Mecca's commercialization offers new media prospects

Pilgrims to Mecca can now grab some Starbucks or do some quick shopping on the way to the Grand Mosque.

In the news
Pilgrims to Mecca can now grab some Starbucks or do some quick shopping on the way to the Grand Mosque. The largest mall in Saudi Arabia opened last year across the street from Islam's holiest site, and more large scale commercialization efforts have been set.

A New Republic article confirmed that skyscrapers, convention centers, and about 600 brand outlets, including Tiffany & Co. and The Body Shop, would also establish locations.

Still closed to non-Muslims, Mecca may well become the ultimate gated community. Saudi British Bank reports that over the next four years, $30 billion will be invested towards construction, according to a March article in The New Republic.

Development has found surprising support from conservative Wahhabi clerics, who wish to tear down religious landmarks to return attention to worship.

Why does it matter?
While Western corporations face the challenge of being perceived as an intrusive, outside influence, there are opportunities.

"Think about McDonald's. One of the biggest grossing [venues] is in Paris, even with French culture and opinions in strong opposition," notes Gene Grabowski, SVP at Levick Strategic Communications.

Brands closely associated with the secular West, such as Starbucks, can find success by carefully promoting its product in a way that corresponds with the culture.

Grabowski emphasized that while resistance is to be expected, the way to gain widespread brand acceptance is not to "dismiss [critics] with the back of your hand [because] that will make more resistance."

Local agencies assisting brands should craft promotions to positively counteract criticisms, and provide people with interaction of the products or services on their own terms.

Five facts:
1. According to the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, almost 3 million pilgrims will visit Mecca during Hajj, the largest annual pilgrimage in the world.

2. When completed in 2009, the Abraj Al Bait housing and hotel complex (pictured above), will include the seventh-tallest building in the world.

3. With market access negotiations on goods concluding, Saudi Arabia has committed to gradually lowering trade barriers and expanding market access of foreign goods.

4. Almost three-fifths of workers in Saudi Arabia work in the service industry, including wholesale and retail sales, hospitality, and tourism.

5. Due to the Sharia religious laws, women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. To capitalize on this, roadside billboards tend to target female passengers.

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