Where did the Backpacker Lady go? Turkey's Mobile Communications Industry is Changing

Turkey is changing. Western-oriented elites and middle-class consumers are often at odds with socially conservative, rural milieus. Tech-companies in particular need to tread carefully in trying to reach out to the broadest possible customer base. Recent strategies focus on “values” and “communities” – behind seemingly inconspicuous phrases and images, larger conflicts are lurking.

As part of our ongoing research into emerging markets, we have compiled a brief overview and forecast, focusing on the market for mobile communication solutions.

Basic data on Technology use in Turkey

Mobile technologies (hardware, software, and services alike) are at the center of consumer attention and a very public issue. Most people consider it important to own the latest phones and apps and to have access to reliable and regular services. Being connected is also a matter of social prestige; this social prestige corresponds, in turn, to economic and social stratification.

According to the PEW Research Center Spring 2013 Global Attitudes Survey,

  • 87 out of 100 people in Turkey own mobile devices, with 17 owning smart phones;
  • 60% of all mobile phone owners send text messages, 41% take pictures or make videos, and 20% access social networking services;
  • 87 % of smart phone internet users are actively engaged in social networking sites.

Thus, cell phone use is wide-spread, and smart phones are on the rise. Turkish consumers’ love to be connected manifests itself primarily through the use of basic services such as short text message, multimedia and social networking services.

Overview of consumer groups in Turkey

Turkey is experiencing deep divisions along social, economic, and cultural lines. The various political, religious, and ethnic groups often follow different goals, and their respective answers to what is important in making purchasing decisions vary. Turks, Kurds, Muslims, seculars etc. each hold on to distinct sets of values.

What are these values? Public discourse on values is dominated by the rise of an increasingly powerful right-wing moderate Islamist stratum of society which habitually refers to “[our community] values.”

Companies talking about their (“our”) values need to be aware of the way in which even the talk of values as such is seen as an indication that the author of this talk is advocating a particular set of values.

Emerging middle classes in Turkey aspire to be up to date in terms of mobile technology and, more generally, to become – and remain – affluent. In addition, there are those who feel marginalised by mainstream society. While they may be less numerous than social conservatives, they tend to be highly visible in the public sphere, comprising highly educated, upper middle class, secular individuals.

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Changing attitudes to women in TV commercials

Ongoing social changes are highlighted by the recent transformation of TV commercials. Consider the famous “Independent Girl” (Özgür Kız) spots of 2001. A young, female, Turkish but distinctly Wester-looking backpacker sporting a Western outfit explores remote parts of Anatolia. Throughout her journey, she enjoys reliable mobile connectivity. Connectivity is associated with being independent, mobile, adventurous, and curious. The role of Özgür Kız was played by Nil Karaibrahimgil, a performer and composer. It was her who wrote both the music and the lyrics for these commercials. The music was pop with ambient elements. The lyrics were an ode to the protagonist’s independent soul.

Now let’s look at a commercial from 2014: the “Love Affair Package.” The plot consists of a teenage male in distress due to a lack of calls from, and a lack of financial means to stay in contact with, his girlfriend. The package advertised by the commercial offers both competitive calling rates and mobile roaming opportunities. The backbone of the narrative is a song performed by Hakan Altun and his orchestra. The confident, upbeat woman character of the earlier commercial has been replaced by a passive and pessimistic young male in financial dire straits. The main contrast, however, is achieved through the choice of performer and musical genre. Hakan Altun mainly produces music consumed by groups of society that are economically less privileged. The genre can be roughly identified as “arabesk-pop-fantezi.” This mixture is a direct descendant of Turkish “arabesk” music which, along with oriental (mainly Near Eastern) musical elements and heavily pessimistic lyrics, expressed the sorrows of people who became the victims of the transformation of society from rural to urban.

The comparison suggests that the mobile communications market has adapted to a changing business environment. The idea of an independent young woman backpacker seems no longer in line with “community values.” Socially and politically dominant groups are given priority. Turkey remains caught in the “middle income trap,” struggling to move on to higher levels of productivity and wealth. Low to middle income conservatives will remain a core consumer group for the time being; their influence can be seen through so-called “conservative shopping malls” that offer products and services tailored to conservative customers. Take a shopping mall in Isparta in which there is no jeans store as jeans are considered to contradict prospective customers’ “community values.”

“Community values” discourses are clearly gaining ground as compared to talk of “diversity” which was more prevalent in the early 2000s.

Recommendations and Further Research

Early adopters are a relatively small group in Turkey, but the mobile boom of the last decade has shown that there is considerable room for innovation. Strategies should be based on careful analyses of communications environments and dominant social and market trends.

Are you working on a project that addresses a variety of target groups across social and cultural divides? NIMIRUM is a Germany-based research services provider analysing trends and discourses worldwide. Analyses are tailored to specific client questions during both the bidding process for new business and ongoing project work. Please contact us if we can support your international business activites through targeted research. We are available at sales@nimirum.info.

This report has been compiled by Hami İnan Gümüş. He works at the Halle-Wittenberg University Graduate School "Society and Culture in Motion." 

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