It is confirmed here in The Brand Berries.comOPINIONS that Digital Transformation and its Implications on Brands and Consumers in The Middle East by Imad Sarrouf, Head of Publishers at DMS ( Member of the Choueiri Group) is as valid a statement as can be these days.
12 November 2020
The Middle East is showing the promise to scale to unprecedented levels apropos of its digital transformation market is no news. In 2016, along with Africa, this market was valued at USD 1,1 Billion and was estimated to achieve an implausible growth by 2024.
Major powers in the Middle East including UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have shown impressive strides towards the goal, with their Governments setting precedents by integrating digital transformation in the public sector. The growth that these regions have achieved in terms of tech-savvy infrastructure has made some of the most powerful heads turn in the Gulf direction.
Clearly, the private sector and the public in themselves have taken the cue and are leaving no stone unturned in embracing the digital revolution. As more and more middle eastern companies pave the way for digital, such transformation is going to shape up the future of brands and consumers in this region.
The State Of Digitization Of Brands and Companies In The Middle East
At large, a territory’s adoption and adaptation to the digital era are measured with reference to the population’s access to smartphones, engagement with social media platforms, and availability of high-end digital technologies. While the Middle East has been making headlines for rising up these ladders, the scope of the implementation of digital transformation goes far beyond just that.
The digital transformation market in the middle east is basically divided into 2 regions; the GCC countries and other Arab countries. According to a survey report by Strategy And, hardly about 7.5% of the brands and companies in the GCC region understand the potential of digital transformation as a means to realize efficiencies.
Considering that building a digital strategy for future upscaling is the fundamental step for a company towards transformation, only about 37% of the major brands in the Middle East had teams working on one. The major employable channels across a vast range of sectors for brands include big data and analytics, IoT, Cloud Computing, Cyber physics, and technologies of similar likes. Popular frontrunners leading the race of transformation include Microsoft, Google Inc, SAP, Protiviti, Ixtel, Oracle among others.
Gulf Brands Go Smart: How The Middle East Is Accelerating The Digital Revolution
Closer technical analysis of the major Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE shows that digital initiatives have taken the front seat among leading brand growth agendas. These agendas have been presenting, and are expected to continuingly present themselves under three major brackets;
Adoption Of Smarter Projects And Initiatives
These comprise the entire smart market — right from smart homes, smart healthcare, smart hospitality, and tourism, to smart transportation, entertainment, business, and shopping. Some of the most successful digital initiatives include health monitoring wristwatches, virtual assistants as tour guides, IoT based interconnected home system, among others. While the scope of AR, VR, and advanced AI is still being explored and systematically implemented, work in progress projects in this area include AR/ VR enabled cars in the mobility segment, and some medical testing procedures in the healthcare sector.
Implementation Of Smarter Payment Gateways
The world is always in the need of a better and safer way to pay, and we have all been a witness to this when people furiously shifted to digital mode of payments as soon as they were introduced. With cryptocurrency in the picture, the only challenge is the lack of exposure and education in this area. However, several middle eastern companies are coming forward to give this option to consumers. In fact, in 2017, Dubai’s residential real estate project, Aston Plaza was the first in the world to allow full payment in the form of bitcoins.
Customization Of Production and Operational Convenience
The way the manufacturing sector has been catching up with digital opportunities is magnanimous. The drastic shift from mass production to customized production is one of the most obvious demonstrations of the same that runs alongside the heavy reliance on light mobile apps. These apps ensure higher accuracy, operational convenience, and shipment tracking; some of the features that have become manufacturing prerequisites in an ideal digital world.
For companies that can afford a drastic change, the digital initiatives in this sector also include transforming the entire ecosystem to be more optimized, increasingly sustainable, and minimally invasive.
In a capsule, the digital transformation scene in the companies of the Middle East is seen tracing three major models — digital business model, digital consumer model, and the digital operations model — of which the consumer model is observed to be spearheading the growth. Let’s now understand how this consumer model is being implemented despite regional limitations including the slowdowns due to the recent pandemic instituted lockdowns.
Digital Transformation Driving Middle Eastern Consumer Experience
Middle eastern companies’ digital strategies are highly driven by keeping consumer experience enhancement at the forefront. This includes micro-target marketing to improve customer engagement and channelizing customer feedback.
Some of the most dynamic and successful initiatives include:
Online to Offline Commerce is replacing traditional retail shopping hard and fast. Retail stores are being improvised to act as mere distribution centers while more and more investments are being concentrated towards online initiatives. The lucrative combination of browsing through hundreds of options on the screen, without having to move an inch, getting discount codes and coupons by shopping online, yet getting the look and feel of shopping by personally trying and collecting as per convenience has proved to be an instant hit in this region.
Chatbots and virtual assistants
This technology has proved to be such a huge success that it has become fairly common to find chatbots on every other website or app we use. What companies in the middle east are also empowering are pharma, healthcare, and hospitality sectors through this technology. You can know the right medicine to take for mild symptoms and problems, you can schedule and monitor your family’s health checkups and reports, and coordinate your entire stay with an expert assistant. These applications have particularly received widespread recognition because of its social-distancing friendly nature.
Middle Eastern Challenges To A Rapid Digital Adaptation
For any company, digital transformation is a major shift, that more than anything else will require capital and man-power investment. The most natural challenges that companies in the middle east are facing is the broad skill gap in the existing organizations, change in operating model to an agile one, and starting off on the right footing to make the transformation a profitable success.
Keeping skill-building, awareness, and education at the core, however, can be a unanimous way out of the hindrances posed by these challenges. As companies find access to greater resources; human and otherwise; proficient in the field, brands will gain more confidence to take the digital leap of faith.
Imad Sarrouf (in feature picture above) is a digital expert with over 15 years of experience in the digital media industry working across a large portfolio of publishers and ad technology platforms in the middle east. In his position, he leads digital innovation and transformation – responsible for the ad tech solutions business and process automation to drive business growth.
William Beckerwriting this article titled ‘Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility’ could be taken as a pertinent illustrator of the sort of times related to dilemmas and traumas. Democracy at best of times associates with higher human capital accumulation, lower political instability, and higher economic freedom that are quasi-impossible to go for nowadays and before the advent of that smart techno hard and software. In any case, Can democracies survive social media?
Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility
Abraham Lincoln is credited with one of the most enduring statements in American history: “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Unfortunately, nearly all Americans have been fooled by this. The first person to utter the statement was actually the showman P.T. Barnum.
Barnum didn’t know about the Internet or social media, of course. He’d be amazed at computers, and even more amazed that anyone could use it to send virtually any statement anywhere in the world, unfiltered and instantly. This extraordinary power allows us to fool millions of people in real time, but it also allows them to fool us. Unfortunately, there are individuals, organizations, and even nations that use social media for precisely that purpose.
The misuse of social media to spread disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, and outright lies is raising questions in democracies about how free freedom of expression should be. Social media are caught constantly between freedom of speech and social responsibility in democracies around the world. “There is an ongoing debate about where to draw the line between freedom of speech and offensive comments,” the authors of the 2020 World Population Review report. “Especially in the age of social media, concerns have arisen over whether freedom of speech is causing more harm than it is good.”
Every country that guarantees freedom of expression already puts boundaries on it. In 2015, the Pew Research Center ranked the tolerance of free speech in 38 countries, scoring them between zero and eight, with eight being the most tolerant. No country earned a score higher than 5.73. That score was awarded to the United States. Pew reported that “Americans are more tolerant of free speech than other nationalities. They also are the most supportive of freedom of the press and the right to use the Internet without government censorship.”
But the world’s most tolerant nation is struggling with an epidemic of misinformation, outright falsehoods, hate speech, conspiracy theories, and deliberate attempts by foreign and domestic groups to undermine democracy. Social media providers such as Facebook and Twitter are being challenged by Congress to find that balance between freedom of expression on the one hand, and serving as conduits of hate and harm on the other.
The U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law…abridging freedom of speech.” Yet, federal statutes prohibit speech that incites harm to others or distributes obscene materials, for example. The constraints other countries have put on free expression include libel, slander, perjury, obscenity, sedition, incitement, the disclosure of classified information, the unauthorized use of copyrighted information, trade secrets, and speech that violates privacy, dignity, and public security. People in the European Union and Argentina are guaranteed the “right to be forgotten.”
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “the right to freedom of expression.” But it also sets boundaries against speech that damages the rights and reputations of others, jeopardizes national security, or threatens public order, health, or morals.
The Internet’s value
Another of America’s historic leaders, Thomas Jefferson, has been quoted, “If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, every American is responsible to be informed.” Ensuring that citizens are well informed is one of the Internet’s most important potentials. How close is it to fulfilling its potential?
The Pew Center for Research asked that question last July in the United States. It studied where Americans get their information and how their sources enhance their knowledge. Pew found that about one in five adults relies on social media for news and information, but 57% of them scored low when asked nine “knowledge questions.” Other researchers found a similar result for television news, probably because some of the most prominent news sources are biased in the United States.
Here is how it happened. Before cable television arrived, there were three dominant TV networks in the U.S. — ABC, CBS, and NBC. Because they used public airways to broadcast content, the federal government felt they had an obligation to public service. Each network had to obtain a broadcast license. In 1949, the federal agency in charge of licensing instituted the “Fairness Doctrine.” It required the networks to present both sides of controversial issues of public importance. Broadcasts had to be “honest, equitable, and balanced.”
Things changed when cable television came along. Cable stations didn’t use public airways. As their numbers grew, viewers could find both sides of controversial issues by channel surfing, if they took the trouble. The Fairness Doctrine fell into disuse and eventually was discontinued. Cable stations are subject to federal rules and local requirements, but their rules pertain mostly to the quality of cable services, rate structures, franchise fees, and so on. The few regulations about programming are much less strict than the standards applied to the major broadcast networks.
As a result, several cable networks began specializing in news slanted to support a political or ideological agenda. One network, Fox News, presents information in ways that appeal to and reinforce the beliefs of conservative viewers. It has proved to be a very successful formula. Fox is now the most widely watched news station in the U.S.
The Pew Research Center found that 60% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters rely heavily on Fox News, while 53% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters tune into CNN, a network that tilts slightly left. In 2012, researchers determined that people who relied on Fox for news knew less about current events than people who watched no news at all. Last July, a new study showed that the same is true for people who frequent the Fox News website.
News outlets like Fox (and conservatives would say CNN) contribute to the ideological rigidity and highly emotional polarization that plagues politics in the United States today. Outlets like these do less for “the responsibility of every American to be informed” than they do for each group’s conviction than it knows better than the other. The fortification of pre-existing biases and beliefs also happens on social media, which uses algorithms to diagnose a user’s beliefs and feeds back like-minded content. We come to the question again whether social coherence and goodwill require that the relationship between free speech and social responsibility should tilt toward responsibility.
It is a delicate and even dangerous question that begs more questions. How do we make sure that whoever sets and enforces the standards of free expression is not cultivating authoritarianism?
Even more worrisome, perhaps, is how we keep a democracy’s information channels open but safe from nefarious state and non-state interference? Cyber espionage, warfare, and crime are pressing issues worldwide beyond the scope of this article. More relevant are the activities by some nations to interfere with and manipulate the democratic processes of others.
Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are regarded as the nations that conduct most information warfare over the Internet. U.S. intelligence agencies confirm Russia’s manipulation of public opinion during the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. The same agencies report that Russia, China, and Iran are attempting to “hack” the 2020 election, too, in ways that favor either Trump or his opponent, Joe Biden. Experts say that other, smaller nations are working to acquire the same capabilities.
Russian leaders use social media to undermine the American people’s confidence in democracy overall. This isn’t new. “Cyber is facilitating more advanced and more effective psychological warfare, information operations, coercion and intimidation attacks,” NATO’s security expert Jamie Shea warned in 2017. “We used to worry about [hackers targeting] banks or credit cards or inconvenience to customers, now we worry about the future of democracy, the stability and health of our institutions.”
Russia’s use of fake organizations and inflammatory ads on social media is challenging Twitter and Facebook to make concessions to social responsibility. Both were criticized for failing to police Russia’s use of their networks in 2016. This year, Facebook says it will block all new political advertising a week before the November 3 election to prevent misinformation.
Facebook’s chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, says that his company disabled 1.7 billion fake accounts between January and March. Twitter has begun labeling tweets that violate its policies against fake accounts and identities. Two years ago, it created a public archive of 200 million tweets to study them for attempted manipulation. Congress has called on Facebook, Twitter, and Google to explain what they are doing to prevent foreign interference in the 2020 election.
America’s lawmakers are also concerned about foreign and domestic sources misusing Instagram, YouTube, and other social media to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, possibly inciting the demonstrations, fights, and even violence the country has experienced because of government mandates to wear masks, observe social distancing, and close businesses where crowds congregate.
The Internal threats
Facebook and Twitter are taking steps to identify and/or eliminate “false facts” from inside the United States, too. The most frequent and blatant source is Donald Trump, the “Tweeter-in-Chief.” He pecks out messages on Twitter night and day to dominate the news, insult opponents, praise his own performance, and take advantage of unfiltered contact with the American people.
He set a personal record of 142 tweets during his impeachment trial in January and February, then broke it in June with 200 tweets and retweets on a single day. When Twitter began labeling Trump’s provably inaccurate tweets, the president retaliated with an executive order to regulate social media companies.
The problem is not only Trump and not only social media. “Whether it’s newspapers, television, Facebook, YouTube, or Google searches, someone is pulling strings (and) lobbying their own agendas because there are no consequences,” social media consultant Lon Safko points out. “You can say anything you want, and there are no consequences.”
Social media also is an important propaganda tool for dictators and unscrupulous leaders around the world. In 2019, researchers at the University of Oxford found evidence of organized social media manipulation campaigns in 70 countries. Twenty-six countries were using social media to “suppress fundamental human rights, discredit political opponents, and drown out dissenting opinions.” Government or political party “cyber troops” are using political bots to amplify hate speech, illegally harvest data, and mobilize “trolls” to harass political dissidents and journalists, the University reported.
“Despite the majority of adults surveyed in each country reporting that they used social networks to keep up to date with news and current affairs, a 2018 study showed that social media is the least trusted news source in the world,” says researcher Amy Watson of Statista, a statistics service. “Less than 35% of adults in Europe considered social networks to be trustworthy in this respect, yet more than 50% of adults in Portugal, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Croatia said that they got their news on social media.”
“Concerns about fake news and propaganda on social media have not stopped billions of users accessing their favorite networks on a daily basis,” she says.
So, can freedom of speech survive social media? Can Democracies? Can we find ways to balance freedom of expression with social responsibility? If the proper formula requires restrictions on speech, what should they be? If the government’s job is to protect democracy from cyber-subterfuge, how will it keep up technologies that emerge much faster than governments act?
I think about this a lot. My answers are the same as those we often hear from the world’s top experts and policymakers:
Only time will tell.
William Becker is an author and blogger in the United States. He writes about climate change and many other issues that strike his fancy.
An analysis of the results of this year’s WARC Prize for MENA Strategy reveals key takeaways for the region’s marketers looking for growth opportunities, from finding niche audiences in smaller markets to developing more resonant touchpoints.
“As certain MENA markets are already enduring their second wave of COVID-19 and several continue to be buffeted by economic recession, identifying new strategies for growth is vital for brands,” says Lucy Aitken, Managing Editor, Case Studies at WARC.
“In this report, we’ve identified new approaches that this year’s winners have incorporated in their campaigns that can help brands to build strong strategic frameworks that have growth baked in.”
The four key takeaways highlighted in WARC’s 2020 MENA Strategy Report are:
1. Target the frontier markets
Pragmatic solutions that help specific communities in MENA’s frontier markets can be instrumental in driving growth. Empowering marginalised communities, particularly within the region’s smaller markets, can be an effective way to brand-build.
This year’s Grand Prix-winning initiative from Tunisie Telecom helped female farmers access social security via their handsets. The technological innovation instigated by the campaign set the precedent for a new digital government vision.
Melek Ourir, Strategic Planner at Wunderman Thompson Tunisia, advises: “Resist the temptation to ignore smaller markets and audiences that could unlock significant growth for your business.”
2. Unconventional touchpoints can underpin strategy
Identifying new, creative touchpoints strengthens strategy, resonating with or delighting audiences.
Three standout campaigns addressed consumer challenges and were not constrained by where the brands were traditionally ‘allowed’ to be present: clothing retailer Babyshop promoted the long-term health of mothers; cheese brand Puck reclaimed share at breakfast and lunch; and NGO Donner Sang Compter encouraged those who spill their own blood onto the streets in the tradition of Ashura to donate it instead.
Admiring the risks and the rulebreakers among this year’s winners that explored new touchpoints, judge Sunjay Malik, Associate Director, Strategy at PHD UAE, says: “Media mixes are rulebooks that we set ourselves, which over time make us less imaginative and less brave. Long live the rulebreakers, who in challenging themselves inspire us to be better.”
3. Humour: a strategic shortcut to likeability
Making people laugh is one of the most powerful ways to connect and can make your brand distinct from the competition.
Winning brands that used humour include Burger King, which launched a new spicy menu with its Who Said Men Don’t Cry campaign; telco Jawwy, which used entertaining video content to resonate with Saudi youth; and Egyptian telco Etisalat crafting a comic campaign to win customers over to its hybrid offer.
Jury member Shagorika Heryani, Head of Strategy at Grey MENA, says: “There’s always a place for humour – even during a crisis. Smart brands understand the relationship between humour and humanity. Companies know that we buy from brands and people we like. And humour is a shortcut to likeability and authenticity.”
4. Localise to resonate
This year’s winners are a treasure trove of local insight, proving how time invested upfront to unearth strong local insights tends to pay dividends in terms of a robust strategy.
Best-in-class examples include: KFC in Saudi Arabia, which communicated its commitment to locally-sourced chicken by turning all of its brand assets green – the colour of the Kingdom’s flag; and Grand Prix winner Tunisie Telecom, which devised a programme to offer social welfare coverage to female farmers.
WARC’s 2020 MENA Strategy Report can be downloaded here. The full report is available to WARC subscribers and includes chapter analysis of the four themes with views and opinions from the judges; objectives, results and takeaways of the winning case studies, and what these mean for brands, media owners and agencies; and data analysis.
WARC’s Lucy Aitken will deep-dive into using humour as a successful marketing strategy at Lynx Live on 5-7 October in her keynote ‘Humour: the smart shortcut to brand fame’.
The WARC Prize for MENA Strategy is a free-to-enter annual case study competition in search of the best strategic thinking from MENA’s marketing industry. Next year’s prize will open for entries in January 2021.
For many publishers in the Middle East region, Nabd – the largest personalized Arabic news aggregator – has become the number one source of referrals to their portals, exceeding Social Media networks, as a traffic source.
“In BBC Arabic, we consider our partnership with Nabd to be the most valuable and important of all our digital partnerships. This reflects the growing importance of news aggregators and the position of Nabd as a market leader. Our partnership with Nabd has enabled us to widen our reach and gain a new perspective of our audience needs”, says Mohamed Yehia, Head of daily output at BBC.
In its efforts to support its partners, the local, regional and international publishers, Nabd has launched a dedicated portal for publishers, enabling them to obtain and analyze detailed insights about their content, engagement, and users in Nabd.
“NABD is one of the top sources of traffic for RT Arabic. During the last 3 months NABD replaced Twitter as the second-best source of traffic from social media to the website”, says Maya Manna, Editor-in-Chief at RT Arabic.
Today, Nabd is considered by over 1,000 premium Arabic publishers, as a corner stone in their content distribution strategy, since it enables them to reach and tap into a massive audience, and continuously engage with them.
“We extremely value and enjoy our strategic partnerships with publisher partners. Such partnerships have empowered us to achieve our mission of supporting quality journalism in our region, and delivering relevant premium Arabic content for the Arabic audience globally”, says Mazen Singer, Chief Strategy Officer at Nabd.
Nabd is a Personalized Arabic Content Reader, enabling Arab users across the globe to stay up-to-date with their favorite topics on the go. Today, Nabd reaches over 20 million users, generating over 1.6 billion page views every quarter, making it the biggest Arabic app globally. It is currently available for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices.
The UK Labour Party is promising to provide free broadband internet to every British household by 2030 if it wins the 2019 election. To do this, the party would nationalise the broadband infrastructure business of BT and tax internet giants like Google and Facebook. Whatever you think of this plan, it at least reflects that the internet has become not only an essential utility for conducting daily life, but also crucial for exercising our political rights.
In fact, I recently published research that shows why internet access should be considered a human right and a universal entitlement. And for that reason, it ought to be provided free to those who can’t afford it, not just in the UK, but around the world.
Internet access is today necessary for leading a minimally decent life, which doesn’t just mean survival but rather includes political rights that allow us to influence the rules that shape our lives and hold authorities accountable. That is why rights such as free speech, free association, and free information are among the central rights included in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And, crucially, everyone needs to have roughly equal opportunities to exercise their political rights.
Before the internet, most people in democracies had roughly equal opportunities to exercise their political rights. They could vote, write to newspapers or their political representative, attend public meetings and join organisations.
But when some people gained internet access, their opportunities to exercise political rights became much greater compared to those without the internet. They could publish their views online for potentially millions of people to see, join forces with other people without having to physically attend regular meetings, and obtain a wealth of previously inaccessible political information.
Today, a large proportion of our political debates take place online, so in some ways our political rights can only be exercised via the internet. This means internet access is required for people to have roughly equal opportunities to make use of their political freedoms, and why we should recognise internet access as a human right.
As a human right, internet access should be “free” in two ways. First, it should be unmonitored, uncensored, and uninterrupted – as the UN’s General Assembly has demanded in a non-binding resolution in 2016. Second, governments should guarantee a minimally decent infrastructure that is available to all citizens no matter how much money they have. This means funding for internet access should be part of minimum welfare benefits, provided without charge to those who can’t afford to pay for it, just like legal counsel. (This is already the case in Germany.)
A political goal
In developing countries, digital infrastructure reaching everyone might be too expensive to guarantee immediately. But with the required technology becoming cheaper (more people on the planet have access to a web-capable phone than have access to clean water and a toilet), universal access could first be guaranteed via free wifi in public places. Supply can start off in a basic way and grow over time.
Should everyone in Britain have free broadband in their homes? There are many good reasons to provide the best possible internet access to everyone, such as increasing economic productivity, sharing prosperity more evenly across the country, or promoting opportunities for social engagement and civic participation. And, as such, free broadband for all may be a worthy political goal.
But what is most important is ensuring that everyone has the kind of internet access required for roughly equal opportunities to use their political freedoms. Guaranteed internet access should be considered a human right in our virtual world, whoever ultimately pays the bills.
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