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Food market in GCC: Swiss SMEs score points in the premium food segment

The quality expectations for Swiss food products are high in the Gulf countries. Philipp Straehl has been living in Dubai for over 10 years and knows the challenges of the market exactly. He has been helping Swiss SMEs gain foothold in the Middle East and Africa for just as long.
A food store with customers standing in front of a shelf.
Premium food is very popular in the Gulf States.

Mr. Straehl, you know all the ins and out of the GCC states and how to position and market food products properly there. You’ll be sharing your experiences with us at the Impulse: Food.

Apparently Swiss food products are very popular in the GCC states, especially in the high-price segment. Nevertheless, it is certainly not easy to conquer these markets. In your experience, what are the greatest challenges?

Switzerland has an excellent reputation. Swiss premium products have good chances of success in the GCC states, but it takes time and hard work on site, because the competition is greater than in Switzerland.

Long-term thinking, realistic planning, adequate budgets, good distribution partners, operational flexibility as well as dedication and well-developed logistics are important. A “premium” product also needs “premium” people on site and a “premium” identity. Swiss products have no chance against the competition in the low-price segment.

The culture and the climatic conditions are very different to those in Switzerland. What cultural know-how should you have and how do you ensure a supply chain that will not harm the product?

The supply chain needs planning, must be controlled and is not cheap. There are outstanding companies with considerable experience in logistics. They have solutions on hand. The problem is rather the order frequency and the order quantities to ensure that the product is still fresh on delivery to the consumer and no out-of-stocks occur. This requires flexible production.

There are cultural differences. If one dispenses with prejudices and does not think in stereotypes, you learn quickly. Professionalism is an international phenomenon. There are also organizations such as Switzerland Global Enterprise that can help with and mediate in a market entry.

In terms of taste, is there anything Arabs are particularly fond of? Do Swiss companies need to adapt their products accordingly?

The GCC states differ considerably, and are not just home to Arabs, but people from various continents. In the UAE, Emirati represent less than 20% of the population. A realistic marketing concept with a clear positioning is an essential. Whether to adapt a product to local tastes, is a fundamental decision. Such an adaption has both pros and cons. However, the product must be Halal, which is just one of many legal requirements.

Are there currently any trends for the future, e.g. with regard to convenience food?

In a globalized world, trends are global, too. On the one hand there is a clear split between cheap food (much for nothing) and high-quality food (back to nature / good for you). Certified foods are the trend. Functional foods are popular. Freshness is important. Healthy living is also all the rage in the GCC states. Convenience is more import than in Switzerland. The major urban centers are the trendsetters.

The biggest difference to Switzerland is the brand value and credibility. There are no dominant wholesale distributors here with strong own brands as in Switzerland. Credible brand management is essential for survival.

Do you see particularly good marketing opportunities at Expo 2020 in Dubai?

The buzzwords of Expo 2020 are: Opportunity, Mobility, Sustainability. Switzerland has much to offer here, and will have its own pavilion. The organizers expect 25 million visitors. 70% of them from outside the UAE. Introducing a food product exclusively for Expo 2020 is perhaps going a bit far. But Expo 2020 offers a good opportunity to make a product (more) known to many visitors and increase sales. In addition, Expo 2020 also offers countless opportunities for tactical promotions.

Impulse: Food - Innovation as tradition

Visit our Impulse: Food on October 27 in Fribourg and on November 08 in Baden and benefit from the discussion with Philipp Straehl on the food market in the GCC states. Scandinavia will be another geographical focus.

About Philipp Straehl

Philipp Straehl has been living in Dubai for over 10 years. Born in Switzerland, he is married and the father of three children. He has been on the board of VSM for 10 years and has 25 years of experience in marketing, sales and distribution. He is a passionate leader, entrepreneur and business developer and expert on the Middle East. He is also a partner of Brain Advisory (Switzerland).

About VSM

VSM specializes in sourcing and implementing opportunities in marketing, sales and distribution together with customers. Geographically, VSM operates in the Middle East and Africa, where they have been active for over 10 years. Its customers are mainly SMEs.

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