Marketing in the Middle East: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Marketing in the Middle East is becoming the topic that a substaintial number of people are wondering about.  Targeting the consumer in the Middle East is not limited anymore to international companies, it is increasignly important for startups and mid-size companies in the region who are trying to expand across different countires in the Arab world. We are in the era of startups where everyone currently is having some sort of idea or services or even a talent that they need to market. Therefore, marketing in the Middle East is attractive topic and becoming a demand for everyone search for opportunity around here. I get it, it is one of the millennial generation’s lifestyle and thanks to the social media and its tools for small businesses.

Eventually, the world is currently living in the era of startups where everyone is having a talent or an idea and want to make a profit out of it. I can understand this, but why everyone thinks that marketing is the last thing to consider? That’s what I cannot understand!!

The Middle East region is rapidly evolving, especially in the last 5 years, and getting highly influenced by the global trends such as e-commerce, business entrepreneurship, media and fashion influencers, and brands lifestyle products.

We might be able to confirm that the region is emerging fast and everyone including individuals is looking for jumping on board, yet marketing will be always a challenge that is everyone is struggling with.

Apparently, you cannot have a straight vision which can answer all the questions when you are establishing your marketing staretgy for the Middle East. That’s why I would like to invite you for a nice ride (I hope) to explore this market and to understand the nature of the consumer around here.

First, do you like western movies? This is some kind of metaphors I will encotuner. Yet, if you don’t get it you can still ignore and you will miss nothing.

The Good

The Middle East market is huge

The Middle East is rising as one of the fastest-growing markets and it is becoming more attractive due to some major factors.

  • Demographic structure of the region is playing a big role with approximately half of the population in Middle Eastern countries are currently under the age of twenty-five. Yay, young and energetic.
  • This young segment is spending more time on social media more than  the global average. Therefore, there is a great opportunities for marketers to use social media and content marketing especially for industries such as consumer products, fashion, food & beverage, and entertainment.
  • In the Gulf area, many of these younger consumers are affluent professionals, and this presents a big market for luxury brands and electronics. In marketing language this means a higher customer value and higher revenue per customer. Sophistcally, higher Return on Ad Spend (ROAS).

While some countries in the region are facing economic instability, the market is still having low taxation compared to the European markets. Lovely fact: The region has the highest spending on cosmetics per capita in the world and the appetite for beauty and fashion products is getting bigger. Tempting!

Easy to segment

The Arab consumers are relatively easy to segment and you need less efforts to identify the customer persona. However, If you are going to use traditional surveys, then it is a bad idea. The Arabs, in general, are unlike other nations and they are more conservative about sharing their honest feedback. Not to metnion the absent of solid market researches. You are alone in a vast dry desert of data.

Monitoring trends and tracking the social media engagement are more effective tactics to define the key motivations for your potential customers. Furthermore, proper data-driven approaches can definitely get you the insights you need. But, if you know how to collect data smartly not by portion.

consumer research arabic

Finally, localize your apporach. This doesn’t mean localization of your marketing content and campaigns, but effective localization of your marketing strategy for the the Middle East. Channels, creatives, user experince and all. I am not talking about translation. It is all about the culture. If you don’t have locals who are crafting your marketing message, then you need to hire someone who is expert with the local culture, slangs, and trends.

Common marketing tactics are effective

Some of the well-established brands are using the same marketing tactics in the region for decades and guess what? It is still working.

When I was in the advertising business someone told me an interesting story: “Back in the early 90s we had a meeting with P&G and they rejected many new creative ideas for a new campaign. The reason is that they believe that the Egyptian consumers only engage with the Ads that contains a song. Simply they didn’t want the campaign to be focused on the product features and wanted it more entertaining”. They eventually did have a good understanding of the market and made the choice to stick to what it works. Now, which is 20 years later, you would still see that advertisers didn’t change their tactic. They only adjusted it to fit with the digital media platforms but the tactic is still the same.

Common advertising and campaign tactics are still effective for the mass consumer in the Middle East. The consumers in the region are highly influenced by the media and mass campaign over the personalized experiences. A viral campaign is widely effective in shaping the consumer habits and it works for big brands, media production, and even politicians.

The Bad

The social concerns

arabic consumerThere is one important factor you need to fully understand about the Arab consumer and never forget. Arabs are highly influenced by the social concerns. They tend usually to buy the things that recommend by their circle of friends and family while putting fewer efforts on exploring the specific features of a product. Surprised? well it is even more. The regional consumer tend to buy products to gain a higher social class appearance. Yeah, to some degree this happens everywhere, but it is bigger over here.

The majority of consumers in the Middle East are trapped in trendy and fashionable brands and desperate to be part of one social group or another. They are suffering from an inability to choose based on their individual needs as this might lead to a prejudgment by the society and their circle of friends. Maintaining a certain social image is a quiet big concern which highly affects the consumer habits in the region.

If you are wondering about where the big brands are exceeding in creating a fashionable brand image? You will need to spin the world map and land in the Middle East. You might not find every girl wearing Nike shoes like in Singapore, but you will find that moving up in your social class requires an iPhone. Arabs don’t just believe it is fashionable, they believe it a star added to their exclusivity. If you are selling a product with high quality but it is not a fashionable trendy product, then you are going to struggle. Big time!

marketing in the middle east brands

Marketing tactics: How to build a marketing campaign in such market? My advice for you is to try to build up a group of loyal customers and create a very personalized email campaign. Focus on this small base of customers and make them feel exclusive and spoil them. Don’t rush the growth and position your brand with fabulous marketing materials such as high-quality videos. Grow your segment gradually using an effective social media engagement and never forget to maintain important factors such as excellent customer support, loyalty programs, CRM, and retargeting tactics.

Lack of standards

Marketers in the mature markets such as some European regions are highly considered about the conservative consumer who tend to read and check the specifications in order to compare services/brands before they make a decision and convert. The Middle East is considered as a region of emerging markets with less concern of critical thinking and product comparison practices. A quick tour in the most popular e-commerce websites would help you to understand that the number of product reviews is relevantly lower than most of the global markets.

If you are selling for the Germans, you should be ready with very dense product description and very caution with the customers’ feedback. Montioring the customers opinion is very painful process for a conservative consumer who tend to have high standards and highly concerned about reviews. In the Middle East, this is not exactly the case. Arab consumer are shopping because they just enjoy it. It is not a plan or investment, it is an entertainment. Huge difference in consumer behaviour. Keep that in mind.

Marketing tactics: Branding and marketing message are the most sensitive marketing materials you need to consider when you are releasing a product for Arabs. Build a campaign that will make your brand stand out in the market and always deliver your USPs in straightfoward and easily consumed ways. The landing pages should carry out a clear message up front and avoid any lengthy descriptions. Simplify your approach, aim well and hit right in spot. Push aggressively on offers and the Arabic consumer will go banana. They never disappionted my KPIs during the seasons.

The Ugly

Consumerism at its peak

The consumerism is drastically changing the lifestyle of the local consumer in Arab countries. Consuming more might sound like a great opportunity for businesses to market, but that’s not true and you have to think about it again. Consuming more of the cosmetic doesn’t mean a great opportunity for you to open your state-of-art cosmetic. The well-established brands will absorb this growth by producing a variety of products and acquiring small companies. Big brands are eating most of the cake down here.

Over the years we were able to witness how the local investors were filling the malls, the store shelves and road billboards with western brands,  leaving a tighter window for the consumer to browse the alternative products. The biggest local firms are investing heavily and there are few big players who are dominating the malls and international brands. From fashion to beauty, F&B, media production, electronics and even resturants it is a closed game. Amazon jumped in and acquired Souq.com to dominate the e-commerce in the region. The top players are manging the game.

That’s the ugly fact about the Middle East market; the consumers are surrounded by big brands which are massively funded by local investors (The Gulf money). The consumer will end up consuming more of the same item or same brand instead than being open to alternatives and new experiences.

Don’t be deceived by the initial figures about the market size and charts of your sector or industry. Don’t launch your business model and marketing strategy based on these tricky stats. If you don’t dig deeper into the market insights and adapt your strategy considering the price-sensitive consumer, you could lose a vast amount of time and resources.

Consumerism is also changing the lifestyle of the consumer and instead of satisfying people’s needs it is constructing commercial needs and desires to keep the production growth. In a country like Lebanon, you would see that some consumer tend to buy a piece of branded clothes instead of buying normal varieties of outfits. In Egypt, some would buy an iPhone even if it is beyond their ability.

Marketing tactics: If you want to conduct an effective strategy for marketing in the Middle East, you shouldn’t only focus on the factors you developed your product based on. It is more like a “Blue Ocean strategy” where you need to focus on how to brand your product. In other words, it is not quality concern, it is differentiation.

Moreover, it is important to know that Arabic consumer interact with the promotion campaign more than they do interact with the product itself. They will have higher awareness about the piece of the advertising than the product name. Make sure you campaigns are effective and delivers strong message.

Controlled by brands

UAE Top Rankings
UAE Top Rankings

Brands are turning into symbols of lifestyle and exclusivity in the region which is bringing huge struggles for startups and SMBs. Back in the 80s, the market had the first wave of international brands which boomed in the recent years. The brands’ big investments and the massive advertising made the local brands lose a huge chunk of the market share. Some of the local brands started to change their strategy and try to become more specialized and localized, but the ugly truth that many of them are exiting the market.

We have seen many creative and out-the-box solutions joining the market but after a while, they discover that the local consumer is more attracted by the international brand. Here we come to a major issue which is the marketing investment. These huge budgets play a big role in the game and eventually the marketing know-how of these big brands will give them always an edge.

Recently, I’ve wondered why all girls in Arab countries are wearing a “Datejust” Rolex? I found out that most of them are wearing a fake copy. They still would prefer to wear a fake copy of a big brand than going for another Swiss brand like Swatch. I wouldn’t call this as a final resolution but I can see that local brands are struggling to grow in industries such as beauty, fashion, and retail.

Marketing tactics: Don’t compete with the big brand and build a strategy that can help you identify the gaps. Use gorilla digital strategies and maximize the use of data insights. Establish organic acquisition channels with your SEO and Social Media to decrease your advertising needs. Build an extensive content strategy and gain the client confidence by being a reliable source of information.

Influencer marketing is the key to success in the region. To get people to trust your product or services you need to influence them with a celebrity or opinion leader or media advocate. This works much better than building a creative concept for your marketing campaign. When Vodafone wanted to beat the competitors in the Egyptian market, they hired Mo Salah and that’s it.

Is not a startup-friendly

For decades, marketers always wonder why startups are able to drive vast growth in the U.S. market while it is diffcult to grow in other enviroments. I believe that the nature of the market and the consumer behavior is the key. In contrast, Arabs don’t tend to try new solutions or services to fulfill their needs. Once you launch a new app or product, then you will generate a niche segment which is not enough to sustain your growth plans. This is Have been the main struggle for the majority of startups in the region I have consulted.

I know that there are tons of articles and figures about how the Middle East is becoming a big hub for startups, and I don’t disagree with that. Yet, when I get to sit with a lot of entrepreneurs I am always getting the same complaints: We are able to fund the business but the marketing is an issue. How to increase our market share? How to expand in the region? and many more of these utopian questions…

Let’s say the answer to this is pretty simple. The consumer habits in emerging markets requires much more than a creative idea. The business model should have room for adoption and product changes to be able to survive. The key here is not the consumer needs but the business model flexibility and ability to evolve.

Marketing tactics: Don’t rely only on the product and find ways to communicate the benefits. Reshape your marketing message to provide a compelling message. Open your platform or product for demos, gifts, samples, test drives and influencers. Be realistic and market what you can deliver. Don’t focus on going viral and focus on building more effective campaigns. Use data analytics effectively to feed your CRM then get it connected with online analytics. You need to master your own funnel and to gain a better understanding of the buyer’s persona.

In conclusion: Marketing in the Middle East has its gaps which you can benefit from. To launch an effective marketing strategy for the Middle East markets you need first to have a solid base of information about the market possibilities. Understanding the consumer doesn’t come right away from published statistics or conducting surveys, it requires running intensive researches in order to get the proper business analysis.

Finally, while social media is one of the best channels to generate leads for conducting marketing in the Middle East, but yet I still believe that content is the king.  Organic is the best method to generate leads on the long-term and at a lower cost per acquisition.

Arabic SEO Guide: How to Generate Organic Traffic in the Middle East

Arabic SEO is the most cost-effective approach to generate organic traffic in the Middle East region. Building a sustainable long-term organic reach is a cornerstone of every marketing strategy and that’s why Arabic SEO will be always the key access to online acquisition in the Middle East.

In the Arabic region, there are an estimated 146 Milion Internet users who are native speakers and commonly searching for nearby local services and products. We have been seeing high competition on geographic keyterms in English optimization for websites but the space in Arabic SEO still not mature.

In the last few years, digital marketing budgets in the region were mainly focused on social media organic traffic without paying attention the importance of SEO. This year, the new Facebook update for business pages are taking us back to the point where we need to get back to search engines as an important source for generating organic leads.

In this article, I will provide the best practices for Arabic SEO and how to expand your upper funnel with organic traffic.

1. Build an Effective Arabic SEO Strategy

a. Understanding the Arab Consumer: According to a research by Harvard Busines Review, the companies that gloss over the interplay between culture and religion ignore a critical factor for success in the Middle East region.The Arab consumer is unique in terms of search habits which is commonly impacted by culture and religion.

b. Local Market Research: Separate the region into different sections and define your top market that you will need to optimize for. If your top market is UAE or KSA this will require optimizing your content and keywords to match the locals top relevant keywords.

c. Language and Cultural Awareness: Optimize your website for the audience considering the local traditions and more importantly the cultural impact and implication of your marketing actions. Understand the relevant marketing messages, slangs, trends and more importantly how the language you are using localized into Arabic

d. Competitive Research: Conduct an extensive research on the top competitors in the market and analyze their current keywords ranking, domain authority, backlinks, and competitions level. Understand the landscape to identify the gaps in the content and to plan for the best approach.

Arabic SEO strategy Market Research

2. Optimize for Native Arabic Keywords

a. Arabic Keyword Research: Start with conducting an advanced research to find the most relevant keywords. It is not enough to extract the top relevant keywords based on the monthly volume. Collect a list of relevant terms used by your offline clients, sales teams and customer support and include it in your final list. Conduct an extensive filtration for your final list and divided it into (Transactional, Branded, Relevant, Informational, etc.).

b. Arabic Keywords Localization: DO NOT TRANSLATE KEYWORDS. Localize the keywords to avoid targeting ineffective terms. Usually, companies translate keywords from English into Arabic and they end up with losing a huge amount of relevant traffic. Example: The word “hospitality” translation would refer to “generosity” in Arabic culture which is totally misleading. The translation for some terms sometimes are transcripted in Arabic and not directly translated.

While localizing your Arabic Keywords pay attention to the fact that slangs are different for each Arabic country. Make sure your keywords are the most relevant for the local targeted market.

3. Fully Optimize The Arabic Website Content

a. Arabic On-Page Optimization: Avoid translating your Meta Data and use a professional native SEO copywriter to develop native titles and meta descriptions. Inherit your localized keywords properly into your Meta Tags and HTML content and don’t stick to the English SEO structure. Optimize all the media to include Arabic alt descriptions to be able to generate the top ranking under Google Images Search and Videos.

If you are an eCommerce business, it is highly important to localize your product related content using Arabic keywords including shopping cart, product description, images, videos, etc.

b. Arabic On-Site Optimization: Make sure you are using proper language tags into your multilingual website. Technically, it is not important to translate the URLs into Arabic, while avoiding duplicated content is highly important. Make sure you check your website for broken links and sitemap to avoid any redirections to English content.

c. Local Domain: Local domain play a big role in obtaining a higher rank in local SERPs. Choose a local domain name for your Arabic site such as (.ae, .com.eg, etc.) to maximize your benefits from the local search in the Arabic region.

4. Develop Content Marketing Strategy

a. Create Content for Targeted Keywords: To enhance your keywords ranking, you will need a long-term content strategy which fuels your website with optimized Arabic content. Don’t rely on localized landing pages and build content to support your ranking growth.

b. Answer the Questions Used in Search Quieres: One of the most effective tactics for Arabic SEO is to extract all the relevant questions that commonly used in search queries or social media and provide answers. Longtails keywords and answers to consumer questions play an important role in conversion rate for the organic traffic especially in Arabic region due to the lack of technical and informative Arabic content.

5. Verify your Local Business

Google My Business (GMB) listing is an important first step for a successful local SEO strategy. Verify your local business can increase your chances of showing up in Google’s local search and Google Maps.

local seo in Arabic

5. Setup your Arabic SEO Tools

a. Track Regionally: The best practice to track effectively is to setup your Google Analytics and SEO tools for your Arabic website separately. Majoirty of SEO tools provide different domain analysis and keywords ranking for your local websites.

b. Use Local Metrics: Each region has different online behavior which requires different metrics in order to track your KPIs effectively. Test and customize your metrics based on the regional factors to gain the knowledge required for your marketing strategy in the Middle East.

Conclusion: In the last 12 years I worked with over 50 Arabic SEO projects and I strongly believe that the Arabic SEO is one of the most successful approaches for a long life customer acquisition in the Middle East. I would always consult companies to allocate more budget for organic channels instead of only focusing on paid search and social media advertising. The proven track of successful results over the years is always leading to the fact that Arabic SEO is the most cost-effective investment for digital marketing activities in the region.

We are back now to the game where social media reach and advertising impressions are not as agencies imagined. Companies are now raising the need for better conversion rates across all the digital campaigns. The secret about Arabic SEO that the competition is still not high regionally due to poor content translation, lack of Arabic content and focusing on AdWords instead of developing organic growth. Those who are well optimized and developing their Arabic SEO will invest less and gain more in the game of digital marketing for this region.

If you have any questions or want to review and audit your Arabic SEO, check my digital marketing consultancy services.