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The Mystique of Mainstream Middle Eastern Beauty

By: Liz Grubow
Posted: November 5, 2010, from the November 2010 issue of GCI Magazine.

The beauty market in the Middle East recently has emerged as a powerful player in the global beauty industry, benefiting from a culture where beauty and aesthetics have traditionally played a dominant role in daily life, as well as a market that has remained largely unaffected by the global recession. According to research by Euromonitor International, the beauty market in the Middle East, worth $7.2 billion in 2008, is growing at a rate of 12% annually [For more on this market from Euromonitor, please see “Premium Positioning; Innovative Retail Hallmarks of Middle East Beauty Market”]. Saudi Arabia and Iran lead the growth, both reporting more than $2 billion in cosmetic sales alone, globally making these markets the sixth- and seventh-largest consumers of cosmetics and skin care, respectively. Despite the recession, women throughout this region are making significantly fewer adjustments in their consumption habits than the rest of the world—continuing to choose prestige cosmetics, fragrances, shampoos and skin care products, with each category reporting significant annual growth.

Arab women have traditionally used more personal care and beauty products than in Western cultures, with fragrance, oils and plant-derived cosmetics playing a central role for centuries. In this highly economically and culturally diverse region, beauty products remain widely used by all segments of women, regardless of social class and age.

Connecting to the Community

Although varying in degree from country to country, gender separation in the Middle East is a common experience, and women there tend to spend the majority of their time with other women. Consequently, children are exposed to beauty regimens at a young age, and information about beauty products is typically spread via word-of-mouth. Brand recognition is of great importance, and women in this region want a brand they can trust. Many beauty brands at mass are embracing ancient ingredients and home remedies in order to build on cultural heritage or traditions, and further a brand’s trust and credibility with its consumers. Beauty regimens serve as a common reason for women to gather, and ceremonial traditions such as weddings, funerals and engagement parties require significant preparation. Freelance stylists and beauticians will make house calls, and have been known to style an entire multigenerational family, friends and neighbors in one location.

With the rise of the Internet, Arab women translate this strong sense of community to the digital space, with 71% of all women participating in social networking. Brands and businesses, which can be limited in how they market to women, have seized this avenue to connect directly with these consumers. For example, Olay launched its own regional site, www.olayarabia.com/arabic, one of the first Arabic websites entirely devoted to beauty. The site features Club Olay, an interactive forum that allows women to build an online network; an expert forum; skin care tips; and specific sections for mothers, brides and girls.

Cultural Context

Unlike many in the U.S. and Europe, few consumers in the Middle East are impacted by debt. With the majority of consumers never holding bank accounts or credit cards, this region has largely remained protected from the global recession. Prestige cosmetic and fragrance brands such as Armani, Lancôme, Givenchy and Dior have benefited accordingly, with luxury consumers continuing to exhibit brand loyalty and recognition. In fact, while profits in these categories suffered globally, the Middle East has experienced growth within this sector, reporting a 10% increase in sales for fragrance and 9% in prestige cosmetics from 2007 to 2008. New products within the prestige segment parallel beauty trends in Europe to some extent, including cosmeceuticals as an alternative to cosmetic surgery, organics and convenience in single-unit dosing packaging design.