Would you pay someone US$5,000 to do a quick Instagram post?
Probably not. But that’s exactly what a growing number of brands are doing in the UAE as they chase endorsement deals with social-media influencers.
Snapchat stars, YouTubers and bloggers in the UAE are commanding huge fees to talk about products, with many even issuing rate cards specifying what it costs for individual mentions on Facebook or Twitter.
While none have yet attained the social-media power of Kim Kardashian – one of a few celebrities who could make or break a brand with a single tweet – UAE consumers are increasingly listening to what local influencers say. Evidence of this comes with a recent survey by the Dubai PR agency BPG Cohn & Wolfe, which found that 71 per cent of UAE residents aged 18 to 40 are happy to take advice from influencers before making a purchase.
One UAE influencer who has bagged several deals with brands is 28-year-old Max Stanton, who boasts about 529,000 followers on Instagram.
Mr Stanton was born to an American father and British mother but spent much of his youth in Yemen, and has picked up a fluent grasp of Khaleeji Arabic dialects.
His love of Arabic culture earned him the nickname Max of Arabia, lots of Emirati friends, and endorsement deals with brands ranging from car companies to restaurants and real estate developers.
Brands love Max of Arabia because he’s seen as personifying the crossover between expatriate and Emirati cultures – but also, says Mr Stanton, because he has not sold out.
For example, Mr Stanton is a Middle East digital brand ambassador for Nissan, a role in which he posts about the cars to social media and attend events. But he owned a Nissan vehicle before he accepted the job – so he was already a fan. Likewise, Max of Arabia says he would never promote a restaurant serving food he cannot stomach.
“People have to believe you, they have to trust you, they have to think it is a product that you actually use,” he says.
Some of the biggest advertisers in the world are partnering with influencers such as Max of Arabia. Unilever, for example, says it was one of the first to partner with Uturn, an entertainment network founded in Saudi Arabia that helps connect brands with influencers.
Asad Rehman, the media director for Unilever in the Middle East and North Africa, says using influencers has distinct advantages over regular advertising and marketing.
“The followership is huge,” he said. Influencers “bring a great deal of authenticity to the communication. People relate to them more. They trust their advice,” he adds. One Unilever brand to have used such endorsements is Sunsilk, which roped in several influencers for its Style Studio campaign, including the Dubai fashion designer Tamara Al Gabbani.
Using influencers is especially useful in reaching the all-important 18-to-40 age demographic, says Taghreed Oraibi, the PR director for BPG Cohn & Wolfe’s consumer practice. Ms Oraibi led the company’s research, conducted with YouGov, into influencers in the UAE. The survey of 1,000 residents found that 63 per cent are more likely to buy fashion and beauty products based on what influencers say.
Influencers offer what Ms Oraibi calls “one of the most powerful tools in marketing” – word of mouth.
“We work with bloggers or influencers on a daily basis,” she says. “Brands are investing heavily in them … The average rate for a post would be from $1,000 up to $5,000.”
There are about 500 recognised influencers in the UAE, Ms Oraibi says, with partnerships with brands “growing tremendously”.
“When we first started working with influencers all we used to do was either send them products or invite them to a review. But nowadays, with the increase in [influencers having] rate cards, they charge for everything and anything. You have to pay them to review, and you have to pay them to wear a certain fashion brand or attend an event.”
Another issue is the need for more regulation about disclosing when social media posts are paid for – something most UAE influencers do not do, Ms Oraibi says. Alex Malouf, the vice chairman of the Middle East Public Relations Association, agrees that influencers should disclose it when a seemingly off-the-cuff Facebook post is actually paid for by a brand.
“For the benefit of consumers, we need to be clear, we need to be honest with them,” he says.
What’s very clear, however, is that the influencers are getting more influential.
“A couple of years back, UAE influencers didn’t exist – they weren’t being seen as a credible option in terms of advertising,” Mr Malouf adds. “[Now] they’re moving from the niche to the mainstream.”