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The Mystique of Mainstream Middle Eastern Beauty

Liz Grubow

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,, 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.

At mass, manufacturers recently have displayed more interest in the diversity of the region, launching products with the Middle Eastern consumer in mind. For example, Sunsilk, a top performer in the hair care segment, debuted Lively Clean & Fresh Shampoo made specifically for veiled women who experience problems associated with excess oil on their scalp and hair. The skin care market in the Middle East also has increased overall, with the facial care category accounting for more than 60% of the market share. Unilever, Beiersdorf and L’Oréal dominate sales, while hair removers, antiaging and skin-whitening creams from Olay and Himalaya Herbals are popular choices often purchased in hypermarkets.

There is also an increasingly powerful market for Halal cosmetics, products that are made without alcohol or animal-derived ingredients. OnePure, a prestige skin care and cosmetic brand achieving significant success in the Middle East, delivers solutions for issues commonly experienced by Arab women, including under-eye circles and skin irritation from harsh weather conditions. At the same time, OnePure products are all Halal-certified. According to Euromonitor International, Middle Eastern women are more often combining their religious views with consumerism, and this is a trend that has been reflected in advertising campaigns with models wearing the hijab, or head scarf.

The rules around wearing the hijab vary from region to region, as well as from situation to situation. For example, there is no requirement for women in Islam to be veiled when surrounded by their immediate families, though they must be veiled when in public. Some marketers, and particularly those within television advertising, choose to market their products targeting conservative viewers, exploiting the wearing of the veil in commercials. Conversely, government-run television in Egypt bans its newscasters from wearing the hijab and will not accept any advertising where women wearing the hijab are shown, even though an estimated 80% of Egyptian women wear the hijab in public. Beauty brands have embraced these strategies as an avenue to establish trust among the Muslim segment of consumers, an increasingly powerful demographic in the region.

Demographics, Spending Habits

The younger demographic of the Middle East continues to aid in market growth as well, with countries across the region reporting similar demographic trends. In Dubai, 60% of the population is under 25, and with a population of 80 million, Egypt’s median age is 24. While this younger demographic embraces the traditional regimens of its elders, it also spend significantly on cosmetics, and is more likely to experiment with new products and European trends, often imported through Lebanese television and fashion magazines. This demographic is making more trips to the salon, and, consequently, is experimenting more with hair color and cosmetics, too. According to recent research by TMBA, an Iranian market research company, Iranian women 15–45 spend $7 each month on cosmetics, which is 10% of the average monthly salary. This rate is attributed to their younger, more urban demographic, with half of the country’s population of 74 million people under 30 and 65% of them living in urban areas.

The booming retail industry in the Middle East has transformed during the previous two decades from family-owned shopping outlets to shopping malls, hypermarkets and chains. Dubai Mall attracts 750,000 visitors weekly. According to RNCOS, a market research company, the Middle East’s retail industry is now a $400 billion market, doubling in value from 2003 to 2008 with an annual growth rate of 14%. Dubai Mall is home to prestige beauty boutiques—including Faces, Dubai’s leading retail chain for prestige and niche beauty products. Faces, similar to Sephora, offers skin care, cosmetic and fragrance products from around the world in addition to cosmeceutical brands, bath and shower products, skin care experts and spa treatments in-store. Luxury brands such as Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Dior and Armani are flocking to the Middle East as well, opening flagship stores in urban centers throughout the region. According to Nielsen, retail channels in Egypt are largely based on social class, with upper-class women shopping at luxury boutiques, while the middle class tends to frequent malls and traditional trade outlets that still dominate the country.

According to the National Human Resources Development and Employment Authority, the United Arab Emirates has experienced a 30% increase in the retail space devoted to beauty and fragrance products, and projects such as the Beauty and Fragrance Park in Jebel Ali and Beautyland in Dubailand—a hypermarket that includes beauty business offices, spas, a beauty museum, a beauty academy and salons—have increased beauty tourism there. Additionally, Beautyworld Middle East, an international trade show targeting affluent women in the Gulf region, witnessed a rise in exhibitors from the U.S. and Europe during its opening in June 2010—serving as a hot spot for emerging beauty trends and niche and mass products alike.

A Powerful Market

During the next decade, the Middle East will continue to materialize as a powerful market for beauty and retail opportunities, as well as attract new interests to the region. As the market becomes more saturated, retailers and manufacturers will differentiate by developing a greater focus on local cultures and the region’s diversity, offering more niche products and marketing to smaller, targeted segments of the population. Meanwhile, domestic brands will begin to emerge with more success, offering innovations that embrace local culture, religion and traditions, entering the market at the prestige level through salons and spas and at the mass level through global beauty giants by combining localized ingredients to meet unmet needs.

Liz Grubow is vice president and group creative director of LPK Beauty. In her 20-plus-year career, Grubow has helped develop and manage brand identity programs for some of the world’s most successful beauty brands—including Pantene, Olay, MAX Factor International and Cover Girl.

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