CMO Interviews shares an exclusive chat with Asad Rehman, Director Media, Middle East and North Africa for Unilever. From measuring ROI to standout digital campaigns, one of the region’s leading marketers gives us insight into his world.

Q: What do you see as major opportunities in the MENA FMCG market? How do you see Unilever positioning themselves?

The speed with which the consumers are adopting digital media channels is faster than in other parts of the world. This makes MENA at the forefront of the digital revolution. For example, we can see this from the success of YouTube in region and the rise of e-commerce which is a fantastic opportunity for brands, especially in markets where this is being led by mobile.

Mobile gives consumers freedom. For MENA mobile means more than just having a smart phone. It gives Arab society, which is largely conservative, means to do what they want to do and see what they want to see without anyone else looking over their shoulders. It means a big deal of freedom for them.

Online content is also huge area for us. We partnered with leading YouTube content creators in the past such as UTurn and Telfaz in Saudi Arabia to creatively address search needs that come up. In MENA, our Cleanipedia website addresses consumers need to know more on how to remove coffee or ketchup stains- and capitalises on consumer search behavior massively. Just on cleanipedia we now rival traffic of some of the mid-tail publishers- driven primarily through our work in content, SEO and paid search. Our Sunsilk Arabia Style Studios on YouTube works with popular influencers to give style tips. - it’s a great way to connect with our consumers using YouTube. The channel not only has in excess of 15 million views, but has had a measurable impact on the brand equity of Sunsilk.

E-commerce is another trend that is not at a critical mass stage for FMCG but is looking up. We are investing in strategy data and infrastructure. It won’t be long where we are at a stage where dramatic amounts are bought online. Content and e-commerce are forming a modern, digital ecosystem that’s becoming stronger in MENA - and we’re part of it.

Can you tell us about your marketing mix and how digital has played a role over the last few years?

The traditional MENA landscape has been TV dominated because it offered the chance to reach a cross section of Arab audiences across multiple countries. But this is changing. If digital four years ago was low single digits in terms of our marketing mix percentage in the market, it’s now a respectable late 20s. Even markets like Morocco and Egypt are seeing this trend and adopting at breakneck speeds.

Our work with Google is reflective over how we’ve evolved as an digital advertiser from pure display to brands who are a lot more savvy about campaign optimisation. We now look for partnership benefits that can answer fundamental questions on ROI. We have always had to account for return on investment but when investment is low single digits, the pressure to prove its worth is relatively lower. When the scale of investment increases, the accountability to deliver greater ROI also increases.

If digital four years ago was low single digits in terms of our marketing mix percentage, it’s now a respectable late 20s. It is still in a good growth trajectory so the future looks promising.

How have you tailored your content to suit online platforms?

Doing content tailored to digital platforms is easier said than done. For example, the YouTube first 5 seconds adage is a common one, but how do you creatively deliver on that rule?

The biggest challenge for us has been: how do we start with campaigns that are digital at heart and not icing on the cake? How do we create assets that are “digital first”? It might or might not surprise you to know that many of digital savvy brands still start campaigns with a TVC that they adapt to video. What we are trying to do is think video storytelling first, and then that story can be adapted to any online and offline channel. When consumers chose what content they are going to be engaging with and what they are not, our prime job is deliver on that choice, first and foremost.

Could you tell us about a standout digital campaign? Who was your target audience and how did you measure success?

One of my favorites is a YouTube campaign for Pond’s brand in Egypt. The unique insight about this campaign is “how middle aged women are afraid of of showing emotions on their faces (smile/frown) because that can lead to increase in wrinkles.” The video had tremendous engagement and reached nearly 2 million views in the first week. It's a great example of how an original insights can lead to content that consumers will want to watch. The campaign had a positive impact on our market share as well.

Another one of my favourites is “Tell her You Love Her” campaign from Lux in Saudi Arabia. It is just simply a fantastic piece of online content. The fact that a substantial percentage of the views of this video were organic- and the fact that it led to an awesome business result makes this one of my all time favourites.

What we are trying to do is think video storytelling first, and then that story can be adapted to any online and offline channel.

How has Unilever adapted the organization to digital - through hiring specific staff, providing digital training, or building digital capabilities?

Getting the organisation ready is a function of many factors. There is skills and talent, there is having the enabling technology infrastructure, and there is getting all these wheels into motion and doing the real work.

Building capability is at the heart of this effort- and we have had some really interesting ways in which we have done that with various levels of the organisation including senior leaders. We have also made sure that we have the technology and data infrastructure that allows us to really embrace digital. And through getting a talent pool of internal and external capabilities, we are now producing work that shines out- from an ROI perspective and external recognition perspective.

Regarding marketing strategies for beauty vs F&B divisions at Unilever: do you handle the marketing for them very differently?

They are very different categories. The difference becomes easier to understand if you look at it from consumer needs and journey perspective. For example, the huge number of recipe searches by consumers play an important role on creating needs based content in our Foods business. Whereas in the world of beauty, consumers need to have inspiration from key influencers and YT content creators is big. Our work on Sunsilk Style Studio is an example of that.

Where do you think you are going in the next few years? What is your vision of the region?

We are living through the most exciting time in the history of Middle East. The consumer is transforming, the economies are transforming, and the businesses are shaping up to face the new challenges the exciting time ahead present to all of us.

The Middle East and the Digital Economy have an intrinsically unbreakable relationship. From initiatives such as Smart Cities, to renewable energy, we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg on what technology will do here in the next few years. I am keeping my ears to the ground, and looking forward to experiencing the exciting change!