Podcast: Marketing to MENA

Today’s discussion

In this episode of Globally Speaking, we chat with Mohamed Abo El Fotouh, Digital and Media Lead for the Middle East and Asia Pacific Region for PepsiCo, about marketing tactics in the MENA region—Middle East and North Africa. We discuss how MENA is different from other regions, its market sub-clusters, why regional marketing campaigns work well and the biggest mistake foreign companies make. Plus, we get some new music recommendations!

Mohamed Abo El Fotouh is the Digital and Media Lead for the Middle East and Asia Pacific Region for PepsiCo. Prior to his time at PepsiCo, he worked at Nestle in digital media, consumer communications and global digital acceleration. Mohamed is also the creator of the app Mayday designed to help motorists in need of emergency services. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science from Misr International University and a Master’s Degree in Computer Science from The American University in Cairo.

Where to listen

The full podcast can be downloaded and listened to on all major podcast platforms, or from the Globally Speaking website. If you prefer to read the full transcript, we have provided that below, as well!

About Globally Speaking

Globally Speaking Radio isn’t just about how we as language professionals can improve our skills. It’s also about building awareness of how important translation and localization services are in helping global brands succeed in foreign markets—no matter where their business takes them. Globally Speaking is an independent podcast that does not necessarily represent the views of Nimdzi Insights or any other sponsors.

Host: Renato Beninatto

Renato is the co-founder and CEO of Nimdzi Insights, one of the language industry’s leading analyst and consulting firms. He has over 28 years of executive-level experience in the localization industry. He has served on executive teams for some of the industry’s most prominent companies, and he co-founded the industry’s first research analyst firm. A dynamic speaker and communicator, Renato is a highly regarded thought leader in the language industry, and is known for creating innovative strategies that drive growth on a global scale. He has also served on the advisory board for Translators Without Borders.

Host: Michael Stevens

Michael has 10 years of experience in the localization and IT industries. He is the Growth Director for Moravia, where his primary role is to assist companies who are inspired to create global software that changes the world. A well-networked entrepreneur, Michael’s main interest is in connecting and bringing people together. He not only enjoys learning about a company’s exciting ideas and developments, he also has a keen ability to add value—and fire—to new and innovative thinking.

This is an episode of the Globally Speaking Radio Podcast. Globally Speaking Radio is sponsored by RWS Moravia and Nimdzi.

The Transcript

Renato I’m Renato Beninatto.  
Michael And I’m Michael Stevens.  
Renato Today on Globally Speaking, we have a very interesting conversation about a market that we haven’t covered yet, right, Michael?  
Michael It’s amazing that with all that’s happening in the world right now and how often we hear about this region that we haven’t looked into what’s happening as far as localization and business there.  
Renato It’s a fascinating market with a young population of very eager consumers, and we have a very insightful conversation with a marketer that specializes in digital marketing and with large companies in the region.  
Michael And so, in listening today, get ready to get some new music recommendations, for most people. Also, I was really impressed because some of the universals our guest talked about is that everybody’s looking to get a deal, and one of the calls to action that’s also very insightful and works really well is educating, because people are naturally curious. So, you’re going to hear about a market that is mobile-first and there’s a lot of growth opportunity there for us.
Renato Let our guest introduce himself.  
Mohamed So, my name is Mohamed, you can call me Mo for short. So, I lead a function called Marketing Services at PepsiCo, which mainly is responsible for digital and media investments for PepsiCo brands across the MENA region. I’ve been with the company for about three years and I also founded a startup called Mayday who provides zero-type assistance for motorists facing car problems, which is now operational in Egypt.
Renato Well, so let’s start with a very simple question. What is MENA?  
Mohamed Middle East and North Africa.  
Renato Yes, well, it’s one of those acronyms that we come across all the time, but you have people who call it EMEA, you have people who call it MENA.  
Mohamed So, MENA is the most common name, and then, depending on the organization, they usually cluster the MENA region with Europe, then it becomes EMENA, or they cluster the MENA region with Asia and then it becomes AMENA. So, [laughter] depending on how you’re clustered. So, there are actually a few sub-clusters at MENA which are also very popular and that’s how organizations would usually tend to skew, because of the relevance and the kind of very clear commonalities between the markets and those sub-clusters. Which are: the GCC, which is basically the Gulf region; then you have Levant, which is Georgia, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria; and then you have North Africa, which includes Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Libya. And that’s how most of the companies, if they’re sub-clustering, they would go because of the language relevance, the same kind of culture and dynamics, and also, it’s a lot of ease to commute and transport items between the regions when they’re clustered that way as well. Even from a political standpoint, there are some, you know, kind of entities that are grouped. The Gulf has a joint entity that makes it very easy to transport items and makes it very easy to also, you know, have citizens travelling between countries without issues as well, if they’re part of the GCC nations.
Michael Mo, it’s amazing how distribution tends to be one of the core pillars to all business, how easily you can distribute to places. So, is one of the reasons that this region has such a unified distribution model because most of them have right-to-left languages?  
Mohamed Yes, so, language is definitely something that makes it very easy to have commonalities; like, you see it not just in distribution, but you see it in a lot of things. So, for example, media: it’s quite unique to see a region this big, with so many markets, have shared TV stations, shared digital platforms, and what I mean by shared is you have one channel that has penetration in almost all the MENA markets, which is very rare to find. Like, you don’t see that in Europe, you don’t see that in Asia, for example. Even in the sub-clusters in those continents, you still don’t really see that common channel or TV station or that common digital platform that caters to everyone in that region. Just because there’s a similar language, there’s a similar sense of humor, habits, behaviors, religion. Like, you don’t see that in Europe, you don’t see that in Asia, for example. Even in the sub-clusters in those continents, you still don’t really see that common channel or TV station or that common digital platform that caters to everyone in that region. Just because there’s a similar language, there’s a similar sense of humor, habits, behaviors, religion. Like, there’s a lot of elements that are common across the whole MENA region and it gives it that very unique perspective. I’ve been recently exposed to APAC, which is Asia-Pacific, doing some work there, and I immediately saw that each market there is its complete, you know, different standalone beast of its own. Just because different languages, just because it’s different mentalities, different cultures.
Michael Different platforms; you would have, like, WeChat and LINE, and it varies a great deal. Do you think that’s eventually going to come, or do you think it will continue to be consolidated? Because working with a large company, I can see how that’s a great advantage, but you also work with startups, and if there’s only one place where you can reach people, it’s a bit of a challenge for a startup.
Mohamed Even with startups in the region, they always tend to think, like, how can I expand regionally quickly? It’s always a lot easier because it’s the same language and same habits and, like, everyone can commute very easily between the markets. And they don’t really find [an] issue moving between markets as you would going outside the MENA region. There’s also a lot of history between the markets as well. Like, you’ll see that Egypt, there’s a very big Egyptian expat community in the UAE, there’s a very big Egyptian expat community in Saudi Arabia. You’ll see a very, very big Jordanian community in both markets as well. You’ll see that, due to all of the unrest that happened in the region as well, you’ll see a lot of Syrian population that is now living in Egypt or living in other markets. So, because of that as well, you know, that flocking of talent to different markets, the exchange of cultures that happened over the years, it’s very easy to have that dynamic in business as well. And people don’t really find an issue, you know, opening up in a different market. They can move very fast, the culture is very similar and they can find that living in one of those other Arabic-speaking countries is not that difficult because there are a lot of similarities.
Renato From a digital marketing perspective, how does that affect the strategy? I am a multinational company; I want to promote my product in the MENA region. What channels do I use? What would be a good strategy? And let me give you a little bit of a context in this, because you have a similar situation with Latin American Spanish-speaking countries, right? So, you have 19 or 20 countries in Latin America who speak the same language, but the cultures vary a lot, right? You have Mexico and Argentina—and the extremes of the continent—and the language variation and the accents, and you mentioned something that I’m very curious about: the element of humor. Because the jokes will vary a lot on who you pick on, things like that. So, from a marketing perspective, you have to be very local, especially for consumer products. I’m thinking of maybe a cell phone company or even a consumer product company like PepsiCo. How does that play across so many countries? How do you do it in Morocco and Yemen or another extreme there?
Mohamed Yeah, good question. So, I think there’s again, we find the, like, there’s this unique opportunity when we tend to market within the MENA region, which is why we kind of have these two layers. We have the local marketing material, or the local content, that might have catered to a specific audience in that market. So, we want to be as relevant as possible to the Egyptian market, hence Mo Salah comes into play, and he’s, like, one of the brand ambassadors for Pepsi in Egypt, for example. Because that’s a very unique opportunity and it’s a very, you know, relevant advertising, you know, tactic that we can use in Egypt. But, it’s one of the few regions where we also have regional campaigns. We create campaigns that actually are common across most of the markets, just because, again, the product is available everywhere. It’s very similar in how we advertise in all the markets. Language is common. Even the celebrities we use, they’re actually popular in more than one market. So, if you think about it, like, if you get one of these famous singers, for example, he will have a big audience in his hometown, but he will also have a huge audience in all the other markets as well. That’s how common and how tightly knit it is across the MENA region. I’m an Egyptian and I listen very frequently to artists from the UAE, from Saudi, from Morocco, from Lebanon, because I like their music. It resonates with me, it lends right with me as well.
Michael Who are some of the artists? Name names so we can—  
Renato We need to add them to our playlist.  
Michael We do.  
Mohamed [Laughter] So, you have Amr Diab, he’s a famous Egyptian star who has popularity across the board. You have Hussain Al Jassmi, he’s an Emirati who is very popular across most of the markets as well. You have a lot of Lebanese artists; so, Nancy Ajram, she’s a very famous singer from Lebanon. Again, all three would be kind of Pan-Arab. Like, it wouldn’t make a difference where you are, which market you are, probably everyone in that market will know who they are and they will have listened to them, and you will see they have hardcore fans everywhere you go. So, that’s one other factor. So, for a very long time, for example, Pepsi used to work with Hussain Al Jassmi, who’s an Emirati, but they also used him for advertising in Egypt because they knew that even in the Egyptian market, he would be a very big hit. So, that’s why you see both regional-level campaigns coming out—and it’s not just FMCG companies. You see it also, like, in teleco; so, the telecom operators who have operations in more than one market. You see it in the electronics segment. You’ll see brands that also utilize, you know, regional celebrities and endorsers in their advertising. One: of course, it becomes very cost-effective when you do that, as opposed to creating from scratch in every market. And then two: because it is a big opportunity in the MENA region. I mean, I think it would be a mistake not to utilize it, especially if have that footprint across all the MENA markets or a majority of the MENA markets.
Renato So, in terms of platforms, Mo, when—and your area of expertise is digital marketing—what are the best channels to reach out to the consumer market in the MENA region? Is there a common platform that everybody shares, or are we talking about the traditional Western platforms that an advertiser will use?  
Mohamed I think…so both are very…very widely available. So, we have the big international players available, of course, with very high penetration. We also have regional players as well that are very strong, so we have Shahid which is a very famous kind of video-on-demand platform that, again, has very high penetration across the MENA region. We have music-streaming platforms that also have very high penetration across the MENA region and that are based out of a MENA market. So, it’s both; we see both equally, I would say, strong. A difference from one market to the other, of course; so you’ll see, for example, Snapchat penetration in Saudi is one of the highest markets globally for Snapchat. And if I recall correctly, Riyadh and Jeddah are the two biggest cities for Snapchat in the world, which is, again, a very unique element in digital marketing, that you find Snapchat that aggressive and that big and that successful in one market with that high penetration. So, we definitely tend to advertise, and a lot of brands tend to advertise, with Snapchat in Saudi Arabia because of that. So, yeah, I would say when we look at digital marketing, it’s on both sides of the spectrum. There are the international players and there are the very strong regional players as well, and I would say we utilize both ends to reach the consumers and engage and interact and send a message to.
Mohamed Yeah, so I would say humor works really well everywhere, so that’s a very popular element. I think the whole region tends to really enjoy drama as well. So, that’s very, very clear from the amount of series, the amount of drama, even foreign drama, that’s translated into Arabic and then aired on TV, and that’s the highest ratings and the highest exposure out of everything airing on TV. So, you’ll see that that’s quite big. So, these are kind of the, I would say, the platforms we would, your, like, brands, tend to usually utilize. Calls to action: some markets really respond quite well to promotional activities, to sales discounts. There’s that big culture across the Middle East. So, kind of a buy call to action, ‘buy now,’ you know, ‘find it in stores,’ ‘limited time only,’ that kind of call to action always is popular across a lot of markets in the region. I think ‘discover’ is also very popular; like, inviting people to learn more, discover more about the product, learn more about the specs and so on. I would say the mobile penetration is really, really high in some of the markets. It goes up to 90 and 95% smartphone penetration, which is extremely high compared to the global average, and I would say they’re always online and always searching. So, I would say the search always starts online, and then we make the decision and go and buy it offline.
Renato And this is a personal curiosity, what is a call to action that works everywhere? What is the kind of communication that really transcends the whole region? Or also, what is something that is so peculiar that works extremely well in a certain market and wouldn’t work in other regional markets? And how about payment systems, are they pan-region or local?  
Mohamed Payment systems?  
Renato Yes, well, one of the things that I imagine is very powerful with such a digital footprint—and also, you have a very young population in general, right, it’s young consumers—how is ecommerce? Are there people buying on Amazon, or is there a regional player that fulfils that market better? Because one of the things that you said in the beginning was the ease of transportation and fulfilment across the region. How do people pay and how do people get the goods that they buy?
Mohamed There was a very regional player called Souq, which was actually bought by Amazon last year or about maybe a year and half ago. So, Amazon now has a stronger footprint in the MENA region by this acquisition or through this acquisition, and they [Souq] are a very strong player. They knew what they were doing, they had a lot of experience, they’ve been operating in the region for quite some time. So, they were quite the success story and then they were acquired by Amazon recently, and then you’re now seeing the Amazon kind of legacy coming to the market, which everyone was also hoping for. You now have more access to international shipping and getting, you know, stuff from other places which you didn’t really have access to in the MENA region before. But that being said, I would say the credit card penetration in the region overall is not very high. So, it could get a lot better, especially in the North African markets and the Levant markets. I would say the situation in GCC is quite different, so the Gulf market, like Saudi, UAE, Kuwait, I would say their credit card penetration is much higher. But in the North African market and the Levant market, I think it’s still in the early stages. It’s not that big yet compared to the population. As a result, the majority of payments is actually still cash on delivery when it comes to ecommerce sales. I would say the vast majority, actually, of payments is still cash on delivery. For one reason, because of the credit card penetration dilemma, and for another reason, is the trust and safety aspect. There is a big issue, I would say, with online payment in terms of trust with a lot of the nations in the MENA region. So, that would be a second aspect of why I think we’re not there yet, but it’s improving for sure. I would say year-on-year definitely getting a lot better.
Renato So, the system would be the distribution infrastructure, the delivery mechanism, the equivalent of UPS, knocks on your door, delivers your electronic that you just bought and receives the payment right there.  
Mohamed Exactly, yep, so that would be the main way to get your products. The shipping logistics industry is really on a boom in the MENA region right now. Like, new players coming in every day, expansion plans, you know, local players becoming more regional. It’s really, really on the rise with a lot of new players entering that space, and in the region, there are a few, like, very big regional players. The biggest of which would be Aramex who operate in all MENA markets and they’re quite experienced with shipping between the MENA markets as well. And a lot of the ecommerce players would rely on Aramex and other regional players like Fetchr to conduct these deliveries. And some, of course, of the ecommerce players have their own fleets to some degree.
Renato Well that’s fantastic. So, one of the things that we like to ask our interviewees is a story. Something especially related to either a big success or a big failure that you can remember. It doesn’t need to be yours, you don’t need to name the innocent, but what’s a classic error or what’s a classic thing that an international company makes coming for the first time into the MENA market that they could avoid?
Mohamed So, honestly, the very common mistake I always see is that they use their foreign ads or foreign flavors to communicate to the masses within the MENA region. And of course, Arabic is the number one language by far, so you’ll see, of course, a lot of people speak English and other languages like French as well, which is very popular in the region. But the vast majority of citizens in most of the markets still speak Arabic as the primary language, and they don’t really relate to brands that use, you know, foreign imagery or foreign ideas or advertising tactics. They just don’t relate. Like, they don’t see the relevance, they don’t relate to that, and it’s always kind of alienating to some degree to the majority or the mass-consumer in the region.
Michael Does that vary between products? Are there some products that people are a little more acceptable of it feeling foreign or from outside?  
Mohamed Actually, yes, I would say yeah, so, actually that’s a good point. Yes, I think it’s more acceptable if it’s a tech, maybe like a tech platform. It’s a lot less acceptable if it’s a consumer, a mass-consumer product, or like an FMCG product that they would, you know, eat or have in their home. I think that’s a big difference there. Also, telecos. I think, you know, people would relate a lot more to the telecos with more local flavor and more relevance to their needs and their kind of, you know, passion points, versus someone who’s foreign and coming in with an international direction. But I see it is very acceptable for the tech players. They do it all the time and people still really engage. So that, I would say, yeah, that’s how I see the difference.
Michael That’s great. That confirms one of the things we talk about a good bit, and that is the more intimate you are with a product, how close it is to your…in your home. Renato, you actually call it the underwear principle.  
Renato Yeah, exactly.  
Michael That’s why we translate the instructions on shampoo. It’s because it’s in your bathroom where you’re very vulnerable. You want to have that in your native language, whereas the more removed, such as something abstract like a technology platform, you’re a little more accepting if it doesn’t…  
Renato Yeah, something that you use in your office instead of your home.  
Michael Right.  
Renato Thank you so much for this gracious interview. I think that we learned a lot and maybe we can do a follow-up with more details.  
Mohamed Sounds great. Thank you guys for having me. It was a real pleasure.  
Michael Awesome, thanks Mo.  

Stay up to date as Nimdzi publishes new insights.
We will keep you posted as each new report is published so that you are sure not to miss anything.

Related posts