McCann MENAT’s Tahaab Rais explains how human stories rooted in empathy were the key to the agency’s winning papers in this year’s WARC Prize for MENA Strategy.

Amidst this crisis, our world isn’t the happiest place right now. Everyone is fighting their own battle every day and individual crises rage behind closed doors too (for everyone reading this, do remember this too shall pass). Now beyond our closed doors, another crisis facing our world is that bees are disappearing at an alarming rate. Being a closet apiarist, I’ve read a lot about this issue. And in doing so, I’ve studied a lot about bees.

What was fascinating to uncover is how these bees, and the honey they produce, can be a cure for so many sicknesses and diseases we face as people. What also intrigued me to learn was how bees can teach us about creating work that helps cure the problems we face, helps elevate our lives from our everyday struggles and, in its own little way, elevate the world around us from its struggles too.

So, I’ve really found inspiration in bees and the conscious empathy they show. That conscious empathy has helped us create some of the winning work at WARC’s Prize for MENA Strategy this year. And here are the insights into how conscious empathy, subconsciously learnt from those very bees, helped inspire these strategies.

Tapping into the power of the community

Collectively, bees travel nearly 55,000 miles and visit two million flowers in a day to gather enough nectar to make just a pound of honey. When our bee comes back to its hive, it does a peculiar dance, hovering around. This dance informs its fellow bees about the navigation path and coordinates, directing them to the area where this bee got its food. It therefore helps them pollinate, so they can nourish themselves too. The work of a single bee helps the entire community thrive and prosper. The bee recognises that it cannot build a hive by itself: it has to do it together with the other bees.

It's imperative for brands to recognise they cannot succeed without people. When Mecca was locked down in 2020 and, as a result, during Ramadan there was no pilgrimage to the holy site for the first time in our lifetimes, it impacted the Muslim community across the world. They could not travel to Mecca. So, for Almosafer, a booking platform in Saudi Arabia, we tapped into the power of the Ummah (the Muslim ‘community’) and invited Muslims worldwide to share their own ‘Stories of Mecca’, then we created a moving crowdsourced film from their memory libraries (instead of being lazy and tapping into stock libraries). Even if people around the world couldn’t travel to Mecca, at least their stories from Mecca could travel the world.

Enabling a meaningful livelihood

Just like us, the bee earns its livelihood and has relationships; yet it not only benefits itself, but also its community and its environment. And it is the bees’ joint efforts that create the very honey that heals people, including my daughter thousands of miles away. This amazing healing power can come from each of those little bees.

For Knorr in Egypt, to help alleviate a hunger crisis, we challenged conventional food donation drives that made the underprivileged reliant on the charity of brands and NGOs. Knorr Rooftop Farms helped impoverished Egyptians, transforming the concept of charity from food donation to food-based empowerment. We helped build farms on rooftops, powered by hydroponic technology, that were operated by those in need. We taught them how to farm effectively. The produce didn’t just provide food to them, but was also purchased by Knorr, thus making it a sustainable model that created a meaningful means of livelihood.

Giving more than taking

Even though the bee shares a transactional relationship with the flower it pollinates, it always gives a lot more than it takes. And what it gives makes the life of the flower better. If you observe a bee about to eat from a flower, you’ll notice that it keeps hovering gently over it, so as not to put its entire weight on the most delicate part of the flower. Now, the bee is relatively heavy for something as delicate as a flower. But watch how it shows its compassion: it sits but it doesn’t break, it puts demands but it doesn’t break. What a great way to eat. And to live.

Banks share transactional relationships with people. They usually take more than they give. So, when Emirates NBD in Saudi Arabia came up with a cashback card that gave people a lot more, we showed the story of someone who didn’t get anything back in life. We portrayed a depressing day in his life, to highlight the fact that Emirates NBD understood how people felt in life (and about banks!) until the final twist when he gets the amazing cashback from the bank. This initiative displayed conscious empathy, but did so with a lighthearted video, proving that you don’t always need to tug at heartstrings, and can show human understanding through dark humour too.

Aligning with times of the year

Bees are known to do something beautiful as the seasons change: when it gets cold, bees form a cluster the size of a basketball to ensure the inside is very warm. Individual bees move in and out of the center, in order, and take turns on the chilly outside. Then, if it gets too hot, they start fanning to get rid of the hot air inside the hive. That’s empathy from an unexpected place.

This conscious empathy based on the seasons and time of the year is what brands need to demonstrate too. And that’s what we did with Home Centre, a brand that believes every home has its own unique story to tell. Father’s Day is an occasion when dads are celebrated, but there were many homes in the region whose story was not being told on Father’s Day – homes with single mothers who did ‘A Dad’s Job’ every day. We empathised with their families on what was a typical seasonal marketing occasion, and flipped it on its head, giving them recognition and opportunities, starting with Father’s Day in 2020. The fact that we featured real single mothers and their children, instead of actors, made this a genuine and sincere effort, and the results are there for all to see.

Strategy with a human touch

As proven by bees and the honey they produce, there’s a return and reward in conscious empathy. Here’s to hoping we can show more of it, for real, not just for awards, in our region’s marketing efforts.

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