The New Heirs to the Kingdom

The past year has seen a flurry of reforms in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With more to come, this is an overdue call to action for brands: embrace the urgent and visionary voices of Saudi aspiration or risk being left behind

Since the release of the progressive 2030 Vision Statement last year, Saudi leadership has announced a series of social and economic reform initiatives. They represent a single-minded and ambitious intent to modernise the conservative Kingdom, attract much-needed foreign investment and prepare the economy for a diversified, post-oil future.

You will be familiar with the landmark social reforms. The decree in September 2017 rescinding the ban on women driving was met with global media attention and praise. From next year, women will be allowed into stadiums for the first time and this is only the beginning. The government is also expected to reverse bans on cinemas and mixed-gender celebrations.Hilary Clinton's Twitter feed after it was announced women were allowed to drive in the KingdomThere are significant economic reforms too. Prince Salman’s recent announcement of Project NEOM is a bold vision of the future that re-draws the rules for success in the conservative Kingdom. A planned next generation city and global hub for innovation, trade and creativity. It will be a private economic zone backed by $500bn of investment where robots may outnumber people, and male and female bathers mingle in a futuristic and open society.

Prince Salman’s staggeringly ambitious reform programme is reflected in his meteoric rise to power. At only 32 years old, he is determined to guide Saudi Arabia into the 21st century.

He is part of a wider generational rupture that will re-shape Saudi society over the coming decades. This new generation will appear at the apex of cultural and social transformation. Like the South African Born Free Generation or the Post-War Boomer Generation before them, The New Heirs to the Kingdom will evolve the traditions of the past and introduce experimental cultural innovations.

In this age of flux, brand managers need to keep their cool. Strategies to reach and connect with The New Heirs must navigate a new culture of ‘open innovation.’ Trends, attitudes and behaviours will rapidly rise, fall and quickly re-emerge in different forms. Brand managers need to be agile – they need to read, interpret and respond to cultural signals with precision and thought.

Volkswagen's digital campaign following the decree allowing women to drive

The impact of reform is already apparent. According to Bloomberg, the projected benefit to the economy of the decree allowing women to drive could be as much as $90bn over time. Alert to the obvious opportunities, Ford, Nissan and Volkswagen rushed to release progressive digital campaigns celebrating the decree.

Drawing on our experience exploring emerging markets around the globe, we identified just some of the ways brands can keep pace with the Kingdom’s reform programme and connect with the New Heirs to the Kingdom.

The ambitious Vision 2030 was released in late 2016

1) Chart the Cultural Shifts.

To effectively plan future activity in the Kingdom, brand managers need to be alert to the possible, likely and certain pivots in social and economic policy. We can identify and track the seeds of change by understanding key policy statements (e.g. Vision 2030), institutional dynamics and the influential profiles of visionaries and leaders in Saudi society.

2) Build Relationships.

Popular digital influencer Saudi Gamer has 2.2m YouTube subscribersSaudis of all ages and backgrounds are prolific users of social media. Some surveys show that the Kingdom has the world’s highest percentage of people on Twitter relative to its number of internet users. Influencers like Nilo Haq (@nilohaq) and Saudi Gamer (@saudigamer) have huge fan bases and lead the cultural conversation in Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world. Do more than listen to them. Establishing relationships with digital influencers will help brands learn from, and adapt to, the groundswell of popular change in the Kingdom.

At a Riyadh luxury goods fair, women pretend to drive.

3) Identify the Known Unknowns.

Conservative social and economic policy has hidden market opportunities from investors and brands. As we saw with the driving decree, reform will reveal until-now hidden market potential. With an understanding of the cultural shifts and better knowledge of our consumers, we can identify the hidden opportunities for brands and their products to innovate, adapt and shape the future of the Kingdom.

Project Neom will be a global hub to rival Dubai

4) Understand Brand Saudi Arabia.

There is a strong imperative for Saudi leadership to build and project Brand Saudi Arabia as a beacon to attract investors and tourists. Project NEOM gives us a first glimpse into this emerging Saudi Arabia; hi-tech, sophisticated, open and optimistic. Brand Saudi Arabia will reflect and steer the popular aspirations and attitudes of the population. Brands need to align with this new emerging context for their communication.

 5) Listen.

Most importantly, brand managers need to keep their ear to the ground. Changes are happening rapidly and the unique cultural drivers in the Kingdom will result in unexpected consumer behaviours. Simple replication of strategies that have worked elsewhere in the GCC will not account for the unique collusion of historical, economic and social events that bring the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to this apex.

The New Heirs to the Kingdom will shape their own futures. Only by taking responsibility for actively deepening dialogue with this generation can brands catalyse meaningful engagement and command lasting influence.

– Kourosh Newman-Zand & Mariah Hartman