Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Should brands advertise in today's crisis-ridden Lebanon?

Portemilio ad from my collection

Sometime in the mid-aughts, a campaign in Lebanon (mostly Beirut) would only be visible if it had 600 billboards, otherwise it would be drowning in the sea of competitors. Today, you can literally pick around 5 billboards and you will be seen. This, to begin with, comes from the lack of ads (though the situation is very slightly improving - very very slightly), so suddenly, you are "seen". 

You know the old adage, that in times of crisis brands should advertise more. So that when the crisis ends their name would be top of mind for the consumer. In 1989 the father of a friend was working on a very upscale banquet area in a resort in Kaslik. Of course, everyone thought the owner of the resort was bananas. Why invest in such a luxurious thing when the war was raging? Fast forward to 1991 and the war ended, and guess where everyone who was anyone wanted to throw their wedding reception? 

But let us look at the equation from all angles. Take the case of Pepsi. One of Lebanon's most ubiquitous advertisers. Now that Coca-Cola left the Lebanese market (again), you can palpably feel the brand's advertising has decreased visibly (so much that it no longer advertises on the Guinness book trolley in Dbayeh opposite Spinney's which was usually its mainstay!). Now, the price of a 2,25 bottle of Pepsi has increased very very dramatically. And if our own house is an indicator, Pepsi which was in the 70s and 80s a drink more reserved to birthdays/celebrations or family lunches (here's an ad from the past to justify this positioning), has seen its consumption cut drastically. Now, do note, with no other alternatives, we still buy Pepsi (granted, diet Pepsi because am diabetic), but does Pepsi still need further ads and campaigns? Well, they did a slight one (the Chraba Redda thingy), but honestly, they were not really obliged to do it - they just did it because it allows people the flexibility to ask for it at shops. And because glass bottles became exorbitantly expensive (which was very well played from Jabaliyeh as they riffed on Pepsi!). 

Now, let us take the example of the HoReCa industry (hotels, restaurants and cafes). Have you tried eating out lately? Well, yesterday, a friend returned a favor I had given him in the past. But to be "correct" I invited him out for a dessert. The price was eye-wateringly expensive. And that was just dessert. Can you imagine what it would have been if that was a full-meal? Viewing the case, it is no wonder that such institutions are refraining from advertising. A certain hotel is to be honest, but it is doing so with the idea that if you rent a weekend you can get a night for free. And why would you want to rent a hotel if you are a Lebanese resident? Well, with travel restrictions and many people no longer being able to go to Turkey (why Turkey? I explained it here!) a hotel stay could make up for the "depaysement" that former middle-class could be yearning for.

However, this is an exception. The discrepancy between restaurant prices and the average Lebanese income has grown so high it is currently almost impossible for people to resume such a "lavish" spending. For a while things were going (and growing) digital, things have visibly cooled since the crisis deepened. 

Someone recently told me the story of how - four families agglomerated on a Sunday lunch of grilled meat, Arak and the proper accoutrements - and basically paid for it what amounted to what his father took as a retirement monthly salary from the army (though they did divvy the costs among the four families). Whereas the overall price was exorbitant, he spoke of the reunion with so much joy. Mind you he did add "honestly, there was almost nothing branded on the table save for the hummos which was from cans" - then he went crashing back to earth, "have you seen the prices of hummos cans lately?".

Perhaps one of the issues is that, if brands were to advertise in a time of crisis such as the case of Lebanon, the idea would be that the crisis has an end. Except that everyday is bringing its own problems further - which is making the end of the tunnel seem farther and farther. And honestly? If I were a brand today in Lebanon, to answer the question: Should I advertise?

My answer is a resounding "NO".