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How strong is brand reality?

How strong is brand reality?

With reality TV becoming increasingly popular in the Middle East, we check out if it’s a realistic option for brand promotion.

September 9, 2008 9:05 by

Precious de Leon

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Whether or not you agree with this Oscar Wilde aphorism, it pretty much sums up reality TV. These days, people don’t want to watch a play so much as be in one, and increasingly they are spending their TV viewing time watching shows of the “raw” and “unscripted” kind.

Already saturating the airwaves in Europe and North America, reality shows are yet to be fully exploited in the Middle East – though they have been present here for some years now. There’s no doubt the very nature of the format makes it difficult to penetrate into a region known for its strong and often conservative culture.

Recently, however, viewer interest in this genre is strengthening. The regional launch of reality TV pioneers Endemol is a strong indicator of this growth.

Jordan-based research firm Arab Advisors Group also reports reality TV programming is on the rise in the Middle East. It lists 26 Arabic-language reality shows produced during the 2007-08 season on eight major regional stations. This is in addition to the increasing list of reality programming from abroad.

Scanning the different channels, though, it’s evident that there’s more than a fair share of international titles that have been “Arabised”. Although there have been locally produced titles, there is still a lack of original shows.

“There is a need for original shows made for an Arab audience,” says Badih Fattouh, group director of content, MBC. “There’s a real need to develop local ideas. Acquisition is easy. It’s a cookie cutter production.”

Arab Advisors cites lower production costs, particularly the absence of highly paid celebrities on the payroll, as what makes reality TV attractive to produce, but this is denied by some agencies and networks. Its relative novelty in the region also makes it attractive to the region’s viewers.
So how does this translate in marketing terms?

Wide angles
In an ad-averse world, reality TV presents a number of opportunities, among them that locally produced programmes are a window through which advertisers can expose their brands to consumers in novel ways.

As Azhar Malik, Showtime’s marketing VP, says: “In addition to Hiz Al Malhab (Shake the Stadium, a sports reality show) and Axis of Evil – although not quite a reality show – our experience of holding the Friday Night Live comedy event as an extension of Axis of Evil resulted in very positive marketing returns for both the show and the network, as well as for the performers.”

Besides its generally high ratings, the hype that usually comes with a reality show may be harnessed to create buzz around a brand’s involvement. After all, as reality TV veteran Ziad Battal says: “Hype sells. If you don’t create it, nobody’s going to watch your show. A good product will often sell itself but you get exposure from hype.”

Beyond the conventional ad spots and sponsorships, reality TV offers the potential to “create” circumstances that showcase products or services without interfering with the show’s plot. Think of a branded laptop that saves an executive in a business reality show or conspicuous branding of sports accessories in an aspirational show for would-be tennis champions in training.

“Within the GCC and Saudi Arabia in particular, we know that word of mouth and ‘real’ people’s opinions are one of the biggest reference points for consumers deciding whether to try a brand and to help them form opinions about a brand,” says Will Brockbank, head of marketing of Kellogg’s Middle East, which co-sponsored LBC’s The Perfect Bride, a Lebanese matchmaking reality show.

“Reality TV acts as a large scale testimonial that is far more credible than a shot TVC.”

The brand was showcased at break-ins, break-outs, in spots around the show and integrated into the programme.

“In Saudi, we had average (viewer) ratings of 3.2 million on the daily shows and almost 6 million for the weekly primetime shows for our young, female target audience,” says Brockbank. “We could also see a migration from other channels to LBC as they spent 25 per cent more time on the channel during that period.”

Camera shy
This is the first time Kellogg’s has ventured into such an agreement globally and the company was initially “very cautious” about it. “Our major concern was whether we would get enough exposure and the right exposure to justify our investment and how it was measured,” says Brockbank.
Kellogg’s is not alone in its hesitation to get involved in reality TV shows, which are often perceived to be of high risk.

“Because it’s not a scripted show clients are obviously wary of what people might say about their brand and that it would eventually backfire,” says Christian Fedorczuk, director, OMD.

“Another concern for clients is potential controversy on the show itself. I think the perception of this risk among marketers in the Middle East is bigger than the actual threat because of negative examples from abroad.”

On the other side of the fence, Battal, who developed The Hydra Executives, the forthcoming Abu Dhabi-based reality TV series, says: “Companies are afraid to take the plunge (into reality TV) because they don’t see the value. This starts from ad agencies that don’t have a lot of understanding of (reality) TV and steer the client to other media.”

Nevertheless, says Fedorczuk, the biggest risk is getting the collaboration wrong. “Not enough people know how to credibly integrate a brand so that it resonates with the consumers. It should fit the character of the show and meet the objectives of the brand,” he says.

“Advertisers, TV stations, sales houses and agencies alike don’t seem to acknowledge that enough. It’s not about maximising exposure per second – it’s about getting the right exposure.”

Product placement is one of the most recommended ways to get the right exposure. It’s easy – no scripting is necessary – and discreet, and should a participant rave about the product then that’s a bonus.

At the other end of the spectrum is the more in-your-face strategy of basing a show entirely around a brand. The Hydra Executives, for example, was developed as a platform for Abu Dhabi’s Hydra Properties’ global brand-building project. The $5 million Apprentice-style project pits two sets of business professionals from different countries against each other.

“The first thing I told the company was that the show had to be in English so it can be easily exported globally,” says Battal. “We would like to position this competition as the Olympics of business.”

The show is initially airing on three networks covering MENA. Next year, three more networks will start airing it. As if that coverage were not enough, Hydra Properties is already planning spinoffs that will include executive retreats, seminars and VIP clubs.

How much would it have cost if the company had opted for more conventional marketing? “That’s the billion-dollar question,” says Battal, beaming that the exposure is pretty much priceless.

Battal has produced a number of reality shows in the region, including Infinity TV’s Street Smarts and Showtime’s Hiz Al Malhab (Shake the Stadium). The latter was developed to add a local element to Showtime’s acquisition of the English Premier League. Showtime also put together an Axis of Evil competition. Both created an experiential element to their marketing as well as a novel way to seek out local talent.

Reality bites
With the buzz surrounding reality TV shows, Battal says now the barrier is not so much about companies jumping on the bandwagon as finding or developing something that fits their brand.
OMD’s Fedorczuk agrees. “Skim the cream before it gets too cluttered and invaded by too many who know too little on how to do it.”

Getting brands involved in reality TV, of course, doesn’t necessarily translate into a takeover of the actual production. “The key here is to remember that they may be experts in brand building but networks and producers are experts in media production and the collaboration shouldn’t mean stepping on each other’s toes,” says MBC’s Fattouh.

New realities
Infinite possibilities lie ahead but only for certain brands.

“The context of reality TV is not for everyone and especially when you talk about brand integration. Unless you work with experts on it my advice would be to stay away from it,” says Fedorczuk, who also sees more vertical integration in the future. This means more brands will become content owners and creators.

The digital and online arenas can also complement the reality TV shows. It’s a cost-effective way of attracting more viewers to the programme. It also lends better interactivity through discussion forums, voting and contestant viewer interaction.

“The challenge here is not so much that the market doesn’t understand the opportunities – MBC for example has a whole department dedicated to digital distribution – but whether it makes economic sense,” says Fedorczuk.

“As a TV station, if you have to pay 20 per cent more if you want to license a show not just for TV but to take it online as well, you need to think about whether you can make that money back somewhere.”
Among the different versions of reality formats, UGC is the way forward while competitions are still at its peak.

“The next wave in reality TV will be UGC, and we’re pushing for it slowly,” says Samr al Marzouqi, channel manager, MTV Arabia, which has a number of locally produced reality shows to be announced at the end of 2008, along with more adaptations of international shows.

“There are two reasons why it will take off in the next few years: it’s the cheapest to produce, since it is more a matter of compiling material as opposed to shooting it and assembling a whole production team. Furthermore, as reality TV, it is more attractive to viewers. Since it’s shot by amateurs, it has a purer reality feel and is a holistic participatory activity for the audience.”

Feel-good shows like house or people makeovers are likely to continue to be strong favourites among viewers.

Industry insiders are waiting for the big wave in reality TV. It’s coming soon, with the region’s viewers demanding more. As Marzoui says: “Arabia is part of MTV’s global community but we are also a region with our own distinctive choices, so part of our job is to interpret what people want to see, what they want to say and give them the opportunity to do both.”

So whether Wilde was completely correct remains debatable. But when it comes to TV, art imitating life seems to be the way to go.

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