By Hind Hassan, Content and Media Lead, ForwardPMX MENA
Expanding digitally to global markets has become a top priority for many brands over the past few years, and this trend has accelerated particularly over the last twelve months. As more of the world went online through COVID-19, brands were focused on bringing their products meaningfully into new markets filled with customers who were eager to spend.
While entering new markets can be complex, there are countless benefits that make the up front effort and education worthwhile – like getting in ahead of the competition in the right way, in some cases, lower costs of materials, and overall revenue gains in some potentially very lucrative markets.
Expanding to the Middle East specifically has become a point of interest for many businesses being that it’s one of the fastest growing e-commerce markets in the world. Although it’s not yet as developed or as complex as other western markets, there is undeniable growth that is intriguing for brands looking to expand.
Like any new market, it is important to get it right from the start. Countless brands will fall into the same trap of hoping to replicate successful business strategies that worked in other markets. After all, it’s tempting to think, ‘why fix what’s not broken? If it worked in the U.S. or Europe, it will surely work in the Middle East’. This, of course, doesn’t apply, even within countries in the Middle East, as each country has its own unique culture, dialect, consumer behaviours and habits.
For brands looking to expand into the Middle East, and specifically in GCC markets, there are a few key areas to consider which are outlined below:
Use of “Correct” Language
The Arabic Language is one of the most widely used languages in the world, spoken officially in 22 countries and as many as 422 million people. However, none of these countries use Modern Standard Arabic (short “MSA”) in everyday life - except for schools and universities, official communications, books, news broadcasts, magazines and newspapers. In fact, everyone grows up with a distinctive dialect. Localisation for digital marketing is not only about translating content into different languages, it is about understating the message, the target and the brand. It’s also about choosing the correct and relevant terms while maintaining creativity.
As an example, it’s noticeable that trending fashion items as well as makeup products (i.e. off the shoulder tops or highlighter and contour) have a much higher search volume when transliterated and not translated.
While there’s not always a clear pattern as to why some terms have a higher search volume in plural and others in singular, it’s important to be aware of this, given that in Arabic, plural terms are spelled completely different that singular and treated as different terms entirely – different from English, where both get picked up as the same terms within Google’s Keyword Planner.
Consumer Search Behaviour
When searching in Arabic, people usually don’t get into detail. Search terms are often much more general, usually consisting of one or two words. This is different to English searches, for example, which are much more specific and often include on average 3 to 5 words. Additionally, each Arab country/region has its own dialect that varies from others. There are a few similarities between Arabic dialects, but on the whole, it is very different. To categorize, it could be divided into – GCC, Egypt, Levant and North Africa, and this has to be taken into consideration when localizing a website or simply when creating ads.
For example, when searching for a fashion product or items in Arabic, it’s common to search by style and color rather than occasion, cut or size. This of course means that the website structure may need to be reconsidered when marketing to a MENA audience, as a category such as “Prom Dresses” won’t be searched for as much as “Evening Dress”. MENA users would struggle to relate and ultimately find it difficult to navigate the website with many detailed categories for every cut, fabric, occasion and style, similar to what’s more commonly used in UK.
Seasonal Marketing Calendar
Consumers in the Middle East are extremely responsive to seasonal promotions, therefore mapping out marketing efforts to align with national and religious holidays is very important and a great opportunity for potential revenue gains. Moreover, taking note of upcoming key events in the region is important to expand brand recognition in each market. Promoting an irrelevant occasion to the region could potentially harm the brand and have a negative impact that will ultimately lead to a loss in consumer trust.
Payments and Delivery
Common payments methods in the Middle East and specifically GCC countries are the same as any global retail sites, however what is very different about the MENA region that brands may not be familiar with is the “Cash on Delivery” (COD) option, as well as some local prepaid debit cards. COD plays a significant role in fuelling the growth of e-commerce in the region due to the low credit card penetration rates and lack of trust in paying online.
Another service that is becoming more popular is “Fast delivery” with some brands offering deliveries within 2-3 hours. This is of course extremely convenient for many people who don’t have the time to go shopping in a mall or have a last-minute purchase to make, so it’s worth bearing in mind that a MENA consumer may come to expect this level of customer service.
In addition to the above “must have methods”; and with the breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic, new delivery and payment methods were introduced in the region such as Contactless delivery and Contactless Payments, in which the customer receives their delivery with minimal to zero contact with the driver.
The Middle East represents a critical expansion opportunity for many brands, with digital acceleration alive and flourishing across the region. But it’s equally critical for brands to do the proper research to ensure they’re meeting MENA consumers with a relevant experience of their brands and products – whether this means doing small tests or putting in the extra time and resources early on to gain significant learnings before launching more widely, it’s important to understand the nuances and that consumer expectations will be different than in other areas of the world.
Opinions in this piece belong to the author