Zain Ramadan’s ad, the MBC ban and how politics & business mix in the Middle East

This week Zain put out its Ramadan ad. The Kuwait-based telecommunications company has a reputation for mixing politics into its messaging during the holiest month of the year for Muslims. The company’s advertisement last year, which took on the issue of extremism through a portrayal of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks, became a viral hit in the Arab World.

This year, Zain’s timing is impeccable. The topic of the video is Jerusalem. You can watch the video below (it’s subtitled and includes a couple of nifty cameos by global leaders such as Angela Merkel as well as Donald Trump). There’s also a good description of the video and its context provided by The National’s Naser Al Wasmi. Already there’s been two million views of the video in less than two days.

Zain’s stance on political advertising is unusual. While there’s been a movement in the West for companies to take a stand on political issues that were once deemed to be off-limits (for example, immigration in America), companies in the Middle East rarely speak about wider societal issues.

While Zain’s latest Ramadan video may prove popular with many (Zain has operations in eight countries in the region, including Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon), there’s been reports in the Kuwaiti press that the MBC Group, the largest satellite television station, has banned the airing of the ad on their stations during Ramadan. MBC, which is Saudi-owned, banned the airing of Turkish soap operas in March of this year, a decision which surprised many given the popularity of Turkish dramas across the Middle East but which must be viewed in light of recent Saudi-Turkish relations.

Zain’s Ramadan ad is a rare example of a Middle East business taking the brave decision to use its media voice to take a stance on a political issue. But as has been shown by MBC and other voices online, it’s neither easy nor simple to take on a political issue in a region which is already politically divided across multiple fault lines.

Saudi Telecom, Boycotts, Social Media (راح_نفلسكم#) and Stock Price Impact

Forgive my wordy headline, but there’s a lot to get into this story. Before anything else, let me spell out the context. Saudi and Saudis love social media, but they haven’t been enthused by the efforts of the telecommunication providers in the country to block free call apps or services offered by the likes of FaceTime, SnapChat and WhatsApp. To add insult to injury, consumers have claimed that the Kingdom’s three telcos (Mobily, Saudi Telecom and Zain) have rolled back unlimited data services.

So what have the country’s social media-crazy consumers done? Yes, you guessed right. They’ve taken to social media to call for a boycott. Under the hashtags (which basically means we’ll bankrupt you) and  (boycott telco companies), the idea is simple.

Starting from last weekend, Saudi users have begun to switch off their phones. The hashtag and others have gone viral, and users have taken to Twitter to demand action against the telcos, including physical boycotts of stores.

The ultimate mark of consumer sentiment is cartoons, and Saudi’s most prominent cartoonist Abdullah Jaber stepped in to pen his own thoughts on the issue (the below translates as the Telco company on the right, saying to the consumer, “why are you angry?”

Saudi Telecom in particular has been hit, both in terms of its social media following (the carrier has lost almost 150,000 followers on its Twitter account), as well as its share price which dropped by several percent on Sunday morning after trading opened on the Saudi bourse.

stc-followers

Saudi Telecom’s Twitter account @STC_KSA lost over 140,000 followers in the space of two days as boycott calls spread (source: Twitter Count).

stc-stock-price

Saudi Telecom’s stock price was also hit on Sunday, with an initial fall of 8% (source: Google Finance)

There’s a further dimension to this story, with some online accounts in the UAE calling for similar action to be taken against the two telco incumbents (see the hashtag  and ).

Is this type of online activism on a single economic issue going to become more common, particularly with the state of finances across the region? And what can communicators do about an issue that is about a product and a strategy that consumers don’t like?

As always, it’d be good to hear your thoughts.

Pokemon Go and the Middle East – Advertiser, Brand and Consumer Reactions to the Global Craze

I wanted to write on something fairly light and fun today in light of recent events in the Middle East and in Europe. So, today I wanted to shine a light on Pokemon Go, the augmented reality mobile app that has become a global sensation (and if you’re asking what is Pokemon Go, where have you been for the past two weeks?). While Pokemon Go hasn’t been introduced into the Middle East officially, people are already playing the game here. And advertisers and brands are also reacting to and using the sensation to market their products.

Probably first out of the blocks were, unsurprisingly to me, the Saudis. Two of the Kingdom’s telcos put out adverts promoting the craze, which isn’t surprising considering that you need a mobile and a data connection to play the game.

Saudi telco Zain became the first household brand to use Pokemon Go when it ran this advert across its social media channels early this week.

Saudi telco Zain became the first household brand to use Pokemon Go when it ran this advert across its social media channels early this week.

Saudi Telecom ran this artwork the same day as Zain's ad. The ad says, "with our network we guarantee you'll be able to catch'em all, but we can't guarantee where!"

Saudi Telecom ran this artwork the same day as Zain’s ad. The ad says, “with our network we guarantee you’ll be able to catch’em all, but we can’t guarantee where!”

Other brands have also looked to leverage off the lovable Japanese characters. Cab booking service Careem ran out an ad, as did Jordan Tourism. The game uses geotargeting to get people walking around a physical environment such as a city, and brand whose services include travel and tourism (or any location-based product) are fast realizing the potential of getting players to visit their premises (or even country) to hunt the digital creatures.

The UAE-headquartered cab hailing service Careem has leveraged Pokemon Go to promote its service and give gamers a discount

The UAE-headquartered cab hailing service Careem has leveraged Pokemon Go to promote its service and give gamers a discount

Even Jordan's Ministry of Tourism has jumped on the Pokemon Go craze, to get visitors to go and take a look at Amman's Citadel

Even Jordan’s Ministry of Tourism has jumped on the Pokemon Go craze, to get visitors to go and take a look at Amman’s Citadel

Users have also been having fun and sharing their own experiences online. Some have been sharing their experiences, including one apparently from the front lines in Iraq and others in more mundane locations, including finding a Pokemon on top of a plate of Kunafe.

It's enough to put you off your dessert! A Pokemon on top of a plate of Kunafe (image thanks to Samer Batter).

It’s enough to put you off your dessert! A Pokemon on top of a plate of Kunafe (image thanks to Samer Batter).

This image is apparently from the front lines in Iraq, which probably isn't the safest place to hunt Pokemon

This image is apparently from the front lines in Iraq, which probably isn’t the safest place to hunt Pokemon

The craze and people’s reaction to it in the region has been picked up by local media. Reports have circulated that people have ventured into all sorts of places as part of the game. Two cartoons below best sum up that sentiment.

With his phone in his hand and an image of a Pokemon monster on the screen, the caption reads, "finally we see you at the Mosque." (image thanks to Yaser Al Amoudi)

With his phone in his hand and an image of a Pokemon monster on the screen, the caption reads, “finally we see you at the Mosque.” (image thanks to Yaser Al Amoudi)

Saudi cartoonist Abdullah Jaber came up with this image of how game players are so engrossed in the game that they don't notice their surroundings

Saudi cartoonist Abdullah Jaber came up with this image of how game players are so engrossed in the game that they don’t notice their surroundings

The craze hasn’t been without controversy. According to Gulf News, Al Azhar, Egypt’s top Islamic institution, has condemned the craze about Pokemon Go as “harmful mania”. “If such a game can deceive youngsters, I do not know where the minds of adults have gone. They can be hit by a car while being busy searching for Pokemon,” said Al-Azhar’s Deputy Abbas Shuman, according to Gulf News. Al Arabiya reported that Egyptian cabinet spokesman Hossam al-Qawish said that an investigation into the game’s dangers was taking place. The spokesman added that the government was also considering new regulations to be imposed on online games to limit possible threats to national security.

In addition, Gulf News reported that the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) has warned that criminals could exploit the popular Pokemon Go mobile game. Kuwaiti authorities have also warned against those who take photos of sensitive locations in the country. Brands promoting Pokemon have also been targeted, with the likes of Dominos Pizza and others called into question by those who consider Pokemon to be a work of the devil (if you don’t believe me, see below).

Dominos Pizza's efforts to use Pokemon as part of marketing were called into question by one user, who claimed Pokemon were tools of the devil against Islam. The user told Dominos to change its marketing or risk angering the public.

Dominos Pizza’s efforts to use Pokemon as part of marketing were called into question by one user, who claimed Pokemon were tools of the devil against Islam. The user told Dominos to change its marketing or risk angering the public.

There’s no doubt that the Pokemon craze will continue for some time to come, and will only become more intense/insane when the app is officially launched in the Middle East. Pokemon advertising has been used smartly to get a younger audience to engage with traditional organizations such as museums and promote small businesses. Let’s hope that marketers here are just as savvy, whilst being aware of local sensitivities. If you’re not already doing it, get ready to go catch some Pokemon adverts in your vicinity soon!

And as an extra treat, here’s one television news clip on Pokemon from Kuwait, with a particular focus on how its turning youth into addicts.

The Middle East’s love for Instagram (including its adverts)

Here in the Gulf we just love our pictures and photos. We love it so much that you’ll be hard pressed to find many in the Gulf who aren’t on the social media app. Only yesterday and in a period of less than five years Instagram announced that it had crossed the 400 million user mark (the app added 100 million users in the last 10 months alone). Seventy five percent of those 400 million users live outside the US, and the Gulf in particular has taken to the photo and video-sharing application.

In terms of the Gulf, it’s no surprise that Saudi leads the way – there are 10.7 million monthly active users in the Kingdom (just over a third of the population). The UAE follows with 2.2 million monthly users. And, to the West, Egypt has 3.2 million monthly active users. What’s even more impressive is daily active users – a whopping 6.1 million for Saudi, 1.2 million for the UAE, and 1.1 million for Egypt.

This all makes good news for Facebook, Instagram’s owner, which introduced advertising to the platform this month in the MENA region. Facebook rolled out advertising for select partners this month. The launch earlier this month included both regional brands such as telcos Saudi Telecom and Zain and retailers Souq and AlShaya, as well as global advertisers such as Unilever, P&G, Nestle, Mondelez, Visa, L’oreal and Pepsi. The first ad to go live was Souq’s, which you can see below.

Souq's Instagram advert was the first to be seen by Middle East users of the app

Souq’s Instagram advert was the first to be seen by Middle East users of the app

So far, from what I’ve been told, engagement with the adverts has been far higher than expected and much more than these advertisers are used to on Facebook. While there’ll be some negative sentiment from consumers who aren’t used to seeing advertising on their Instagram feeds, it seems that both Facebook and advertisers are onto a winner when it comes to Instagram advertising.

And for those of you curious people out there, the country with the highest penetration, is Bahrain which is closely followed by Kuwait. Both enjoy over 50 percent usage for Instagram; Bahrain’s penetration rate is over seventy five percent. The below visual was shared by social media expert Khaled El-Ahmed, and while the numbers may be slightly off from the above in terms of users, they’re still valid in terms of percentages.

PS For disclosure, I’m a P&G employee.