Why many global brands struggle in the Middle East

Socialize’s Head of Strategy Ailidh Smylie shares her thoughts on what marketers can do about regional challenges

Are you aware of the concept of high – and low – context cultures? If not, it might be why your global brand is struggling to connect with audiences in Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East. Knowing the differences between the two and designing campaigns to meet consumers where they are is key to brand authenticity. 

What is a high-context culture?

Saudi Arabia is a high-context culture, as is most of the Middle East. In high-context cultures people rely on nonverbal cues, relationships, and shared history to convey meaning; whereas in low-context cultures, meaning is communicated more explicitly and directly through language. Examples of low-context cultures include the United States, Germany, and the UK.

Now, think about global brands, which often originate from low-context cultures. This gives them cultural cache; they are well-known, and seem more aspirational and superior to local brands.  Most are run by a hybrid model; controlled centrally from global, with local ‘flex’ to allow for regional adaptation of communications and products. But what happens when the essence of a global brand, as it exists in low-context cultures, jars with the reality of a high context culture? They do not connect.

Brands wanting to be truly relevant in a local market must do several things to resonate with their ‘untapped’ audience. Being a ‘global brand’ is not cool enough any more to win Gen Z’s hearts, they need something more relatable to them. Here are five things brands need to keep in mind to succeed in the Middle East market:

Understand who you’re talking to

Beyond understanding customers’ social and digital behaviour, you also need to dive into their social communities and subcultures to see what  makes them tick — how are they  spending their 3 hours+ a day on social media? Why is much of that time  on Snapchat ? How to enter their TikTok world when they are most active?      

Reflect their reality

Things are changing in the Middle East fast – fastest of all in Saudi, as the country races towards fulfilling its 2030 Vision. Think NEOM or projects like the Asbher app, which allows residents to seamlessly interact with all government systems.       

These big governmental changes are sending rippling effects across the country, and with these changes come new rules – dress codes, for example.

Although Saudi women are increasingly experimenting with their personal style and pushing boundaries within the limits of their social environment, it is still important to respect local customs and traditions. Brands that cling to outdated fashion will be perceived as out-of-touch. Women aim to strike a balance between expressing themselves through personalised style, and still adhering to local norms, such as wearing light-colored abayas instead of jeans and t-shirts. 

True localisation

You cannot just take global communications and translate them into Arabic. Many big brands are guilty of this, and then wonder why they are not connecting with consumers. Arabic is a rich and diverse language with many regional variations and dialects. What is appropriate in one Arabic-speaking country may not be in another. By relying solely on basic translations, global brands risk alienating their target audiences by missing important cultural cues that are critical to successful communication.

Choose your bullseye 

The generational divides are real, no matter what country or region you live in. However, we see big disparities in the Middle East, which makes appealing to a wider audience demographic even more challenging.

Sixty per cent of millennials in the UK have kids, which means the other 40 per cent still share many commonalities with Gen Z. Compare that with Saudi, where 75 per cent of millennials are parents, with on average of 2-3 children per household. For a brand, this means trying to appeal to a 34-year-old mother of 4, and a 17-year-old male who still lives at home and goes to university, is almost impossible.

By trying to appeal to all, you will resonate with fewer. Choose your bullseye, be flexible so as not to alienate others, but stay true to who you are as a brand. 

Flex fast

Things are changing every day in every category. If a brand is being run globally, without a team on the ground in KSA, or an agency partner who understands the region, it will quickly become apparent. 

For example, the coffee culture in the country highlights the importance of adapting to new opportunities, especially with the lifting of segregation and the growing spending power of Gen Z. Brands relying solely on delivery and disregarding the in-store experience risk being left behind by younger consumers.  

In summary, to succeed in the dynamic Middle East market, brands must understand the region’s unique cultural context while finding ways to connect with younger audiences.