Why are marketers in the Middle East failing to localise their strategy?

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By Alex Malouf, Chair, Europe, Middle East and North Africa, the International Association of Business Communicators

Remember that tagline from HSBC, “The world’s local bank”? The word local was a powerful expression back in 2002, when the emerging world was grappling with globalisation and all of its associated challenges.

Today, in a world where global brands are ubiquitous and are present in virtually every country and locale, there’s an increasing appetite for local messaging and content.

Don’t take my word for it. Research from the Globalisation and Localisation Association (Gala) reveals some powerful consumer insights into the need for a localised approach to marketing.


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The first is that 56.2 per cent of consumers say the ability to obtain information in their own language is more important than price.

The second is that 95 per cent of Chinese online consumers indicate a greater comfort level with websites in their language; only one per cent of US-based online retailers offer sites specific to China (this learning could just as easily be applied to the Arabic language in the Middle East).

Even as I look through my social media feeds this morning, it’s noticeable how many campaigns have that “copy and paste” feel to them, as if someone has just inserted a desert background and translated the Arabic.

There are few marketing professionals who don’t understand the importance of localisation (and if they don’t, they shouldn’t be working in marketing).

Whilst we may appreciate its importance to our consumers and stakeholders, why aren’t we doing a better job of crafting campaigns and content that resonates with our audiences in the region? For me, there are two basic answers.

Localisation of marketing roles

We have a particular challenge in terms of getting more locals to join the marketing industry.

It’s a simple argument to be made, in that the more our organisations mirror our consumer base, the higher the probability that we’ll be able to understand these consumers and then develop campaigns specifically for them.

Hubs such as Dubai face a particular problem in terms of being able to attract both Arab-speaking talent as well as local talent from the Gulf.

This is an issue the industry has to address, both by looking to attract talent from across the Gulf and the wider Middle East region (markets such as Saudi and, to a lesser extent, Bahrain and Oman, are full of talented nationals who want to make the move into the private sector), as well as working longer term with local universities to develop the marketing skills of young nationals, promote the potential of joining the creative industry and promote research into marketing across MENA.

I can’t recall the last time I discussed the issue of student engagement with a senior marketing professional here, and this has to change if we’re going to get better at crafting locally relevant content and campaigns based on local insights.

One market stands out for the quality of its local content. Love them or loathe them, Egyptian ads and copy are distinctive and are designed primarily by Egyptian marketing professionals for Egyptian consumers.

It’s more difficult to find a copy or marketing campaign aired in Egypt that has been adapted for the local market than it is in the Gulf. There’s much the Gulf and, in particular, Dubai, could learn from how their Egyptian counterparts take a product or service and craft campaigns that are uniquely Egyptian in their messaging.


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The use of technology

Technology has revolutionised how marketers work. It’s given us ways and means to take a single message and personalise it for a mass audience.

We’ve long talked about personalised marketing, by which marketing professionals leverage data analysis and digital technology to deliver individualised messages and product offerings to customers.

One-to-one marketing used to be limited to emailers and website advertising, but now includes social media.

Add in augmented and virtual reality, and we have a host of channels and means through which we can personalise messages, either for different consumer types or for individual customers themselves.

IT has given us a whole new box of localisation toys to play with and, yet, few firms and marketers are picking up the mantle and exploring how best to use these tools.

Are marketers in the region not tech-savvy enough to be able to make the most of the data at their disposal? Or are firms not even realising the importance of collecting data that’ll help them to better reach and serve their customers?

Is it trust in online analytics and the need for third-party reporting? (At least we have re- porting for our online activities, unlike with TV and print where there are few independent measurement tools.)

The use of digital platforms and new technologies may provide a means to help with localising campaigns, but the initial investments in creating content in local languages and the need to understand consumer insights at a local level remain.

Technology is still an enabler and we’re still the ones who should be conceiving campaigns and asking the questions of our consumers to get to the insights that matter.

The question remains: Why are we still failing to localise our marketing? Is it because we lack enough marketers who are from the region and who have experience here, from places such as Saudi?

Are we still not savvy enough with new technologies that can help us to better under- stand our consumers’ data? Or are we under pressure to turn around global campaigns in too short a time frame needed to localise the content?

Your answer is as good as mine.

The article appeared in the Dec 2017-Feb 2018 issue of Gulf Marketing Review.