Sand, skyscrapers, sunshine – these are maybe some of the first associations people make with the Arabian Gulf. My adventure in this part of the world started over a year ago when I was promoted from my job as a marketing director for Mars UK to marketing vice-president for the Middle East, Turkey and Africa, where I am now in charge of the iconic Mars brands such as Galaxy, M&Ms, Twix and Snickers. Being offered the opportunity to work in such a large, dynamic and different region sounded really exciting. I immediately accepted and relocated with my wife and three kids to Dubai.
As I reflect on my first year abroad, what has made my experience both very rewarding and challenging is based on the complexity of the region.
When I was in the UK, I remember having discussions on the complexity of growing brand portfolios in a sluggish economic context, or dealing with different challenging customers. I am now dealing with a totally different type of complexity. One of the most exciting parts of my role is managing the intricacies that come with overseeing more than 100 markets, which are often marked by very individual challenges. In Saudi Arabia, for example, Mars is the clear market leader, manufacturing eight of the top 10 chocolate brands. My role as a marketer is to drive category growth. In other markets, such as Turkey, Mars is more a challenger and therefore the marketing drivers we need to use are very different.
Similarly, in the United Arab Emirates, the trade structure is comparable to what can be found in many European markets – and therefore the in-store challenges are similar to those I experienced in my previous roles. In other markets, the trade structure can be totally different. In Egypt, for example, around 90% of chocolate is sold in traditional shops. Consequently, marketing our brands in kiosks that can be as small as 2 to 3 square metres requires a different approach.
The notion of diversity also applies to the population itself: the UAE is home to the largest percentage of expatriates in the world, with 80% of residents coming from Arab, European or Asian countries. In terms of marketing, this means that not only do our communications need to respect different cultural sensitivities, but also different consumer habits and rituals such as Christmas, Ramadan or Diwali, which need to be taken into account and catered for.
What makes the whole picture even more exciting and challenging is the pace of change. With double digit growth rates in many countries in the region until recently, consumer goods markets have become very different in a short period of time. They have gained in sophistication as consumers become more demanding and competition has intensified. Also, in the Arab region alone, around 60% of the population is under 25 years old, which gives an idea on the pace of change. One of the best examples is probably in terms of media consumption. In Saudi Arabia, YouTube reaches 59% of the population on a daily basis compared to only 17% in the UK.
When I reflect on the lessons I have learned during my first year in this part of the world, I would give five pieces of advice to achieve a successful expatriation:
• Be ready to be challenged and accept that things can take much more time than you were used to in a more familiar context. I am quite fortunate that Mars has a strong culture based on the five principles of quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom, which bring consistency across geographies and made my transition much easier.
• Approach new markets with an open mind. Embrace differences and do not automatically assume that developing markets cannot be more advanced.
• Marketing is a business fundamentally made by and for people. Creating a strong network of bright individuals in your company and agency partners is key to understanding the dynamic of the market and developing the best growth initiatives.
• Nurture your network in your home country. The support I have received in this first year from my friends and colleagues in the UK has been key in some of the challenging experiences I had.
• Prioritise your family. In my case, this experience abroad is not only a professional but also a family adventure. Creating the right environment for your family to enjoy the journey is crucial.
The Marketing Society is an influential network of over 2,700 senior marketers. As part of our partnership with Marketing Week, our regular global column will feature the insights and thoughts of senior members in Asia and afar.