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How Agencies are Preparing Ramadan Campaigns Amid the Covid-19 Pandemic

London, UK
For MENA marketers, the festival is massive but this year brands have had to swiftly navigate the strategic and production challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, writes LBB’s Natasha Patel

For over two billion people in the world, 23 April 2020 marks a very special date: the start of Ramadan. During the holy month Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn until dusk until Eid al Fitr – the end of the holy period –which is a culmination of feast, celebration and togetherness.


And for marketers, particularly in the MENAT and APAC regions, the festival is a time of lively advertising and brand work. This year, however, just as the ad industry was gearing up for its big Ramadan productions the Covid-19 epidemic struck.


Strategically, brands had to rethink the context in which their campaigns will play out. People are unable to be amongst their family and friends in a way they normally would. Team this with the fact that social distancing is present in almost every country around the world and this year’s celebrations will inevitably look very different.


On the production front, too, lockdown has made things difficult. Back in March, we had heard about agencies trying to figure out ways to produce Ramadan campaigns remotely, but were struggling to keep things going as travel restrictions increased. We spoke to Rita El Hachem at production company Stoked. She’s based in Lebanon, where lockdown came in early. “In our region the timing couldn’t have been worse. Not that there is a good time for calamities. This is the busiest time of the year ahead of Ramadan,” says Rita, though she has faith in the inventiveness of the industry and is keen to see inventive, interactive campaigns developed to entertain everyone who is stuck at home. “It is really challenging. But, hey, creative minds must thrive on challenges. Together we can find solutions.”


Agencies and production companies had to react quickly and find solutions and alternatives that would work with their clients once the true effects of the pandemic became obvious. Senior producer at electriclimefilms, Chaza Said, tells us that clients, agencies and production houses had to come up with smart solutions – and fast. She also says that with the current restrictions her teams have found a way around this by exploring utilising material from existing campaigns, stock footage, animation and infographics.


When it comes to activations, Chen May Yee, APAC director at Wunderman Thompson Intelligence reveals that across Asia, lockdowns are already predicted to have a huge impact on traditional community events. “Singapore has already banned Ramadan bazaars. Malaysia is mulling doing so, or maybe taking them online. Indonesia is considering banning the annual exodus from cities back to villages, having seen what happened with Lunar New Year travel in China”.


But despite the disruption, there’s still a huge role that brands can play. Chen adds: “Businesses will have to find new ways of expressing the spirit of Ramadan, incorporating social distancing and the newfound austerity we find ourselves in.” Ramzi Moutran, founder of do epic sh*t, is based in Dubai and has first-hand experience with celebrating the holy time there. He echoes Chen’s sentiment, “Each and every brand can help whether it is adjusting their product line, using communication for good or helping to connect people”.


Finding a New Way to Come Together

The biggest conundrum is that family, community and togetherness forms a cornerstone of Ramadan communications, particularly for FMCG brands. So how do you foster that feeling when your audience is isolated at home and the usual imagery of big, extended family gatherings doesn’t quite mesh with the reality they’re living. But many of the people we spoke to felt that this presented an opportunity for brands and a very real role to play.


Chaza tells us: “In a way, Covid-19 related content goes hand in hand with Ramadan messaging, amplifying the importance of those themes; especially abstinence and togetherness.” This is something Ramzi agreed with, “Ramadan is all about families and extended families coming together. It’s everything Coronavirus is stopping us doing”. FP7/McCann’s MENA strategy head Tahaab Rais believes that during this time and being apart from loved ones, people need messages of optimism and expect brands to create a feeling of positivity too.


Shivani Kulshrestha strategist at Socialize echoes this, “With social distancing in effect, we need to capture the feeling of being together without being physically present in the same space”. She added that the message her team are putting out this season has had to change to reflect this; how as a brand they are helping keep the spirit and the traditions that people have come to love, alive. But in a potential change to other forms of content creating, her team have become fans of Zoom and Skype and have taken to these methods to create webcam shoots.


Finding a Meaningful Role During Ramadan

Another challenge facing brands has been how to be relevant without being opportunistic. It’s a delicate balance brands face every year with their Ramadan marketing – how to be present without undermining the religious significance of the festival. Ramadan is also a time of increased charitable giving among Muslims and brands need to think carefully about how they navigate this side of the festival without appearing cynical or crass. With Covid-19 being such a sudden and all-encompassing phenomenon, there’s certainly more expectation on brands to contribute and act in a generous and meaningful manner. In order to navigate this, Adrian Mutescu strategy director at Geometry says his team broke down the individual elements that make up a Ramadan campaign and came to the conclusion of creating something that is meaningful and not opportunistic.


For brands looking to do something meaningful at this time, perhaps the answer lies in simply asking, how can we help make people’s lives a little bit easier. Ramzi Ibrahim, creative director of Cheil MEA RHQ says that many brands followed what was done globally, adding “For consumer product centric brands, which are the majority of our clients, it was making sure that they were available to consumers whenever they needed support, and extending expiring warranties”.  Meanwhile, 4129Grey Turkey’s Alemsah Ozturk says that some of their clients are going further by providing financial donations, hand sanitisers and facemasks.


Tahaab argues that it’s not just brands’ action that will be judged, but their inaction too.  “In such times, what a brand does will be remembered, and what a brand doesn’t do will also be remembered”.


With this thought in mind the company have created the FP7 McCann Antidote to “help our brands earn a meaningful role in people’s lives when they’re in need of help, support and optimism as individuals, as families, as social groups, as businesses and as communities”. Antidote is a model they’ve devised that draws on archetypes to understand people’s different needs and worries in a crisis and they’ve put it into action to help clients to respond fast. Tahaab is also enthusiastic about how brands in the Middle East have response to working around restrictions, calling Ramadan an opportunity to use the power of creativity through social media and mobile. Creativity is going to be key to helping people connect and celebrate despite distancing. “This Ramadan, amidst the limitations, what makes Ramadan special to people, needs creativity to survive”.


Restrictions Taking Ramadan Creativity to the Next Level


Indeed, the restrictions and limitations presented by Covid-19 have forced agencies to abandon a lot of the conventions around Ramadan marketing and Shivani argues that this new direction may have “changed the game for the better”. She even suggests that  new ways of creating content may actually be more popular with viewers, “The virus has opened the door for more natural, organic-looking content to come through and take centre stage, giving our audience a break from the traditional big-production ads they see year after year”. Adrien agrees, but also understands that brands now have an opportunity to create a sense of global unity with Muslims and non-Muslims around the world and, “how can we all play a role in making sure Covid-19 does not deprive humanity from one of its core religious rituals.”


Indeed, beyond the immediate challenge there’s a bigger and longer term journey ahead that will span and, indeed, reach far beyond the month of Ramadan, as 4129Grey Turkey’s Alemsah Ozturk explains. “They are also helping through their communications. The first phase of communication has been around staying home and keeping healthy. The second phase focuses on standing against this together and sending a message of hope. Now we are working on the third wave, telling people we will survive this and we will evolve”.


So, it seems that despite the countless obstacles and restrictions in the path of creating campaigns and the feeling of togetherness, the real beauty lies in overcoming these and building hopefulness together.

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