Dubai: When the cosmetics giant L'Oreal set about creating its first Arab fragrance, it called on Giorgio Armani, who knew a thing or two about the Middle East and the tastes of its denizens.
Out of this association the Armani Prive was born, an offering that is for these markets.
"L'Oréal wants to develop products specific to emerging countries," said Anthony Ponsford, managing director at L'Oreal Middle East.
"To design products specifically suited to emerging countries, it is essential to innovate where the consumer is and to know the culture, eating habits, climate, etc. Subsequently, we are in a position to develop the offering to other areas in the world," Ponsford added.
At Dh900 a bottle, savouring the experience can be dear for buyers. But strictly going by the response since the launch in late November, L'Oreal seems to have uncapped a winner.
From a wider perspective, what this signifies is the extra effort global brands are taking to make their products connect with the regional consumer. No longer are brands content to implement strategies that worked in domestic markets here with a few minuscule changes here and there if at all.
In the not too distant past, the Middle East markets were seen as too limited in size for brands to consider going for a pan-regional offering. Their concern was that what might work in Dubai could falter in Damascus. So why not stick with the international strategy?
Unique set of realities
"Marketers have to deal with a unique set of realities and challenges — purchase and consumption behaviours of consumers in these markets often tend to be interwoven with tradition, religion and culture," said Abdullah Ajmal, deputy general manager at Ajmal Perfumes.
"The role of women in the Arab societies which differ from one Gulf country to the next also plays a role. There is a need to strike a balance between certain culturally entrenched behaviours of Arab/Muslim consumers and a modern/international appeal. More focus on localised content means communication that adds the local cultural understanding that is associated with that particular area could help address this matter."
Indeed, in the age of Facebook and Twitter and anything out there that connects people beyond geographical boundaries, brands are willing to push the envelope on creating localised products in sync with the sentiments of the region.
And these are not necessarily limited to creating a regional spin-off of American Idol or any other popular TV show.
"Products that localise and add value to the local consumers have been accepted very well, both in this region as well as in other markets," said Gagan Bhalla, general manager at the research consultancy AMRB, which recently came out with an in-depth study on Digital Marketing and the Muslim Consumer.
"There might be some risk involved, but ultimately the choice has to be based on the size of the local segment being targeted."
"Any marketer localising for the Mena region would be considering a fairly large target market and would have sufficient economies of scale to work with."
In other words, there exists sufficient scope to reach out to the dominant demographic in the marketplace — Arabs and Muslims — rather than treating the entire region and the consumers within through broad brush strokes.
"Most multinational companies divide the world into regions that are more based on geography rather than on ideology, religion or cultural similarities," said Bhalla.
"Hence they tend to miss out on scalable opportunities with a diaspora that is as widely spread as Muslims.
"If one were to consider opportunities for targeting Muslim consumers, the suddenly the scalability becomes quite apparent because we are talking of a consumer segment that this 25 per cent of the world's population."
"That is not to say all Muslims are similar, but because of the prescriptive nature of the faith, there are many similarities across the Muslim world, and these do offer significant opportunities for marketers to tailor localised offerings."
But to imagine that all manner of global brands can adapt their merchandise for a regional audience would be stretching things a bit. Yes, by their very nature fragrances can blend in well in an Arab ambience.
So too, can fashion. This means something more than lending their names to haute coutre abayas or kandouras.
"Brands have toyed with the idea of extending core lines to deepen their association with their clientele from this region," said a retailer of high-end fashion. "But more often than not the results have not matched the hype or expectations."
Maybe they could learn a thing or two from the fragrance industry. "Niche fragrances create fragrances that speak to a particular taste," said Ajmal.
"This is now fast becoming a trend where more and more fragrance manufactures are creating something different for someone different."
A factor that may have a hand in failure rates is when customers prefer a brand and its products for its very international associations than any local variation. There's also the perception that such localised offerings are geared primarily for any short-term benefits that may be derived.
"Where localised products have at times failed is when they have been seen to be gimmicky or out to cash in on local sentiment," said Bhalla.
Apart from fragrance and fashion, food is an industry that has seen its fair share of localisation — think McDonald's and its McArabia warp.
This is also the case in finance, where Islamic financing based on the Sharia is a lucrative line for global banking majors.
But the gap between expectation and eventual acceptance whenever a global brand tries to acquire a local flavour remains a daunting one. To get it all right, a host of related factors need to fall into place, not least of which is the need to have a fully formed game plan as well as a product and service that can indeed be localised.
As Bhalla said: "The future of localisation would be driven more by shared interests and beliefs rather than by geography."
Put simply, get to know your customer better.