The Arab world as a product placement lab

As the social marketing coups of Coca-Cola in Dubai and Nestlé in Saudi Arabia show, product placement in social media is a huge trend in the Arab world. Rami Hmadeh Managing Director of Serviceplan Dubai is calling on German companies to utilise this hype for their brands – and to use Arab countries as a testing lab for brand communication in social media by experimenting with new marketing ideas.

Product placements have gone social – and while some parts of the world are still stuck in eras where content has remained static and viral, the Middle East has gone global and started exporting visual, moving content that has proven to be extremely social.

 

The Coca-Cola Happiness Machine. It came in the form of a red telephone booth, branded, of course, in Coke’s iconic red. The plot of this heroic and visual storytelling was heart-stoppingly simple: Southern Asian workers in Dubai, earning a meagre six dollars a day couldn’t really afford that much longed-for phone call back home as it would have easily set them back one whopping dollar a minute. Drum rolls and in came a brand with the insane power to turn almost anything into a viable currency. In this case, the Coca-Cola bottle caps. Instead of using their hard-earned dirhams, labourers simply needed to invest in – and enjoy – a bottle of Coke for a reasonable fifty four cents to make that 3-minute phone call to their loved ones back home. Ingenious, I say! But that isn’t where the ingenuity ends. It is precisely where it starts.

What really makes the Coca-Cola Happiness Machine a hit is the social media intent behind it. The truth is, whether we like it or not, the objective was not to look for corporate social responsibility initiatives to give Coca-Cola a better name. Rather, the agency directive was to hunt for brilliant opportunities, if not inspired occasions, to seamlessly incorporate Coke into the everyday lives of its consumers, to feed an escalating demand for content.

Even though the consumers in question are an unassuming bunch of labourers, the formula is epic. Coca-Cola is not just your world-renowned refreshingly-carbonated beverage; it is your friendly, neighbourhood pal who will go the distance to make the world a better place for you, me, and the labourers of Dubai. Only this time, it did not need millions of advertising dollars to get the message across to the world watching via their television sets. It only had to invest in five special phone booths operating for a month, and the rest is pretty much taken on by likes, shares, views and comments, as Netizens, Twitteraties and Youtubers provided both positive and negative feedback to fuel the communication engine.

And so we all bore witness to an astounding and compelling storytelling brand tactic. While it was part of a global campaign dubbed “Where Will Happiness Strike Next?”, the Dubai story has been the most successful and the most popular, if not highly controversial, content from within Coca-Cola’s social marketing roadmap.

For good reason. Dubai is but part and parcel of a larger geographical mass called the Arab world. Not only is it a land brimming with oil that has become synonymous with rapid progress, but it has also evolved into a region that has broken the sound barriers of video content consumption. Almost overnight, we saw how social media and video platforms have reshaped the face of advertising in the region. Subliminal persuasion in the form of cleverly executed product placements has become the predominant content on YouTube. FMCGs, automotive and electronics brands, even service-oriented brands like banks and insurance companies have all been busy producing viral content that the Arab world, in turn, has voraciously consumed, day in and day out.

This only means that Google’s YouTube, the world’s largest video producer online, definitely stands to benefit from the region’s progress as brands have started to capitalise on a media behaviour particularly unique to the Arab world. Latest statistics show that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is now home to the world’s most avid YouTube user base. With a population of more than 28 million, it now boasts the highest YouTube consumption per capita in the world, contributing some 90 million views every day, of which 50 percent come from smartphones.

YouTube has evolved as the main source of entertainment since government censorship of television and social media channels like Facebook and Twitter in such tightly-controlled countries as the KSA, Egypt and Jordan has driven consumers towards new vs. traditional media. Such censorship has only fuelled their desire and demand for Arabic content, content that the region’s big name brands are rushing to produce and deliver as fast as the sifting of desert sands.

 

A pop-up Nescafé coffee booth with two Saudi Arabian actors. This widely-viewed clip comes from the “Abo Hayat” episode of a show called “La Yekthar”. The satire, cleverly sponsored by Nestlé, has attracted a whopping 826,481 followers on YouTube, while the clip showing Abo Hayat, an endearingly loveable anti-social character, slapping a member of staff from a Nestlé coffee booth, has been viewed more than 2.8 million times by the extremely entertained Saudis.

This content is what currently drives the region. It has not only proven to be a big win for smart-thinking brands like Nestlé, but it has also filled a massive void in the Arab digital generation’s hunger for non-traditional, non-cultural content. Brands are taking advantage of this movement, recognising that, because such content is made by young people themselves, it is both useful and entertaining, and thus close to the heart of what is now the region’s largest demographic.

In case you haven’t heard, the region has many favourable attributes on which to build a brand, including a young and dynamic generation under the age of 25, also known as the Millennials, who now comprise more than 50 percent of the population. These Millennials are the major proponents of digital consumption and engagement, powerfully wielding multiple digital tools including social networking platforms, mobile applications, online videos, etc. This Arab digital generation has unwittingly given birth to a trend in the form of moving stories that have, in turn, churned the wheels of communications with the rise of product placements gone highly social.

 

The giant institution called Unilever. Choosing to re-allocate budgets and re-position strategies towards digital strategies, Unilever hit the veritable jackpot of 10 million views when it decided to give a product from its functional (and therefore unexciting) product category an unexpectedly interesting twist. They staged a guerrilla platform where consumers were not only made aware of the product, but were encouraged to interact with the brand and the new offering in a comically engaging way.

So, if Unilever, who used this cunning product placement tactic for the launch of their Vileda Lux Sunlight dishwashing liquid, succeeded in seamlessly interrupting daily life with their “Wipe Your Bill Clean” viral (where unsuspecting restaurant-goers got to enjoy a free meal by washing their own plates), you’ve got all the right reasons going for you in trying out the fabled seas of the Arab world’s digital video consumption.

Now, if this movement is particularly unique to the Arab world, how can brands outside of the Middle Eastern region capitalise on such a lucrative communication trend? Easy. Use us, the Arab world, as a test laboratory. Do as Coca-Cola or Unilever did with their viral videos. Produce it for the region, test the waters, then scale and re-shape it accordingly for future consumption in other parts of the world. Cleverly disguised product placements in today’s world of moving stories is definitely the best way to go. Follow the lead of the Arab world.