When I was offered the opportunity to work in Kuwait for the biggest fashion retailer in the Middle East in 2011, I had a few years of PR experience gained in Europe with established luxury brands, but nothing could have prepared me for what turned out to be a plunge into the unknown.
On a personal level, it took me months to cope with the cultural differences and adjust to the new physical landscape. The work front wasn’t any easier: all I knew about PR and marketing had to be re-adjusted to target a very different audience. Strong cultural values, religion, unwritten rules and yes, extreme temperatures (easily peaking 132 degrees in summer) all contributed to reshaping my PR approach to fit the local market.
These days, I am the Founder and Creative director of my own company, Elevate PR and Communications, a fashion PR agency who helps international brands build their visibility and reputation in The Middle East market (specifically in Dubai, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Lebanon). It’s in the light of my experience that I am sharing here the top 5 things to keep in mind when representing a brand in the Middle East.
Pitch with exclusives
The press is extremely laid back in the Middle East and most of the time is cooperative with PRs. The editors in chiefs are young entrepreneurs in their early 30s with a very sharp business mind, often founders of their namesake magazine and successful influencers on social media. The market, though, is small and saturated with fashion magazines all obsessed with exclusive content in a rush to excel over the competition. If it is not exclusive, prepare to have a hard time securing coverage. Pitching the same story from a different angle, while relying on a large set of images and several strong quotes, is the only way to secure steady coverage.
Strong cultural values, religion, unwritten rules and yes, extreme temperatures (easily peaking 132 degrees in summer) all contributed to reshaping my PR approach to fit the local market.
Pitch and present with modesty in mind
When it comes to selecting samples to pitch or promote in a showroom, it is important to keep in mind both the regional trends as well as rules of conservative dress. In fact, if you peruse media from the area, you’ll quickly realize that all the fashion shoots you see featured in magazines have one thing in common; you will never see much exposed skin, cleavage or questionable poses, simply because it won’t get the green light for publishing. It’s not allowed. For this reason anything in a brand collection that does not fit under the umbrella for modest dress cannot be part of any outreach. Hot pants, micro bikinis and short seamed dresses will have no space in the showroom – long length clothing will.
Events + Activations must be developed with the location in mind
A successful PR event in Kuwait City will not be equally successful, let’s say, in the United Arab Emirates or Qatar. Despite sharing similar geography, language and Islamic culture, they differ greatly in lifestyle, social behavior, and laws. You can easily go from planning a launch event in Dubai with live DJ, fireworks and cocktails, to committing to running a public event in Kuwait where promiscuous dancing is strictly prohibited and alcohol banned. On the extreme end, in Saudi Arabia, the most conservative of the nations in the region, you will have to find alternative ways to send your message across in a society where gender segregation is the norm in public spaces and unlawful mixing will lead to criminal charges.
All to say, knowing the specifics of each market in the Middle East is crucial to plan and execute the right strategy for your audience.
Prepare for a new category of expectations
If you think that customer complaints are going to be an occasional occurrence, and lie within the purview of the customer service department, I invite you to reconsider. In the Middle East, clients and customers are extremely demanding. Their spending power is second to none and therefore they expect the best treatment in return for their business.
You can easily go from planning a launch event in Dubai with live DJ, fireworks and cocktails, to committing to running a public event in Kuwait where promiscuous dancing is strictly prohibited and alcohol banned.
When service is not delivered according to standards, the public relations department can be expected to get involved in the resolution of the matter, because the consequences to a brand reputation can be dire. Unhappy customers will go on a mission to give that brand a negative referral to their (extended) family and (wealthy) friends, often related to the local royal families.
For example, a top client for one of our brands claimed a fall at a London Airport due to the instability of a pair stilettos and demanded compensation for the embarrassment caused. In this case, I did not get away with a flower bouquet and a hand-written note. Instead, a nicely wrapped $3,000 it bag was deemed acceptable.
RAMADAN HAS A KEY ROLE IN YOUR PR CALENDAR
During Ramadan, the most sacred month of the year, Muslims fast every day from sunset to sunrise, cities literally shut down, offices close earlier and shops don’t open until dark. How does that have anything to do with your PR plan? It does! Because when the sun finally sets, the city fills with social gatherings, Iftar (the fast-breaking meal), press dinners, and late night brand-hosted Suhur (the last meal before dawn). This is also the time for local women to shop until 2 am and for brands to launch capsule collections. Use wisely this time of the year to network and boost the visibility of your brand with relevant product.
Representing a brand in a foreign market can be daunting and challenging. In order to succeed, know your audience, understand their culture and most of all keep your mindset open.
About Francesca Venturi
Francesca Venturi has extensive experience in the Middle East as a PR director for globally known luxury brands. She is the founder of Elevate PR and Communications, a consultancy service to international brands aiming to set foot in this part of the world. Interested parties can reach her directly at francesca [at ] elevateprandcommunications [dot] com<.p>