A region with a long history of purposeful work, MENA is witnessing a new push for purpose dictated by the pandemic. WARC’s Chiara Manco explores its challenges and opportunities.

Brand purpose has always been a key area of focus for marketers in the MENA region, as made apparent by work awarded over the past four years of the WARC Prize for MENA Strategy.

Traditionally, purposeful work peaked around the Ramadan season, where values such as togetherness and charity are put centre-stage. More than a year into the pandemic, however, the meaning of purpose seems to have deepened the world over.

With the deadline to the 2021 Prize approaching, we look at what this means for the region’s marketers and how they can seize the opportunities – and tackle the challenges – posed by this new era of purpose. 

The WARC Prize for MENA Strategy is now open for entries with deadline on 28th April.

First launched in 2017 to reward the smartest strategic thinking from the region’s marketing industry, the Prize is free to enter.

Peter DeBenedictis, CMO Middle East and Africa at Microsoft will be chairing this year’s judging panel of senior marketers and strategy experts.

A new push for purpose

Seventy-eight per cent of marketing executives surveyed for the 2021 Marketer’s Toolkit agreed brand purpose is more important now as a result of the disruption to society in 2020. And, speaking with MENA strategists, there’s a sense that the pandemic has indeed led to a renewed push for purpose in the region. Shagorika Heryani, Grey MENA’s Regional Head of Strategy, said: “Brands this year have been all about finding solutions rather than simply communicating messages. There is a sense that advertising in its traditional, sales-driven form doesn’t work anymore, so brands ask themselves ‘How can we create positive sentiment by having a point of view?’”

With the pandemic putting so much of our lives into perspective, we have come to realise the importance of things we took for granted or made time for only at specific times of the year. Ramadan has always been about togetherness and doing good, but it feels like the region is now looking to uphold such values year-round. Back in 2019, telco Jawwy invited consumers to extend the Ramadan spirit to the whole year – what was a provocation then, is now reality. 

The challenge for marketers is to translate this push for purpose in strategic and effective communications, to grow their business while simultaneously making a difference in people’s lives.

Leveraging new spaces

Winning the WARC Prize for MENA Strategy Grand Prix in 2020 was telco Tunisie Telecom, with a campaign that made it easier for female farmers to access social security. Despite happening pre-pandemic, this work underlines the newly-emerged need for marketers to focus on rural communities, which have grown larger after lockdowns have led many migrant workers to return to their home villages.

Another space that has grown in importance over the past year is the health and wellness one. Here, brands have a chance to create purposeful work that shows a commitment to consumers’ wellbeing at a time when both physical and emotional health are top of mind. Looking at last year’s Prize, two Silver winners stand out for their health-focused work: UAE retailer Babyshop, which encouraged mothers to get screened for breast cancer; and bank Emirates NBD, which launched a reward-based initiative to help people improve their physical and financial health. Babyshop’s initiative not only drove a 63% increase in check-ups at its partner clinic, but also a 23% growth in in-store footfall. Similarly, Emirates NBD achieved a growth in acquisitions 50% higher than its target, while also getting 36,000 customers to adopt healthier habits.

But out of all the new areas of focus for marketers, the home has to be the key one. Lockdown-fatigued consumers are appreciative of home experiences that can make daily tasks easier, or simply bring some excitement to their Groundhog-Day reality.

For many brands, creating home experiences will mean adapting their product or service to a digital platform. Though pre-dating the pandemic, the Coke2Home initiative from India is a great example. Aiming to make consumers’ purchase journeys seamless, the soft-drink brand created a home-delivery service to allow World Cup fans to enjoy Coca-Cola without ever leaving their house, leading to a 10% volume growth.

Providing relief, mindfully

At a time when we are overwhelmed by the news and desperately look for balance in this ‘new normal’ we find ourselves in, every distraction is welcome. But in their efforts to make consumers feel better and hopeful for the future, brands should exercise caution. As Tahaab Rais, President – SLC and Regional Head of Strategy & Truth Central, FP7 McCann MENAT, said when asked about this year’s Ramadan advertising: “Brands are seeking to not COVID-wash, but they are also cognisant we’re still in the midst of the pandemic.”

Especially for Ramadan, which has always been synonymous with large family gatherings, the implications of ignoring the reality of the pandemic could be disastrous. But there are cautious routes that marketers can explore to keep alive the values Ramadan has always stood for, even in the absence of much of the rituals that traditionally accompany it.

The markets that have lived with the pandemic longer are the best source of inspiration on how to strike this delicate balance. Ride-hailing and food-delivery app Grab in Malaysia, for example, recreated street-food bazaars online for Ramadan 2020, allowing people to still feel the festive spirit despite being in lockdown. By offering its consumers a glimpse of ‘normality’ within a safe digital space, Grab enriched their lives without ignoring the reality of the pandemic. As a result, it grew new users by 77% compared to the previous year.

Another effective – and safe – route to providing relief is humour, a creative strategy masterfully used by many past winners of the WARC Prize for MENA Strategy. Egyptian telco Etisalat Misr won Bronze in 2020 with a campaign that promoted its family plan through amusing, culturally-relevant ads. Meanwhile, Burger King in Saudi Arabia also won Bronze with work that played on a local debate on the pronunciation of the word ‘burger’. On top of driving hard business results, these campaigns helped Etisalat and Burger King grow brand equity. Today, when consumers crave lightness more than ever, making them laugh may be one of the best ways to increase awareness and preference.

Exciting times ahead

Often, the best breeding ground for breakthrough work is a challenging environment. In the words of Grey’s Shagorika Heryani: “When you are in a pressure-cooker environment, you either come up with something amazing or you just fizzle out, and this is taking brands in exciting places.”

We look forward to seeing how entrants to the 2021 WARC Prize for MENA Strategy will take challenges in their stride to produce exciting, purposeful work that supports and gives hope to consumers in such uncertain times. 

The 2021 WARC Prize for MENA Strategy is open for entries. Deadline is on 28th April. For more information on how to enter, email chiara.manco@warc.com.