This year’s Ramadan Advertising barely mentions the pandemic, but optimistic, purposeful creative that looks to the bigger picture shows that Covid-19 has transformed brands’ approach
Across the Middle East and North Africa, the holy month of Ramadan and the festival of Eid have become a key moment for marketers. The focus on family and the evening fast-breaking meal Iftar makes it a natural space for FMCG and telecoms sectors, while the strong association with charity and helping the poor means that it’s also a time of year for third sector organisations and purpose-driven brands to come to the fore.
Last year’s Ramadan saw agencies and brands scramble to switch up production and even strategy as Covid-19 started to hit the region. It was a case study of improvisation and fluidity. In 2021, armed with a year’s worth of experience, brands have emerged bolder and with a renewed sense of purpose when it comes to their Ramadan advertising. And as the Holy Month draws to a close, it seems that the pandemic year has forced marketers and their agencies to reassess their Ramadan marketing in a way that will reverberate for years to come.
In terms of major cultural events, Ramadan 2020 turned agencies in the region into global pioneers. The pandemic began hitting the region just as shoots were scheduled to take place. Agencies had to figure out remote production on the fly and suddenly creative focused on cheery families huddled around the dining table, enjoying Iftar together was borderline unshootable and strategically irrelevant. The trajectory of the pandemic was unknown, brands were nervous about getting the tone right. Middle Eastern agencies were figuring this out ahead of the rest of the world.
“Disruption is an understatement. It was a complete reconstruction,” reflects Reham Mufleh, general manager at Horizon FCB. “The uncertainty and lack of visibility back then, and not knowing exactly what we were facing, made a lot of brands stand still to watch and observe. Others were quicker in taking action and had to think of a completely new strategy and communication to tackle what was completely new to us back then.”
The situation was changing constantly, which meant that solutions had to change too. Rayyan Aoun, ECD at Wunderman Thompson, Riyadh says that the agency’s response was fluid and fast.
“It was challenging to say the least,” he says. “During the first phase of the pandemic, things were changing by the hour: one moment, it was a mild shutdown, the next, it was a complete lockdown. It was an unpredictable time, with every new decision impacting each client differently. But we had no other choice but to react instantly, as well as adapt with every curveball thrown at us. For once, all rules were out the window. It was truly business as unusual. Add to that the fact that we were all trying to adapt to a new work dynamics, operating from home and brainstorming over video calls.
“We had a “can do” attitude, and this mindset was felt across the agency, and network as a whole.”
While the whole world was scrambling to figure out remote production, working from home and a suite of unfamiliar collaboration tools, in the Middle East that scramble was compounded by dealing with an imminent month-long major festival. According to Thamer Farsi, CEO Publicis Groupe Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed Bahmishan, CCO Publicis Communications Saudi Arabia within Publicis Groupe, it was one of the first major tests for its Marcel platform and the teams across the region were able to feed back to the rest of the holding company.
“The positive side of this was, it created a level of convenience and efficiency never seen before which enabled us, as a network, through AI technology (Marcel), to tap into different talents / resources from all over the globe at any given time and work virtually together along with our clients in a fluent and flowing manner. At first, this new working environment was widely accepted and exciting but with the passage of time, it started to become a continuous pattern which created a negative effect on people i.e. they started losing track of time and were expected to be reachable and connected to their virtual office 24/7. Most affected by this timeless environment were the creative teams, especially during pitches.”
From a strategic point of view, brands needed to be in the spaces (and headspaces) where people were, many of whom were disappointed and unable to meet up with friends and family. That meant going online and there was a rapid pivot to digital and ecommerce.
“The pandemic changed everything overnight and so we did too,” says Asmaa Ahmed, senior strategist at M&C Saatchi UAE. “As a brand and consumer, digital was the only place to be, if you wanted to see, listen, act and engage. Last-minute digital campaigns and ecommerce campaigns became the biggest challenges as well as opportunities. More importantly, brands needed to be extra sensitive in what they showed, said and did. A case in point was the inability to physically gather in large groups which meant that brands needed to redefine what togetherness meant in times of isolation and play an active role to address people’s pain points during the month.”
Whether it was M&C Saatchi shooting virtual feasts over Zoom, to mirror the remote family Iftar meals that became a mainstay of the holy month, or Horizon FCB heading to TikTok to create a workout challenge for Clorox (combining exercise and cleaning and the TikTok explosion), agencies had to understand people’s fast-changing online behaviours.
This year, by comparison, agencies have got their heads around the pandemic reality and they’re not building campaigns on shifting sands. Digital and ecommerce campaigns are the norm because consumers expect it and because most markets still have some form of restrictions. The creative and strategy have all been inspired by the pandemic – either providing much-needed relief and entertainment or acknowledging a world turned upside down.
“Covid-19 has become part of our normal conversations, whether personally or professionally, so naturally it will always be taken into account,” says Reham. “Before Covid-19, we had considerations like cultural sensitivities, locally authentic talents, social, political or environmental considerations. Now, it’s just one more consideration to be added to the list.”
But you won’t find many brands explicitly mentioning Covid-19 or dwelling on the quotidian, boring drudgery of pandemic life.
“In all honesty, I think people everywhere are tired of Covid-19, as a word, as an illness and as a barrier to a life they look forward to,” says Asmaa. “I think our role is not to remind them of it, but to reassure them and address the consequences it has created in people’s everyday life – their physical state, emotional state, worries, aspirations - and show how brands can play a meaningful role by looking at the changing needs in every market.”
Reham agrees. “I believe people are tired of hearing about Covid-19. They are weary of hearing how the virus is this or that. They know it, they live it day in / day out every day, everywhere. Imagine you have to remind your friend all the time that she or he is sick! We need to take it into consideration in our communication, YES, but our lives can’t revolve around it anymore. Life has to move on and is moving on. We are a species that survived extinction, we will find our way around this eventually.”
But while people might be tired of Covid-19, vaccines are still very much a live issue. Thamer Farsi, CEO Publicis Groupe Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed Bahmishan, CCO Publicis Communications Saudi Arabia say that brands have been leveraging the traditional Ramadan deals and discounts to nudge people towards vaccinations. On the other hand, they’ve only seen explicitly Covid-19-related briefs from the Ministry of Health.
“Brands are trying to find different roles to play during this Ramadan outside the usual family gathering scenarios since the pandemic situation is still far from over and the number of people getting infected started to rise,” they say. “Zain Telecom, this year, for example, took a call to encourage people to take the vaccine instead of its usual celebratory Ramadan campaigns. Other brands offered a variety of discounts on purchases reaching up to 35% if customers showed proof of vaccination.”
What Really Matters?
If anything, industry insiders say, this year’s Ramadan marketing shows a willingness to go deeper to the core of Ramadan while also having a more expansive sense of purpose.
“There’s been an overall shift from involvement with Ramadan on a surface level to providing a deeper, more internalised Ramadan experience,” reflects Asmaa. “In other words, going back to what truly matters and giving way to deeper contemplation with more brands showing their altruistic side.”
Rayyan agrees. “These days, especially after the year we’ve witnessed, brands are focusing on bigger issues, broader purposes, topics that mean something to the future of the country and the world as a whole. Issues like sustainability, green initiatives, inclusion, diversity, equal opportunities, seem to be at the forefront of the conversation.”
Telecoms giant STC chose to launch their sustainability agenda during the holy month, with a future-facing and highly stylised campaign created by Wunderman Thompson. Many brands are finding creative ways to encourage giving, for example Pizza2Go has joined forces with Red Crescent in a campaign from MullenLowe that aims to reduce food waste and encouraging charity donations – they’ve created 3/4 pizza boxes that eliminate the slices that are typically thrown away.
Other brands have lifted their heads up to look at the social and political context of the world today. As misinformation around vaccines spreads online and polarised discourse stokes tension, FP7 McCann has created a campaign for telco Ooredoo, which envisions the internet as a small child, which must be treated with care and responsibility if it is to thrive. It’s a spot that manages to incorporate images of family and togetherness while speaking about wider issues and, as with STC, inviting viewers to think about what kind of future they’d like to see.
This year’s Ramadan advertising is bursting with a sense of joy and hope – ads like M&C Saatchi UAE’s grin-fest for Mobily in Saudi Arabia acknowledge the reality of the pandemic while being enthusiastically cheerful and colourful.
But that’s not to say marketers are complacent. The ads are upbeat and there is a sense that the beginning of the end of the pandemic is nigh, but behind the scenes there’s also been a sense of nervous anticipation in client meetings and pitches. If 2020 taught us anything it’s that everything can change at any moment.
Vaccines are rolling out at a healthy rate in places like the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, where many offices are open and some people have started to return to the workplace. However, in Egypt and Lebanon vaccination rates are sitting at 0.9% and 4.6% of the population respectively. In April, Iran instituted a ten day lockdown to ward off rising numbers and this week Egypt announced tighter restrictions and earlier closing times too. So, confidence and a sense of progress is by no means uniform across the region.
In Saudi Arabia, Thamer and Mohammed at Publicis say that there’s a sense that things are ‘more or less under control’. “This Ramadan the creative approach is more optimistic since in Saudi Arabia and major countries with high vaccination rates things are moving vastly toward a period of hope, optimism and that the hardest part of the pandemic is heading close to an end. We see ads promoting human values through the act of giving, empathy, and compassion for those who are less fortunate. We also see brands building awareness around the importance of taking the vaccine using cheerful songs and positivity vs fear and uncertainty.
But in markets like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, there’s a sense of momentum that’s not just powered by vaccination rates. Both are investing heavily in tech and innovation as the economies prepare for the post-oil economy. The KSA is working towards its Vision 2030 and there’s been growing activity around tourism advertising, in preparation for the future. And the UAE has been buzzing from its recent Mars mission.
... and a Little Touch of Nostalgia
Just as the pandemic has given people pause to think about the important and meaningful aspects of Ramadan, pushing some brands to tackle social issues, others are embracing a sense of fun. And that means, while we may be adjusting to the ‘new normal’, giving people a sweet nostalgic taste of how things used to be.
“Another prevalent trend is reminiscing how Ramadan was like before it was robbed from people last year thanks to the lockdown. This brought to life nostalgic ads with a taste of the good old Ramadan days, from Pizza Hut creating Ramadan riddles to Gucci entertaining people with a Ramadan soap opera,” says Asmaa.
Take Deliveroo’s ‘Ramadan just the way you like it’, from independent agency ‿ and us. The spot focuses on the promise that the food delivery platform will be able to serve up the authentic tastes and smells people associate with lavish restaurant feasts and big family gatherings. Similarly Saudi Brand Switz has created ‘The World’s Longest Iftar Table’ on Instagram as its agency Socialize has attempted to recreate the feeling of togetherness and celebration and show-boating that one would associate with a typical pre-Covid Ramadan.
Indeed, Gucci’s collaboration with lifestyle magazine Mille is peak escapist nostalgia. They’ve created their own soap opera – watching musalsals or serialised TV dramas together in the evening is an unofficial tradition among many families. And so Gucci has recruited Arab stars for a campy, '70s family saga full of style and humour.
Meanwhile, a less arch and significantly more sincere approach to nostalgia can be see in Omantel’s Ramadan ad from Leo Burnett. The spot focuses on one of the iconic Ramadan symbols, the moon, and adopts a dreamy, vintage aesthetic that’s all market stalls and camp-outs rather than flashy ecommerce. Moreover, tying into the trend about purpose, the telecoms brand has announced that they have extended their House Maintenance Program and is donating educational kits, including tablets, to families in need.
While Ramadan advertising has always been big for marketers and agencies, creatively it had settled into a cosy pattern of predictable family scenes. In previous years, we’d heard local advertising folk complain about the feeling that the work being made for the festival was in something of a rut. All of a sudden, after the shock of last year, the industry has rediscovered the ‘why’ of Ramadan advertising. To help businesses help their customers. To serve a higher and deeper purpose. To entertain and inspire hope.
“After such a difficult year for the people in our region, whether economically, politically, or socially; now more than ever we need to look after each other, and for the more fortunate individuals to consider and look after their communities," says Reham. "And what better than Ramadan to convey such a message.”