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Can brands win over Iraq?

Can brands win over Iraq?

Media Reach’s Saad Al Saraf says the country is hungry for brands. But marketers need to tread carefully to win the population’s hearts and minds.

September 29, 2008 8:36 by

Saad Al Saraf

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq has seen massive changes occur – I’m not talking about the devastation the world sees on the news, but about the new and exciting marketing opportunities that are opening up round almost every corner.

Alongside the new building developments being erected across the country by both international and local developers, a plethora of new media has emerged, offering more choices and varying points of view. The income of Iraqi families has increased from $20 per month during the Saddam era, to some $400 per month now, a figure that continues to rise. And with Iraqi consumers now on a buying spree, the demand for consumer goods has intensified. So what does this mean for brands?

Traditionally, international brands in the Middle East have focused their marketing on Gulf countries, where the majority of buyers tend to be foreign workers and expatriates rather than nationals.

But for decades a proportion of goods marketed in the Gulf region were being smuggled to both the Iraqi and Iranian markets, which have a combined population of 100 million. This was necessary due to the embargo imposed by the UN and US on these nations, and Saddam’s reluctance to see Iraqis enjoying and owning Western goods.

Some forward-thinking brands have already taken advantage of the sudden boom in an uncluttered market. Through their distributors in the Gulf and neighboring countries, these brands have aggressively driven sales in Iraq. Global brands have been quick to act and have secured distribution deals and partnership agent agreements with local suppliers. Some have established offices in Baghdad.

REALTY, NOT FICTION. From my observation and experience, it is Iraq that is leading economic growth in the Middle East, and will continue to do so for at least the next two decades. If we look at the property frenzy in the Gulf countries, it seems as though they are mirroring each other by launching thousands of developments to lure overseas buyers. In Iraq, though, more than three million properties are required to house Iraqis. Therefore, the real-estate market in Iraq is very unlikely to crash, as the demand will be there for years to come.

As the economy opens up, and the old regime’s restraints on freedom of speech are cast off, advertising is supporting an expanding media scene. For example, in Iraq today there are 20 independent satellite television networks, and a further 25 license applications awaiting approval.

The country’s leading station is Baghdad-based Al Iraqia, which is part of the independent Iraqi Media Network (IMN). The group also has radio stations dotted around the country.

Around 32 commercial radio stations now broadcast news, chat, light entertainment and music 24 hours a day, and most of the religious and political parties in the country have their own media networks. The State Department funds Al Hurra TV Iraq and Sawa Radio, and BBC radio is broadcast in Arabic from Baghdad.

All broadcasters are answerable to the Iraqi Media Commission, which was established to legislate and develop guidelines for broadcasters.

A boom in television needs a boom in viewers to be of interest to advertisers, and Iraqis seem delighted with their new media freedom. Iraq is seeing the largest growth of satellite dish purchases of all Arabic and Middle Eastern countries. Seven and a half million satellite dishes were installed in just 10 months immediately following the fall of Saddam’s regime, according to Middle East Telecom and Media Research, and even people living in shacks have access to satellite television. Iraqis, it seems, want to compensate for the isolation from the outside world they endured under Saddam.

Print media has increased from 46 titles during Saddam’s regime to more than 165 publications now. The largest and most prominent titles are Al Sabah (part of IMN), Al Zaman (with a sister TV station, Al Sharqia), Al Mada (a high-brow title which helped break the UN oil-for-food scandal) and Al Taakhi, a Kurdish title.

The other area of major media development is outdoor. Sites are emerging fast, new formats are constantly emerging, and recently I saw the introduction of mobile poster trucks and bus advertising.

CULTURE SHOCK. However, despite the media opportunities the developing Iraqi market offers, its nascent advertising and marketing business is relatively weak. There is a lack of good-quality production facilities, post-production equipment, models, promotional gift concepts and other such raw marketing materials. And the resources that are available need marketers used to higher-tech markets to be flexible. For example, camera crews are available but work on slightly older formats and need training in new media skills and techniques to catch up with what the West has to offer.

Iraq is also receptive to low-tech, on-the-ground marketing. We, and other agencies, send field teams to attend religious, sports and cultural festivals and offer promotional gifts to the masses. For this to work, it’s important to use teams with appropriate cultural backgrounds. In a market as new and unsteady as Iraq, teams with a strong cultural and political understanding are even more essential than elsewhere in the world.

Press releases and creative executions have to be sensitively adapted to different languages and cultures to reflect Iraq’s diverse heritage, and we must always be aware that direct translations of marketing material can often mean something else entirely in the new language.
Agencies must be aware of the rules governing the advertising scene in Iraq, as there have been issues with media owners revising their rates at short notice and local municipal authorities removing poster sites suddenly. In fact, while some advertisers are under the impression their campaigns are being advertised prominently, Baghdad Municipality is in fact tearing them down.

But with good planning, in conjunction with established and knowledgeable agencies, the emergence of a new Iraq offers brands the opportunity to vastly expand their reach in the Middle East and successfully surf the growing wave of Iraqi consumerism.

Saad Al Saraf is the CEO of Media Reach Advertising, a London-based communications agency.

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