Loyalty and the Middle Eastern Customer

Loyalty and the Middle Eastern Customer

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?” Uttered almost 60 years ago by John F Kennedy at his inaugural address, this simple call to action has become famous as a call to take responsibility and place community before self.

The word country could be replaced by ‘employer’ or perhaps even ‘favourite brand’, (when asking for advocacy) and still be somewhat relevant.

But in a region, where the majority of the population are expats and one could be made to leave in less than 30 days, how do you create a love for the country, let alone a sense of loyalty?

The following article examines possible ways to address this challenge and how we at QuickBrownFox Consulting address this:


The Middle East is an extremely transient society, and therefore the people who live here tend to be more transactional in nature. Over the years one learns that friendships have a shelf life and people will leave, employees still arrive on two year contracts both giving residents enough cause to question how much emotional investment they can/ will make.


Let’s talk for a moment about demographics – the average age across the GCC is 27 (Saudi Arabia is higher at 30) bang in the middle of the ‘millennial’ bracket – reputed for having little or no brand loyalty.

However, the Middle Eastern Millennial is an outlier here – with a study conducted by Google showing this segment to be significantly more loyal than their counterparts around the world. However, by the same token this segment and the market in general has high service expectations and are quite unforgiving when they feel ignored or poorly treated. One of the key reasons here is income-related entitlement.


From an income perspective, across the board, immigrants and citizens alike enjoy a relatively higher standard of living than their counterparts ‘back home’ or in other first-world countries. Income is tax free, there is a high level of safety and security, availability of products, services and brands is ubiquitous and banks are happy to lend money and encourage purchases with little or low collateral or guarantees. As a result, individuals tend to ‘live large’. The spectrum of expectations from a loyalty programme ranges from Points and discount generated savings to rewards and recognition by the way of money-can’t-buy experiences.

Nationality vs Income

As a marketer I have watched in disbelief the racist tendency to create segments by nationality – there is nothing more dangerous to any kind of marketing exercise, except perhaps when dealing with very specific socio-economic groups.

Therefore, in the model illustrated below – imagine for one moment the three concentric circles symbolise household income with the outermost ring being the lowest and the innermost representing the highest or wealthiest members of society. Furthermore, each wedge (marked ‘a’ to ‘h’) represents a different nationality. We propose and strongly believe that those in the inside circle have more in common with each other with regards to aspirations, desires, lifestyle, experiences etc. than those in the outermost circle. While those in the same wedge may be connected through language, food, pop-culture and perhaps even politics their lifestyles may not.

Cutting past this is the first challenge faced by loyalty marketers in the region.

A lot has changed in the post covid era with low customer confidence, customer are increasingly focused on unfortunately this team is subjective and what may be considered   of value to  one may have  no value to other.

 A loyalty programme first and foremost needs to understand the customer they are dealing with, and what is of value to them. Leading from the previous point – creating relevance is the most important. A colleague of mine loved to say – “I could buy the most expensive Armani suit, but if it doesn’t fit me, it’s worthless and will forever hang in the closet”. This is where a ‘Machine Learning’ based platform that is able to track and report the kinds of rewards being utilised will succeed. Starting from an experience or research-based baseline, the programme evolves continuously driving engagement by ensuring it is relevant to each segment, narrowing them down to a utopian, “segment of one”

 The model illustrated below is based on mapping relative appeal based on Socio-economic demographics. Behavioral Science theorises that (generally), members who are lower on the socio-economic scale are more likely to be influenced by Cashback, Discounts and Points as a reward, compared to recognition or experiences. Meanwhile, members higher on the scale are more likely to be impressed by recognition of their custom – experiences such as ‘Early-access’ to product or sales, or a one-to-one meeting with a dignitary or celebrity, in other words, ‘money-can’t-buy’ experiences. 

The Rewards Model

 Furthermore, data shows that females tend to prefer Financial Rewards, which are more practical, as compared to males who are drawn to Recognition based rewards that appeal to their ego. This is, however, a broad trend, with outliers and exceptions on either end.

 It is safe to say that programmes in this region should offer a combination of savings, rewards and recognition.

“Constant Gratification” vs “Instant gratification”

Customers’ low span of attention coupled with aggressive competition means members are quick to disengage if the opportunity to win/ earn a reward is perceived to be far or distant.

The requirement for ‘instant gratification’ has evolved into a hunger for ‘constant gratification’ – leading to a need to reward members with small prizes for small victories, as he / she works their way towards a series of larger rewards.

A successful programme will be underpinned by content relevant to the member while staying true to the key pillars of the brand or programme, giving members additional reasons to engage with the App.

The impact of Covid-19 on Loyalty

A lot has changed in the post-Covid era with low-customer confidence, customers are increasingly focused on “value” – unfortunately this term is subjective and what may be considered of value to one may have no value to another.

These are new and interesting times – and customers want to know they are cared for by the brands they engage with. Meanwhile, as brands start to show losses, they cut back on service staff, and on both, soft and hard programme benefits – a surefire way to lose not only customers but also their programme members.

So what does all this mean to you as a brand?

The Middle East is a Millennial Minefield with 48 percent of the GCC *(Gulf Cooperation Council States) market being in the 25-40 age range. These customers are loyal but unforgiving – build a platform to get to know them and remember they want to be seen as individuals. Your customer tends to have travelled and is well exposed to high standards of service delivery and demands the same. 

Programmes Around The World

Make sure you’re building an emotional connection that is underpinned by a meaningful rationale i.e. recognise and reward with generosity and relevance – a couple of dollars in cashback or points will not impress them. Last but not least – engage with them. Not just when they transact with you but when they need something… we like to call this ‘downtime engagement’ which is often more important than the few moments when the customer is transacting and earning or redeeming points. And remember they have a short span of attention – make it impactful and meaningful.

*Source Edelman, Youth and Young Adult: University of Missouri; PNC Financial Services Group: Euromonitor; Barron’s

True Loyalty Is (Not) Transactional

This is an interesting debate – how are loyalty programmes that are predicated on a transaction considered true loyalty? I get asked this a lot – and while I have an issue with the name of this eight billion dollar industry (expected to grow to USD 18.17 billion by 2026) – let’s save that conversation for another day. I would like to postulate that as long as human beings need some kind of economic currency to live, and businesses use money as a currency to buy and sell goods and services, and measure success – transactions underpin most exchanges in life.

When we think of the connotations of loyalty, an ordinary person might think of a bond, relationship or connection between two things that is formed based on emotion. However, when it comes to brands trying to ‘buy’ loyalty, we find a situation where companies use money to create emotion.

But can customer loyalty just be bought?

Not necessarily.

Just because we interact with businesses on a transactional basis, does not mean that our relationship with these brands is just formed around money. Businesses have constantly been trying to understand what makes customers loyal. Between a competition to offer the best prices and trying to make their service as personalised as possible, corporations have been constantly raising the bar when it comes to trying to retain their customers. Particularly during the pandemic, several businesses were struggling due to a lack of regular customer base, and so loyalty to our favourite brands meant even more in such uncertain times.  

The debate as to whether loyalty can be bought is multifaceted; can we consider loyalty to be formed on a transactional basis, or an emotional one? While we do interact with companies based on an exchange of goods and services for money, the aspect of loyalty is not necessarily attached just to the value of the transaction.

Let’s take the example of the Samurai warrior. They were the well-paid retainers of the ‘daimyo’ (the great feudal landholders) or Shogun. They cultivated the ‘bushido’ codes of martial virtues when engaging in battle: indifference to pain and unflinching loyalty. In the 1870s, Samurai families comprised just 5 percent of the population. The Samurai would fight to the death for their Shogun, and a masterless Samurai was referred to as ‘Ronin’ (a derogatory term, used with disgust). If a Samurai’s Master were to die, the Samurai would typically kill himself from shame. How’s that for loyalty? Nevertheless, the Samurai were still paid for their services.  

 The reality is, loyalty is a combination of multiple things. 

Loyalty is not brought. its earned brand look developing a personal and affection dynamic with their customer.

Of course there is a rational aspect to it – we try to gravitate toward brands that we believe are giving us a good value for money. Transactional loyalty is very much centred around economics – convenience, price, and everything else that might influence the rational part of our decision making.

However, our emotional biases and perspective will also contribute to how a brand makes us feel. Is there a certain appeal of ‘exclusivity’ that this brand gives us? How do we feel when we talk about our purchase choices to our friends and family? Research has shown that customers will stay loyal to their brand even when alternative options are presented, partially because they are ‘emotionally loyal’ to them.

This type of loyalty does last longer, because our emotions are less likely to change as fast as the prices of other competing brands. We choose to devote our money, time and  purchase preferences to brands that make us feel special, and looked after. If the transaction isn’t ‘layered’ with other qualities like efficient service, the ability to personalise someone’s shopping experience, and customer care, there will inevitably be customer attrition.

So where do loyalty programmes fit into this? There are multiple loyalty programmes out there. If anyone has read ‘Why Loyalty Matters’, you’ll see that rational loyalty is a consequence of most brands being unable to generate an effective connection with customers. And just a loyalty reward programme will be unable to change that. We can put together the most elaborate, rewarding programme out there. But how far can that go in making a customer feel unique and appreciated?

I have lived this learning myself. My Sensei, John, was a man who devoted his life to teaching martial arts. I met him in 2003, and consistently trained with him right up to 2011, when I earned my black belt stature. I continued to train with him regularly, but various injuries reduced the frequency of my training. Then, his sudden and unexpected demise put a complete halt to my training. I packed away my belt, Gi and Hakama, without ever even considering training with someone else as my Sensei.

You see, I believe that the relationship with one’s Sensei is sacred. This person pushes you to your limits; they recognise your physical, mental and emotional potential and help you achieve it. Nevertheless, this relationship was ultimately based on a financial transaction. After all, I did have to pay for these classes, and Sensei did have a family to support. Still, none of that takes away from the bond we shared; I was, and remain deeply committed to him and to Aikido, as both have played a huge role in my life and given me value far beyond the fee I paid every month. Does this transaction then detract from the emotion of loyalty attached to it? 

I think of loyalty in ‘Maaslow’ terms. At the base of the pyramid, we can find for example, an employee-employer relationship, which is transactional. This could be where his salary is being paid on time. Then, we proceed further up the hierarchy, looking at functional benefits – such as the covered parking spot in the building.

Then we come to emotional loyalty – perhaps some words of appreciation in front of the office.  

As we proceed higher up, we reach the social aspect of loyalty – community based appreciation, which could perhaps be an invitation to an award gala or time off work to support a charity. And finally, the most intimate form of loyalty – a personal bond. Whether you wish me on my birthday, or ask after my children, both parties feel like there is a pure connection.

Ultimately, loyalty is not bought. It’s earned. Brands need to look at developing a personal, affectionate dynamic with their customers. It should not be a question of ‘can I get a better price elsewhere?’, but more of ‘will I be looked after like this elsewhere?’. There has to be just the right balance of value and quality of service to ensure loyalty is maintained from both sides. However the paradox of loyalty is the transaction and I believe this exchange is not only a part of loyalty, it actually underpins it.