What marketers need to know about the power of Saudi Arabia's new fleet of female drivers

Volkswagen targets Saudi women drivers

When Professor Jonathan AJ Wilson, PhD started thinking about Saudi Arabia lifting the ban on women drivers, he played ‘My Favourite Game’ by the Cardigans.

“The video takes me back to memories of the iconic movie Thelma & Louise and the bittersweet catharsis of women suffocated by misogyny and circumstance,” he explained.

Misogyny and circumstance, religion and tradition, politics and repression – whatever was stopping women from getting behind the wheel of car (or a plane) without permission and a guardian in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has been spiked in favour of equality. Or if you’re a cynic, in favour of international pacification; the news was announced with fanfare at a media event in the USA.

“For Saudi Women the announcement about driving was a historic moment that became a trending topic worldwide,” said Sawsan Abdallahi, MENA regional lead for Ogilvy Noor. “It was brought up in our client meetings several times throughout the day and was definitely a conversation starter both on and offline.”

As with any trending topic, it wasn’t long before the brands came marching into town. Vox may have labelled the creative designed to celebrate the news as ‘Brands ruin everything, Saudi women driving edition’, yet most of the ads released in the proceeded weeks were visually striking and memorable. But, do they do the job? Will they sell cars to female drivers in KSA?

It’s a yes from Yiannis Vafeas, managing director of Golin MENA. “I love them all,” he enthused. “It shows how much inspiration a ‘radical change’ can bring. The adverts are heartwarming and extremely positive and showcase the onset of a forward thinking era in KSA. They’re absolutely not a quick PR stand – maybe a creative volcanic eruption that was waiting quite long to explode.”

Tony Rouhana, vice president of HorizonFCB in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is a little less enthusiastic. “I don’t think there is a strategy behind these ads,” he said. "Women are half the population here in Saudi Arabia and they require a strategic approach beyond just a quick PR hit. It would have been more empowering to offer test drives or some form of on-ground activation involving driving.”

To give Ford Middle East et al the benefit of the doubt, this creative was no doubt knocked up quickly as reactionary messaging – “realtime marketing” as Abdallahi put it – seeing as the royal decree on women drivers came as somewhat of a surprise to the local and international audience alike. Auto brands in the Middle East will now be working quietly on more integrated, nuanced campaigns ahead of June 2018 when the ban officially lifts.

Marketers shouldn’t have trouble reaching this new population of drivers. Abdallahi noted that KSA is home to more than 40% (2.4 million) of all active Twitter users in the Arab region, thanks to its plethora of “young citizens who are technologically savvy”, while Wilson added that “Gulf Arab nations have opened their doors to such an extent that they have embraced English as the lingua franca in many places, and migrants outnumber locals”.

Decision makers

Yet in a country where a woman still cannot swim in the same pool as a man, marketers outside of the region may question the value of a female Saudi in terms of spending power. But they would be entirely wrong to do so. “Already, many of the cars in the Kingdom are registered under the female’s name with many of them belonging to single-income households, or homes with no males,” explained Rouhana. “Therefore, there is a big potential for increased sales. "Women in Saudi Arabia are the decision makers and many people think they are not and that is totally wrong. Women have the final decision on almost all major purchases, in and outside the home, including cars.”

Abdallahi agrees. “This is the great misconception,” she said. “Saudi women already have an important role to play in car purchases within the Kingdom particularly when it comes to choosing a vehicle that fits the family needs. "However, direct purchasing intent will be difficult to pin point at this stage because there is still a long road ahead to implement the new laws.”

Your new intelligent customer

So auto marketers now have the legal go-ahead, the means of communication via social media, and a relatively untapped audience with huge potential. Now, when it comes to devising the creative messaging itself, they must make sure to look beyond the West’s stereotype of an ultra-conservative Gulf state, according to Wilson.

“Back in 2010, I published my research on the brand preferences and culture surrounding the male Saudi drifting community,” he said. “If you’ve not seen Arab men in white robes, stood on top of two-wheeled cars, or skating in sandals whilst holding onto a car at high speed, then I’d encourage you to take a trip to YouTube. Anecdotally, I’ve also heard stories from some of my female Saudi students who, during the ban, wore male Arab scarves and fake moustaches so that they could burn rubber down the highway undetected.

“I mention [this] because what may seem like a great piece of stand-alone creative may not resonate or do the job that it was intended for when placed within a cultural context. Therefore it becomes little more than another colour plate case study image in an international marketing textbook, as an example of how global companies do different advertising campaigns in different parts of the world.”

Wilson’s advice is that while marketers should observe tact and diplomacy when delivering work in this region of the world, this should not be at the expense of what he describes as “the necessary blend of edginess, evocative emotions and excitement”.

He added: “As I have found with my PhD student Nihal Ayad, subtlety and sophistication are important elements, which can only gained from having a deeper insight into the culture. In her thesis examining what constitutes offensive advertising in Egypt, the biggest thing was being patronised.”

Rouhana also believes brands also need to be wary of not insulting this new market’s intelligence. “It can’t just be another car advertisement, with a woman replacing a man,” he said. “Any communication targeting a Saudi female has to be built on a proper insight and engage her on a personal level.”

Vafeas is in agreement. He said: “Within and under any cultural facts, [the Saudi woman] is a mature, well-read and well-travelled person, who wants nothing but the best for herself and her family. Hence, they are sophisticated customers and quite demanding, I would say. Intelligent communication is the key to attract this customer keeping the cultural sensitivities intact.”

But back to the creative that’s already out there. In his meticulous copy submission that only a professor could research and knock up and in less than a week, Wilson decided to reach out to the new target audience directly, asking his friends that are “Muslim female trailblazing professionals from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, UK and the US” what they made of the work inspired by the driving ban lift.

Here’s what they said:

Mizz Nina, co-founder of Dops TV Malaysia

“I took a look at the ads. Honestly, I think they are fine. In an age when most ads are cheesy anyway, these to me do no harm. In fact, I think they are empowering and give a positive image to Saudi women and especially sisters who do wear the niqab [face veil].”

Rabia Zargarpur, founder and creative director of Rabia Z

“Not the most creative and quite literal in their massages, but nonetheless cool.”

Alia Khan, chairwoman of the Islamic Fashion and Design Council

“If anything, they are just really feminine, pretty, girly, etc... and that's ok, because at the moment this is a bit of a celebration for women and all things feminine. Personally, I think it’s nice they're having a bit of supportive fun with all of this. It could've gone the other way – they could've shown their [women’s] anger in the fact that it took so long to give these rights that should never have been withheld from women. So everyone's being a pretty good sport about it, wouldn't you say?”

Aliza Kim, digital media influencer

“At this early stage, automotive giants that ride the wave of the lifted ban with ads sensitive to social norms and religious attitudes will win some approval, while those who stubbornly choose to rely on general world trends and impose Western stereotypes of ‘what women want’ may find themselves in trouble in both the short and long run.”

Susan Labadi, American Halal industries speaker, influencer and writer

"Ford didn't seem to know or understand their target. VW casts an inaccurate and rebellious taunt. Nissan diminishes the gender entirely in referring to them as immature ‘girls’, and only Jaguar captures icons of feminine mystique and a sense of desirable cache with ownership of a Jag."

Professor Samineh Shaheem, dean of graduate programs, Hult International Business School

“I have mixed emotions… of course this [lifting the female driving ban] is great news – but to celebrate something like this with advertising campaigns in 2017 just doesn’t feel right.”

Reima Yosif, scholar in Islam and entrepreneurship mentor

“The recent ads are a continuation of Orientalist fantasies that exoticized and eroticized Arab women, which have continued to permeate contemporary popular culture – and are not unlike the same problematic ideologies that landed Saudi women in the predicament they find themselves in today.”

Nihal Ayad, university senior teaching assistant and PhD candidate in advertising

“The first time I saw these adverts, I immediately thought, yeah, sure they’re creative, but also they didn't sit right with me and it felt wrong for some unknown reasons. When I went to work and asked my colleagues, who are mostly teaching assistants and professors, they all had the same vague uneasiness towards them. I believe such ads were unnecessary to begin with. A simple restructure of future ads to incorporate Saudi women driving would have made much more sense – because why congratulate women on something that is already their right to begin with?”

Search The Drum Jobs

Explore the best jobs in Marketing and Media industries
View all open jobs

Katie Deighton

Katie Deighton is The Drum’s senior reporter for creative and video, based in London. She produces, films, presents and edits the title’s editorial video output, including series such as Anatomy of an Ad, Creative Pursuits and Why I Left Advertising, and manages its coverage of the creative sector. She also reports on the intersection between politics and marketing.

All by Katie