The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Night vision in the sandstorm

Many Western brands have been on the wane in the Middle East during the last three years. This is due to the perceived imbalanced involvement of Western countries to the political situation. Western news reporting which tends to sanitize sparing viewers from more unsightly and moving images contrasts with the new breed of Arab stations, such as Al Jazeera, who "show it as it really is".

These scenes have a traumatic effect on an Arab audience that feels outraged and powerless to influence the course of events. Conflict in Iraq has further heightened tensions, leaving many wondering why a war on terrorism has caught so many civilians in its wake, a view that is not just confined to Middle Eastern states. Finally, the public targeting of dissenting voices such as Arnett and many Hollywood stars has caused speculation about the demise of free speech in America.

The need for affirmative action has found expression in a widespread boycott of American products ­ sometimes as high as 40%. Initially, this focused on iconic American brands such as Coca Cola, Marlboro and McDonald's ­ low-ticket items in categories that offered alternatives. Recently, however, research suggests that some nationals in Saudi Arabia have taken old American cars into the desert and burnt them.

In the short term, one can envisage a growing rejection of the West ­ especially the US ­ and a boom time for locally produced goods. Last week, for example, a regional National Products day was held, with consumers urged to abandon Western brands in favor of locally produced equivalents. In the workplace, the best-paid jobs ­ once reserved for Western-educated talent ­ may now be reallocated to Arabs, while nationalization has accelerated the tide.

NFO's syndicated study, Arab As Consumer, clearly outlines seven segments among consumers ­ a first for this region. They range from the 'Disaffected' and the 'Modern', who are least involved with politics and religion, to the 'Conservatives' who are the most affected. This means that western manufacturers planning research need to track trends separately by consumer segment, since 'random' samples will give 'middle of the road' results.

In addition, given the 'gratuity effect' in a focus group situation, there is a greater need to do research using methodologies that tap into the private and unfiltered world of consumers. This might involve such classic examples as introspection diaries, surfing chat rooms, visiting Bulletin Boards and even scouting local media for consumer letters to the editors.

There has never been a more appropriate time for brands to satisfy this unmet need for Arab unity, harmony and pride in heritage. It would be déjà vu if a brand emulated the harmony depicted in the classic "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" campaign, but it would find a ready audience.

Hoping for a peaceful world and harmony in our region

 

Dipen Mehta
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2003