Why brands need to focus on cultural relevance to succeed in Saudi Arabia
Posted on 2023 Jul,17  | By Ahmed Saadoun

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Ahmed Saadoun, Senior Account Director, Virtue focuses on the importance of cultural relevancy for brands when they’re communicating in Saudi Arabia. He discusses some of the nuances that brands might not be aware of, and that need to be taken into consideration if they aim to create impactful messaging that resonates with the hearts and minds of the Kingdom’s culturally diverse audience.

The preserve of some of the region’s most ancient traditions and the epicentre of the Arab and Islamic world, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a shining new future with multidimensional changes sweeping the Kingdom – and global brands can grab the spectacular opportunities arising as a result.

But a critical element of the pathway for brands to stand out across the Kingdom is creating impactful messaging that resonates with the hearts and minds of a culturally diverse audience and spurs them to action – and navigating the complex cultural landscape of the Kingdom is not easy.

With an incredibly rich history shaped by the diversity of its people, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia boasts 13 regions united by the Arabic language, but each with its distinct dialect, traditions, heritage, and culinary identity.

In order for brands to truly localize their communications in the Kingdom, they must do their research and identify the city or region they wish to target, for example, in Asir Region when compared to Riyadh, Jeddah, Tabuk or the Eastern Province. Every region has its own local dialect, social customs, traditional food, and even its own musical style.

This disparate cultural identity of the Kingdom is united by the values shared by every Saudi citizen – the values of generosity, courage, hospitality, and maintaining strong social and family relationships.

This unique facet of Saudi society is a vital part of the communication strategy that brands from outside the Kingdom often overlook – and that’s why it is critical for them to invest in cultural relevancy when communicating to the wide cross section of Saudi markets. Saudi consumers can’t be spoken to in one message that targets everyone across the Kingdom – no matter how localised the messaging is to the market, it still needs to be refined and calibrated based on the audience and its locale.

This cultural outreach for brands must not only be earnest and authentic, but also be rooted in the ambitious reforms underway in the rapidly evolving Kingdom.

The Vision 2030 plan currently under robust implementation across the Kingdom aims to diversify the Saudi economy from its traditional dependence on hydrocarbons to promote an array of sunrise sectors such as tourism, archaeology, hospitality, cinema and entertainment, real estate, and sports – creating a vibrant society underpinned by shared values and diverse cultures.

To fully benefit from this bold phase of growth in the Kingdom, it is essential for brands to get an inside view of Saudi society and gain an accurate understanding of local cultural nuances. International brands must recognise that the Saudi society does not comprise a homogenous culture – they need to embrace the local cultural diversities at play across the regions.

For instance, the version of Arabic being used for the core messaging must be customised and based on the regional Saudi dialect of the audience that’s being targeted, for the brand communication to be effective and relevant. This requires brands to create multi-dialect versions of the same communication but with its own nuances – and it’s worth persevering on this one.

Fortunately, over the past decade, I have seen welcome changes across the advertising and communications industry in Saudi Arabia, which reflect this reality. Previously, brands would communicate to Saudi consumers in an aloof and formal manner that prioritised safe communication above everything else. This risk adverse approach obviously never produced the expected dividends.

In fact, ill-informed and culturally tone-deaf brand communications became something of a joke in the Kingdom – where brands imposed a strategy from outside without taking the time and effort to understand the nuances of the local market.

Since then, many brands have made the effort to create more bespoke communications that resonate better with Saudi consumers – but more work needs to be done.

For example, not many international brands are aware that the Arabic font has made major progress in becoming digital-friendly – whereas they still tend to use the default font with Google translated text when communicating to the region, which is an immediate turn off for most Saudi customers.

This cannot be the way forward: if brands want to successfully reach out to Saudi society, they must understand their diversity, their values, and their preferences in depth. Brands need to live in the Kingdom, localize itself, and mingle with Saudi citizens to understand the culture for themselves before crafting their messaging – mere vicarious research is not enough.

Ultimately, international brands looking for success in Saudi Arabia must become an expression not only of Saudi culture but also of regional customs and creativity.