Adland insiders from across the Middle East and Africa reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing brands during Ramadan. By LBB's Laura Swinton
As the ad industry experiences change and uncertainty and sector after sector faces disruption, it’s no wonder that brands and agencies gravitate towards the concrete and predictable. We may not know what’s happening with consultancies and in-housing, but Super Bowl, Chinese New Year, Christmas and Ramadan are comforting regulars that roll around every year. Right?
With tastes, technologies and values evolving, even those mainstays of the advertising calendar change too. New challenges emerge, and while true creativity has always been restless, resisting formulas, most brands are rather slow to respond.
Right now, we’re three weeks into the Muslim holiday of Ramadan and adland experts from across the Middle East and Africa region are reflecting on the changing landscape. What new opportunities present themselves to brands? And are brands really making the most of them?
Cutting Through Cliché and Clutter
Be under no illusion – while Ramadan holds a lot of opportunity for brands, it’s also a very crowded marketplace. “The clutter of advertising in Ramadan has a wallpaper effect,” explains Mohammed Bahmishan, regional ECD Leo Burnett. “This month is considered to be one of the toughest seasons to break through, simply because everyone wants to be present and say something.”
In Egypt, a market renowned for its boisterous sense of humour, brands jostle and compete to be the most entertaining. With lots of content to advertise around, including the Egyptian football league, the gloves are off among local advertisers, and RV and online reach spike at 85% and 55% respectively. “It’s a showdown to see which brands are going to cut through and which creative ideas will stand out,” says J. Walter Thompson Cairo deputy MD Hassan El Sada. “Over the years, the Egyptian consumer has become accustomed to this face-off, actually waiting for their favourite brand’s commercials to decide on which will be the Ramadan season winner ‘this’ year.”
But despite this competitiveness, there is a sense across the region that advertisers do have a tendency to recycle the same old themes every year. Just because a tentpole event rolls around at the same time every year, creatives and marketers should resist the urge to keep doing the same old thing, argues Mohammed at Leo Burnett. “Brands sometimes think of Ramadan as a special period of time that repeats itself in an identical way every year. This leads them to repeat thinking of their Ramadan ideas the same way. What about people?“
It’s something that frustrates Joe Laham at TBWA\RAAD too – particularly because many of those ideas are based on old hand-me-down assumptions from years past. “There are several recurring themes driving the communication scene: music, family gatherings, food feasts, the values of giving and goodness. Most ads lack a data driven approach, hence the thinking is based on assumptions.”
Several people across the region mention songs and big musical numbers as a mainstay of Ramadan advertising – and this year any brand hoping to have a catchy ear worm on its hands faces stiff competition. “The jingle is king of the jungle,” jokes Hassan El Sada. “Despite believing that it’s the easy way out, it’s very prominent this year with more and more brands being inclined to deliver musical executions. No matter what the industry – be it telecommunication, real estate, FMCGs, or NGOs - you can easily spot at least two brands per industry with a jingle of some kind or other.”
Looking at his own local market, Saudi Arabia, tphDDB executive creative director Ali Baasiri is frustrated at the lack of creative or purposeful ambition from brands. “Ramadan advertising in Saudi is still very 'safe' and 'cliché'. Brands are scared to break out from the expected. We are barely scratching the surface. Ramadan is such a powerful platform that a lot can be done for,” he says.
One example he points to is the Kuwaiti telecoms company Zain which has, in recent years, courted controversy. In 2017 they used their Ramadan advertising to talk about the devastating effects of terrorism in the Middle East, while their 2018 effort explored war, the refugee crisis and a world led by the likes of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
This year Rapp in Morocco and detergent M.I.O. has leveraged their Ramadan advertising to draw attention to gender inequality in relation to domestic chores, not a theme usually associated with the festival. That has driven three million online views and extensive TV coverage both in Morocco and internationally as the campaign has been picked up by the BBC and TVMonde5.
Charity and Other Quandaries
The trickiest line to walk with Ramadan is hitting the appropriate tone, appreciating and engaging with the spiritual values of the month without appearing disingenuous or – worse – totally awkward.
Take charity, for example, one of the five pillars of Islam and an important value throughout the festival. It is, however, an area where brands are liable to appear insincere and clumsy
"In religion, the idea of giving is vital. However, it’s not acceptable to talk about giving money. If you give money, don’t say it. It’s something between you and God,” explains Ali Baasiri. “Hence brands are a bit sceptical about venturing into charity endorsement especially in Ramadan. However some brands do it but without being sincere. A brand should never come and say that for every sale of its product, we will give 'Iftar' to some poor people who are fasting. That’s why brands tend in Ramadan to talk about values like forgiveness and kindness.”
Ali Khalil, strategic planning director at J. Walter Thompson KSA, says that social good campaigns do have a place for brands during Ramadan but that they have to come from a place of authenticity. “For Muslims, Ramadan is the time of atonement, introspection, and acts of kindness and goodness. For brands, [it's] an opportunity to build equity by getting closer to people through deep and meaningful stories. However, as expectations evolve, and doing good becomes a hygiene factor, brands need to profoundly reproach their giving-back strategies into more purposeful and impactful acts, stemming from a true belief and desire to do better,” he says.
There are plenty of examples of brands opting to talk about doing good or encouraging positive behaviour, rather than explicitly talking about their own charitable exploits. One example is Saatchi & Saatchi Riyadh’s anti-food waste animation for conglomerate Almarai.
Telecoms brands have something of an advantage when it comes to tapping into the values of togetherness, family and community because of their innate connectivity. This year J. Walter Thompson has created a campaign fronted by famous musician Amr Diab about reconnecting with long lost friends and family, ending with a call to action to encourage users to contact their loved ones – and behind the ATL execution is the ‘giving’ part of the campaign by offering free meals to allow their customers to host family gatherings.
Going a step deeper, there’s a more intrinsic tension around brands and consumption during a festival that encourages fasting and introspection.
But, largely, these days the question is not seen as much of an issue on a practical level, argues Mohammed Bahmishan, regional ECD at Leo Burnett. The jump in consumer spend around Ramadan and Eid as well as brand activity suggests that the conceptual tension isn’t holding many brands back. “A few years ago, this was a philosophical subject in our region. But people have been talking about it because they progress fast. Surely faster than brands. I do believe there is an excess of messages during this month. Some brands try to navigate this by being silent and going the opposite direction. But the rest of them consider Ramadan the Super Bowl of advertising.”
Aidia Diaw, managing director of DDB Côté d'Ivoire, suggests that brands that really engage in the values of the festival and put some genuine thought into their efforts can find a way to align with the spiritual aspects of the month. “Ramadan is a month of spirituality, it’s about generosity, sharing, great family, friends gathering, it’s about good food, connecting together and understanding each other to help us grow,” she says.
“To me the great mistake brands make is to focus on selling their products without first trying to understand Ramadan values and culture. They should promote services or messages that would benefit the consumers to improve his spirituality or share some tips promoting health benefit for example if they want to have an impact.”
Old Habits, New Opportunities
That Ramadan has become the region’s ‘Super Bowl’ is a common refrain that I hear from almost everyone I speak to. But as with this year’s Super Bowl – and indeed the 2018 Christmas advertising effort – the overall response to the bulk of the creative output is a resounding ‘meh’. Recycled ads from previous years and a largely unadventurous approach to media too has left those I spoke to unimpressed overall.
As with Super Bowl, the brands and agencies are still largely focused on the TV spot, much to the frustration of Joe Lahham at TBWA\RAAD. “We live in a region in which consumers spend more time online and on their smartphones. It is also a region that has high, perhaps the highest, mobile penetration, as well as a huge consumption of online content. However, brand managers in the region are not taking advantage of this golden opportunity and are stuck with a one-size-fits-all attitude, deploying their traditional tactics,” says Joe. “Ramadan is an opportunity to learn, bearing in mind that online consumption increases, particularly during the month of Ramadan, along with an increase in consumer purchase and intent to purchase.”
Moreover, says Ali Baasiri, executive creative director at tphDDB in Saudi Arabia, the extended period of the festival means that brands are missing a trick by not leaning into experiential and physical activations. “So much more can be done in Ramadan beyond TV commercials. I don’t remember a single on-ground activation done for the holy month and what’s even more sad is that Ramadan is a full one-month period,” he says.
That’s not to say there are no brands venturing beyond TV and online film – Tunisie Telcom and JWT have created a ‘Ramadan Mode’ app for their users in order to mute notifications during the fast-breaking evening meal. That’s to encourage people to step away from their phones to appreciate their time with friends and family.
The TV-fest does still bring with it the frisson of excitement and the shared viewing experience, argues Tarik Guisser, managing director of RAPP Morocco/DDB Group – though it leaves those brands that don’t put in the time and effort looking exposed. “Agencies begin to work on the Ramadan ads around two months before, but you always have clients knocking at your door 15 days before the beginning of the sacred month looking for a miracle,” says Tarik. “[The] most common misstep is agencies accepting to work last minute on a Ramadan ad, the outcome is usually awful and everybody can witness it live on TV at peak audience time during the Iftar.”
Traditionally Ramadan advertising has been dominated by FMCG brands, which capitalise on the post-fast family feasting, and telecoms brands which can easily leverage the connection and community angle. But this year, all of our commentators have noted that a broader range of categories are getting involved with Ramadan and that there are a number of newbies.
“This Ramadan is the 'year of new entrants'. We are seeing a rise in new advertisers - whether they be medium sized aspiring brands that were never on the Ramadan map; or virgin industries such as banking and financial services who rarely advertised during the holy month,” confirms Hassan El Sada.
His colleague, Ahmed Mahjoub, CEO of JWT North Africa, reckons that while there are certain kinds of products that are not appropriate, if a brand has a genuine and relevant story there’s no reason not to take part. “Apart from the obvious categories, alcohol and feminine products, every brand has a story to tell in Ramadan provided they are engaging authentically with the context and values of the holy month. The end of Ramadan leads into the Eid holiday when people often travel to visit family abroad – which naturally dovetails with the value of family – so you see, even the tourism category can engage during Ramadan,” says Ahmed.
“The important thing is to have a genuine conversation, which is true of all brand conversations, anywhere in the world.”