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How cultural sensitivity can lead to ecommerce success in Arab countries

Arab businessman, ecommerce
in Retail and Ecommerce

Of the various global regions offering potential for international business growth, one of the most exciting is the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

This part of the world is home to a number of key markets where ambitious companies could find lucrative opportunities to expand their brand presence, particularly in the ecommerce space.

In terms of economic growth in general, MENA countries saw their collective GDP soar from just over US$967 billion (£706.7 billion) at the turn of the 21st century to more than US$3.14 trillion by 2016, according to World Bank figures.

This points to a general increase in business activity in the region over the past two decades, but as far as internet and digital trends are concerned, statistics on the use of languages online provide some interesting insights.

The growth of Arabic online

Arabic – which is either the first language or is widely spoken in key MENA markets such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Tunisia – is the fourth most commonly used language online, according to Internet World Stats. Even though it remains some way behind the top three – English, Chinese and Spanish – Arabic has experienced significant growth online in recent years.

In 2017, there were 219 million Arabic-speaking internet users, marking a 30 per cent increase from the figure of 168.2 million recorded in 2015. Furthermore, internet penetration – as a proportion of the Arabic-speaking population – increased from 44.8 per cent to 50.3 per cent over the same period.

These figures indicate that Arabic-speaking consumers are spending more time online and becoming increasingly reliant on the internet to find information, make purchases and manage their lives. As a result, there could be more opportunities opening up for businesses that are able to communicate in a way that resonates with audiences in the Arab world.

Engaging with Arab culture

Any international business with aspirations of tapping into expanding consumer markets in the Arab world needs to have a strong understanding of how people in this region communicate and the cultural norms and traditions they hold dear.

Where marketing and advertising are concerned, there are certain things companies should absolutely avoid so as not to offend Arab audiences or people of the Islamic faith. Big 'no-nos' – or things best avoided, at the very least – include: showing the consumption of alcohol; content that is overtly sexual or features displays of affection; language that could be considered offensive or disrespectful; and images of violent, disorderly or rowdy behaviour.

It's also important for foreign firms advertising in Arab countries to be aware of key dates and events in the religious calendar, to ensure they are showing respect for people's faith. For example, a food company launching a major new campaign during the holy month of Ramadan – when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset every day – could be a catastrophic mistake.

Having a strong awareness of the unique cultural characteristics of Arab nations is a vital first step for ecommerce businesses targeting expansion in the MENA region.

Equally important is the ability to use language and communicate in a way that feels natural and relevant to the market in question. If your company is hoping to establish and develop its brand in Arabic-speaking countries, there are significant benefits to be gained from working with a specialist language services provider to tailor your content to particular audiences.

Communicating and engaging with customers in foreign markets is about more than direct translation of existing material. Solutions such as localisation help to ensure that your messaging is in sync with local cultures, reflecting grammatical quirks, slang, unique expressions and other nuances.

MENA ecommerce opportunities

For those businesses that get their marketing and communication strategies right, it's clear there are big opportunities waiting to be seized in the MENA region.

According to a report published by regional online payment platform PayFort last year, the value of the ecommerce sector in the Middle East will double to more than $69 billion by 2020. The UAE and Saudi Arabia – valued at $27 billion and $22 billion respectively – are expected to be the most dominant markets.

A Gulf News report published in December 2017 cited the expansion of internet connectivity and the growth of smartphones as two key factors that are supporting the ongoing development of ecommerce.

As far as particular brands are concerned, many of those that have enjoyed success in the MENA region have shown a strong awareness of local customs, traditions and cultural quirks.

The Arab Business Review highlighted examples such as Vodafone's 'Fakka' (Arabic for small change) campaign in Egypt, which sought to solve a problem for retailers by replacing small change with mobile talk-time. A Nivea for Men campaign addressed the potential embarrassment some men in the Middle East might feel using sensitive grooming products by pushing the message that sensitivity and masculinity don't have to be mutually exclusive.

By taking a similar approach to recognising the defining characteristics of individual markets and using language to express how your product or service can help customers, your business could soon be on its way to great success in Arabic-speaking countries.

Image: mkitina4 via iStock

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