Saudi Focus: Lost in translation – by FCB’s Tony Rouhana

FCB’s Tony Rouhana says international brands still think translated social media campaigns from other markets work in the Kingdom

By Tony Rouhana, vice-president – Saudi Arabia and Levant, FCB Global

Plenty of international brands believe social media works the same way around the world. However, it is significantly unique in the digital arena. While it is true that the world speaks the same social media language, usage involves sudden spikes in trends.

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However, when we look at it deeper, on a local market level, it’s different. The strings that shape the usage of social media are mainly driven by culture, news and local trends. And, in the eye of the social media storm, many brands fail to implement the right execution.

I will address this issue from my long experience in Saudi Arabia and highlight what is happening today. More than 84 per cent of users in the Kingdom use social networks as part of their daily lives. 2022 statistics reveal that 29 million people are social media users, and they spend three and a half hours per day on average using social media platforms. This is 40 per cent greater than the global average. And this adds up to billions of usage hours every year on social media. Isn’t that worth looking at?

As marketing budgets follow consumers, we see most international brands advertise on the five main social media platforms: Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok and Facebook. As the percentage of users in Saudi Arabia is higher than the global standard, international brands must pay more attention to the content and copy used. They should make sure that it’s relevant, speaks the local market’s language, and has local insights that resonate with the consumers. Otherwise, advertisers may be subject to severe criticism on social media, and consequently spend money on crisis management to fix the unintended damage.

Many international companies that sell their brands in Saudi Arabia still think what works in Europe and North America will work the same in the Kingdom by simply translating the same message without any research, concept or A/B testing. Other brands still work their way into the Saudi market using regional agencies in Dubai. Again, this is another mistake. While there are similarities among these markets, their dynamics and cultural aspects remain different. The same applies to other Arab markets such as Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, etc. Brands cannot send the same message to different markets and believe it will work just because it worked in a certain market. Understanding local insights and cultural differences is the key to successful campaigns.

It is also important to segregate the marketing budget for the region from the international. If there is a slowdown in global growth for any reason, or even a recession, international brands should take lessons from the 2008 recession. During the 2008 global recession, the scene in Saudi Arabia was completely different, and international brands that were active in the local market became a victim of the centralised decision-making by big brands. A research paper by Engagement Labs on the 2008 recession found that brands within automotive and financial sectors that reduced their budgets significantly, witnessed a drop in the positive sentiments towards those brands versus other brands that didn’t adopt the same strategy.

International brands not only need to allocate separate budgets for the Kingdom but also need to look for social media agencies in Saudi Arabia to manage their social media presence.

These agencies are empowered by skilled Saudi creative teams, from copywriters to designers, who prepare all the relevant content and copy aligned with the brand strategy, ensuring that the brand is perceived properly and as planned. We have more Saudi Arabian talented creative thinkers than ever, and more and more new young individuals are being awarded at local and regional events.