Year After Arab Spring, Digital and Social Media Shape Region's Rebirth

Marked by Their Proven Influence in the Uprisings, Facebook, Twitter, Mobile Define 'Normal' Life -- and Marketers Adjust Accordingly

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When tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Egypt's Tahrir Square in early 2011, the call for change was focused on bringing down President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in office. After that , uprisings across the whole region, known collectively as the "Arab Spring," deposed dictators, changed cultures and, in Saudi Arabia, won women the right to vote.

A campaign from Coke invited Arab youth to upload inspiring films about themselves to Facebook.
A campaign from Coke invited Arab youth to upload inspiring films about themselves to Facebook.
More than a year on, there is now, according to Tarek Miknas, Group CEO of Middle East network SP7, part of McCann Worldgroup, "a huge desire to live a normal life, go to work, earn money and eat out. For a lot of people it's not really about democracy, it's about fair play and a decent standard of living."

For marketers, "normal" is now much more closely associated with digital and social media, after Twitter and Facebook proved their influence by helping to propel the uprisings into a full-scale revolution.

Facebook users in Egypt rose from 450,000 to 3 million in the six months following the revolution, and now stand at 5 million, according to Ali Ali, founder and creative director of Elephant Cairo in Egypt. He said, "There's a belief in the power of connection on social networks -- and because people believe in it, so do brands."

"Social media and technology have given people a platform to share whatever they have, at scale," said Mr. Miknas. "Before the revolution we knew we really needed to get digital into our own business, but clients weren't crazy about it. Today we are almost a digital agency -- everyone appreciates its power."

Matt Simpson, head of digital at Omnicom Media Group, EMEA, said, "Social media has gone ballistic -- we have more social-media specialists in the Middle East and North Africa than we do in the U.K. We have staffed up hugely in the region: From a digital perspective, [the Middle East and North Africa region] is one of our shining stars. There's a lot of local talent."

The explosion of digital media does not make up for the fall in marketing budgets, however. According to Ipsos, pan-Arab media spending fell by 31% during the revolution, with snacks, food and fast-moving consumer goods holding up best. Spending on major media in 2010 was $4.88 billion (ZenithOptimedia), but fell to $4.15 billion in 2011. The figure is expected to reach $4.20 billion this year and to grow again to $4.31 billion in 2013.

"It feels like the spring has given way to winter," said Kamal Dimachkie, exec regional managing director of Leo Burnett Dubai. "It's taken much longer than anybody would have hoped for. Removing a dictator is not like removing the wrapping from a Christmas present -- there's no instant gift inside. But scratch the surface and people still feel good about their achievements."

The Arab Spring put the spotlight on the Middle East and made the rest of the world take a fresh look at the region. M.I.A.'s recent "Bad Girl" video -- which glamorizes "drifting," a type of wild stunt driving popular with Arab youth -- is the epitome of "Gulf cool." The TV drama "Homeland" also adopts a contemporary take on the Arab identity, blending Middle Eastern heroes and villains seamlessly with their U.S. counterparts.

For brands, the challenge has been to harness this pride without looking like they are exploiting it for commercial gain. Mounir Harfouche, CEO of Lowe in Middle East and North Africa, said, "It's a precarious task: To resonate with customers we need to reflect their values and vision for a new world, but without being didactic or laying claim to be a "sponsor of social change' in some way."

"For a year after the revolution, brands were quiet, and the first ones to speak chose a patriotic voice," said Mr. Ali. "Henkel stuck an Egyptian flag on a lot of ads, and Nestlé came out with an ice cream in the colors of the Egyptian flag. It was a patriotic, nationalistic time."

Telecommunications companies, quick to capitalize on the role that mobile phones played in the revolution, were among the first to run with stirring, high-visibility marketing.

Leo Burnett Dubai's "I am Arab and proud" campaign for Qtel centers on dramatically shot, commonplace scenes from Arab life. The ad -- described by Mr. Harfouche as "a one-minute race to distill thousands of years of culture, art, heritage and hope for better things to come" -- won a media Grand Prix in March at the Dubai Lynx, the Middle East festival run by the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity .

Coca-Cola built on the sense of empowerment that the Arab Spring instilled, but chose to focus on individuals rather than group consciousness. The multilayered "Today I Will" campaign, created by FP7, invited Arab youth to upload inspiring films about themselves to Facebook, from which it created a TV campaign.

Stories included one from the first woman to win Olympic gold wearing a hijab, and a Saudi hip-hop artist explaining his ambitions and how they do not represent a betrayal of his Arab identity.

Coca-Cola's focus on consumers rather than the drink is appropriate. "People are not as attentive to brands as they were before," Mr. Ali said. "Their minds are preoccupied with more serious issues. If we shot an ad we liked, we used to post it on Facebook, but we don't do that any more because Facebook feeds are so highly political and serious. Brands are focusing a lot on corporate social responsibility work instead. It's one thing to go to a community and build a school, and quite another to stick a flag on your packaging. One is a lot more classy than the other."

The flip side to this is that people also have a desire to get back to normal. "We've had enough of brands telling us how to live our lives and clean the streets. We want to see brands being brands, not politicians," Mr. Ali said. "What's fresh on TV ignores the revolution and goes back to selling product in an interesting way."

At this year's Dubai Lynx awards, the film Grand Prix went to a campaign for Kalbaz Crisps by Elephant Cairo. The two executions, "Ping Pong" and "Living Room," feature a man playing with a gun that turns anything into a packet of Kalbaz. Ornaments, relatives, a baby, a chair, a table-tennis bat -- nothing is safe. "We wanted to be silly," Mr. Ali said. "We were always told in the past that consumers were stupid and would never get the idea, but the revolution has proved the consumer is not stupid."

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