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5 Mistakes Multi-National Companies In The Middle East Should Fix To Succeed In Their Digital Marketing Efforts

I have had the privilege of working with big brands since I arrived in the region back in 2008. As I grew in my career I got to see firsthand lots of the impressive feats of MNCs as well as all the dumb things they do. Sometimes it is no fault of any specific person, it is just the way the whole thing is set-up. Other times it is just employees thinking about their careers and how to justify their existence in an organization.

Since I am mostly interested in digital marketing and digital marketing strategies, I decided to make a list of things I noticed happen quite often that really hinder the full potential of the digital marketing efforts of MNCs

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Departments Work In Silos

The different departments of an organization usually work in silos. The marketing team works with the different external stakeholders like agencies to set their communication and marketing plans

Then, you got the sales team who is dealing with clients (be it retailer, wholesalers, or distributors). The sales team is usually concerned with different challenges to ensure the sales targets are achieved (inventory at client, commercials agreements, etc.)

What happens regularly is that the marketing team executes their plans and proudly communicates what reach & likes they achieved. And on the other hand, you have the sales team who did not pipeline enough into the retailers or who miss forecasted or what have you and then start stating that the marketing team is not doing their job to create the pull, or in other words the campaign(s) did not have the desired effect on the sales.

One would think that this is easy to fix; just have them sit and communicate their issues and challenges to each other. In some cases activities and efforts (sales or marketing) can be delayed or expedited to synergize the efforts, but in other circumstances it is not that easy.

Sometimes the marketing team has to justify its existence (or sometimes they know they have a certain budget and they will end up losing it if they don’t use it), and so we end up with an “I did my job, end of story” situation. On the other hand, the sales team needs to protect itself by taking away the focus from their inability to meet the campaign date (ex. Late pipelining) and shifting said focus into other issues.

Out of all the areas I am mentioning, this is the toughest to fully resolve and requires strong leadership to instill trust and create transparency between the teams.


Decision makers are often sitting far away from their markets and audiences to understand if the digital marketing plan is optimal or not (or if the proposal submitted by the agency the MNC is dealing is actually a good one or not).

You see this very frequently with MNCs that are based in Dubai. If you are not too familiar with the region, then let me break down for you! The power horse of the region is Saudi Arabia. The oil rich country has a population of about 30 mln who are predominantly locals (Arabic speaking, young with a very distinct identity). Very few MNCs operate directly from within the kingdom.

Most of the brands that operate in the region, generate most of their revenues from their sales efforts in Saudi. With that being said, most of the MNCs operate and serve the region from Dubai. In other words Dubai is the MNCs hub. The Emirates has population about 9.5 mln most of whom are non-locals. Expats from different parts of the world live and work here. Most of them work here in the MNCs. So a lot of them think that what they see in Dubai, is what is happening in other parts of the region. And if you travelled to and spent time in your biggest market (Saudi) you will know that that country is a different beast.

The Second gap takes place when aligning plans with Regional offices (Germany, Netherlands, USA ,etc.) The MNCs are managed by expats, usually Europeans. And in many cases they have to align and/or get approvals from their head offices that are based in Europe (Germany, France, Netherlands, etc). Most of these heads of department don’t visit the region enough let alone let visit Saudi to get a better understanding of what is going on. So what ends up happening is that the Digital Marketing plans for Saudi (predominantly young, local and Arabic speaking) is put together by an Expat with little to no intimate knowledge and understanding of the consumers/Audience, and blessed by an Expat living in Europe.

We are not done! There is a third gap. It is not as prevalent but I was made aware of one recently that got me to question the caliber of both the agency and MN marketing team. Here is what happened. There is a new product launch, the marketing team wanted to do something on Instagram with an influencer or two. The agency came back with a recommendation to go with Influencer X. The agency said that this influencer is a Saudi living Dubai, and has 1mln plus followers. The marketing team jumped on this thinking “Awesome, She is Saudi (so tick on connecting with the Saudi consumer), lives in Dubai (so tick on the “lifestyle”), and 1 mln plus follower (so tick on vanity metrics)”.

Here is where the issue is. It turns out that influencer is not Saudi, was not even born in Saudi and is not even married to a Saudi, so no Saudi connection. Does this mean that the collaboration is a bad one? No. One can argue it is going to be a good collaboration. But you are definitely not tailor making your communication to fully appeal to your largest Audience. Was the marketing team misled?  Yes. Could they have figured out that she is not Saudi and pushed back to get a different proposal? Yes, it took me literally 5 minutes to find the truth out. Did the Agency knowingly mislead the MN marketing team? I don’t know. But from my point of view, no answer is a good answer. If they mislead the marketing team on purpose, well that is really bad. If they did not mislead them on purpose, then it looks bad on the agency making them appear incompetent.

How could this have been avoided? Well the easiest way is to have someone who is a local or has been in the region for a while as part of the marketing team. Hence why you see more MNCs trying to hire locals (or people who have been in the region for a while). This allows the MN to challenge and/or validate proposals submitted by the agency.

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Disconnect Between Expectations & Reality:

This is an issue that I noticed during this pandemic. eCommerce is booming and so everybody is looking to jump on the eCommerce wagon. The MN aggressively pushes their distributors to start selling online. The distributors usually oblige (sometimes because they agree and other times to get the brand owners to give them a break from all the nagging)

But what ends up happening is that no one really looks at how the product offering looks like. They go through the motions of contractual discussions, data sharing and all that fun stuff and then nothing happens, except for a few transactions here and there.

Here is an example of how this happens. Let’s take body lotions. Depending on the brand, the shelf retail price hovers at AED 20 (plus or minus 10%). A common form of payment in Saudi Arabia is Cash On Delivery. Last I checked, COD makes about 70% consumer purchases (excluding air fares purchases). This form of payment usually incurs an additional AED15 that the customer has to shell out for that AED 20 bottle. Which does not really make much sense to the customer.

What causes this disconnect? The answer is: Knowledge and expertise (or lack thereof) which leads to quickly and easily caving in under the pressure of the current trends.


Following Trends Without Giving It Any Thought:

That is jumping on the next app or platform just because everybody is there. Don’t get me wrong, you go where the attention of your audience is, but you don’t just move there without giving it a thought or setting up a specific plan.

We see this with some companies that are B2B. Usually B2B are better off communicating with their audiences on LinkedIn. Yet we see many companies curelessly posting on different platforms because this platform or that platform is the “new thing” now.

Is posting on all social media sites available a bad thing? Absolutely not. You have to be where ever the attention is. With that being said you do need to put some thought into how platform X relates to your product, service, and brand.

Let’s take Victoria’s secrets as an example of how to do it properly. They are a good brand to demonstrate what I mean.

If you look at VS’s activities on LinkedIn you will find that they post about corporate responsibility, celebration of women’s’ achievements, recruitment, and so on. If we take a look at VS’ IG feed we will notice that the content is obviously very different (and the frequency is very high). It is obvious that IG is the pillar platform around which the content was created. They then adapted certain content to contextually fit LinkedIn as a platform.

A good example of this is VS talking to their audience about the same topic (black history month) on both IG and LinkedIn. What VS did is a perfect example of contextual content. On LinkedIn they are celebrating black month by showing one of their employees “who identifies as black or African American”. Whereas on IG, they have a simple image that reads “see how we’re celebrating Black History Month”. The image did not show an employee like they did on LinkedIn (as this would have ruined the look and feel of the IG feed). They did a good job in saying “hey we are doing something about a cause that we care about”, without really taking away from the product content they have. Hats off to them.


Decision Makers Sometimes Lack Basic Business Sense:

One thing I always like to say is that Digital Marketing is a force amplifier. It amplifies your branding, and communication allowing you to reach more of your different audiences. Your digital marketing efforts should complement your commercial efforts, not jeopardize them. Here is a “Hypothetical scenario”:

Brand A is launching a couple of SKUs, the marketing team has proudly secured a collaboration with an influencer. The agency recommended having a swipe up feature; the marketing team comes to the sales team and the distributor’s team to push listing of the new products in a retailer with an online platform. 2 retailers (Retailer A and Retailer B) are recommended by the distributor. The items have been listed in Retailer A. Because Retailer B had a high listing fee, it was decided between the sales team of the brand and the distributor to list elsewhere to have more coverage of the market for the same amount of money they would have paid Retailer B.

Here is where your mind is going to be blown away; the marketing team insisted that the sales team and the distributor pay the high listing fees to list the NPDs in that one retailer (Retailer B) just to have a swipe up option pointing to their website. There was no evidence that either retailer was going to outperform the other one with online sales. There was no evidence that the customers of either retailer is more targeted.

The marketing team was indirectly pushing for a decision that was going to sacrifice wider distribution and availability.

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You might think well Haitham, maybe the sales from that swipe up feature will compensate the missed distribution coverage. The answer is simply No.

I think really the issue is that there is no business sense. I mean if the marketing team was pushing the sales team to list in Retailer B because their clients’ profile matches that of the new products being launched, then yes that makes perfect sense. But this was not the case.

These are common occurrences and unfortunately they are not all very easy to fix. The pressure to hit one’s objectives sometimes forces departments and employees to behave in ways that are not best for I hope you found this information useful. Feel free to leave your questions in the comments section.


Haithem Zaidan, MA Digital Marketing
Founder of Digitopia.Marketing – Your Digital Marketing Chaperon

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