Ever heard of Vitamin Waw! It is an extremely potent rare form of vitamin found only in certain parts of the world. It can be a life saver, a game changer, can give you wings like the ones that not even Red Bull can match. Great thing about it, unlike other vitamins you can never overdose on it. The more you have this power pill the stronger you become. It is magical dare I say. There is just one problem though. It is only available in Saudi Arabia to a minority of the locals and it is not for sale! Acquiring Vitamin Waw takes a lot of effort, sometimes years. Having the good fortune of belonging to a certain lineage does allow automatic access to this magical elixir but that is about it. People who live in Saudi Arabia see it’s power manifest everyday, they may not consciously know what it is but they are certainly a witness to it’s impact.
Wonder how the improbable just happens. Stories we all hear everyday of people circumventing the law to do things deemed impossible . Yup you guessed it, it’s all the power of Vitamin Waw. For the vast majority I am probably not making any sense but all my fellow residents of Saudi Arabia have certainly heard of “wasta” and the colloquial term ‘Vitamin Waw’. Bit of an anti-climax I suspect? You were expecting more than this. Well here it is. We all know about the power of “wasta”. It is both powerful and unique. This post is about the “why?” Where does this phenomenon of “wasta” come from? What is so unique about Saudi Society that breeds this?
There are indeed some very local customs and habits that play a big role in driving this way of life. Those habits may be shared by other Arab cultures but there is clearly a Saudi aspect that is unlike any other. It is this deep offline social networking that locals engage in that equates if not takes precedence to their close family ties. Just how close are these engagements? If a sister is getting married on a day of this special ‘networking’ day then the brother will have no choice but to miss his sister’s wedding. That’s right! It’s that important and it happens every week on a pre-fixed date for life. It’s not something limited to older men from the upper strata of society either but it’s a custom that is prevalent across genders and ages. College going kids for example will have their own networking rituals played out at a sisha cafe or on chalets near the beach on weekends for example. Women too will strictly follow their meeting rites exchanging thoughts from anything mundane to the not so ordinary. The real value of these meeting rituals is in the strength of the connections that are nurtured over the years. Imagine a high-profile businessman meeting regularly with a similar group of entrepreneurs, senior government officials and in some cases a member of the royal family and doing so to a level where all family matters, business goals and challenges are completely known to everyone in the group. If each member values this connection to a point that they commit to it like they would to a blood relative then you can imagine the strength of this connection. Speaking to some locals I learnt that these commitments demand a huge emotional investment as everyone tries their utmost to keep up with both the happy celebrations and the sad events of each connection. The rewards are obvious but they don’t come easy. Knitting such close ties to a network of twenty or so people at a very deep level gives them immense power in the society to get things done. With each family member having their own network the combined effect means for a certain level in society these individuals can pretty much get anything done. In a world which is just learning to capitalize on the strength of weak ties through online social networks here is a culture that has been doing it for centuries and these are no weak ties here either. They are equal to the strongest ties any individual could have.
At DDB we are really focusing on “Social Creativity”. Our goal being not just to connect people with brands but people with people. A concept known as “six degrees of separation” coined by Frigyes Karinthy states that every one of us is connected to another in just six steps. Today it has inspired a whole new thinking in science known as ‘network science’ and it has been proven that we truly are connected to each other in just six steps. However, if the same study were done in Saudi Arabia those steps maybe fewer than six despite the fact that the penetration of online social networks is much lower here than most developed economies.
So what does this mean for marketing? For one this is a unique insight into Saudi culture. The power of these networks can have a huge impact on brand building especially stakeholders as we experience it in our day-to-day business. The impressions and feedback from these networks can be a bigger influencer to a decision-maker than what conventional research might say. Also as we work to unleash Social Creativity in the online world globally there may still be room, at least in Saudi Arabia to use the power of these offline networks to build brands by encouraging participation, play and pass on!