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5 Marketing Myths in Saudi Arabia

too handsome saudi man

Translating Saudi Arabia, Refresher for International Advertisers and Agencies

  |   CultureShocks Blog

Saudi Arabia is a huge market that represents rich opportunities for international brands. It is, however, a market whose culture and identity are sometimes misperceived by brands and media alike, which often stereotype. Take the example of the recent “Men Too Sexy for Saudi” news reports. Here are some common misconceptions.

Myth #1. No provocation. Provoking the imagination of consumers is the essence of many marketing campaigns. Without it, brands wouldn’t get much attention, and this rule holds true for Saudi Arabia. But how far can you go in what’s assumed to be a culturally and politically very conservative country? The slightest hint of innuendo on behalf of a global brand might be seen as unacceptable imperialism or lewd indecency, and fall at the hands of the censor. Yet highly provocative advertising developed by local agencies can drive social change by challenging attitudes and mores, such as the Rahma (Mercy) campaign against domestic abuse, particularly of foreign workers, and the recent No More Abuse campaign decrying violence against women.

Myth #2. Sex doesn’t sell. Whatever the official culture or politics of a place, there is a universal desire for women to be appealing, promoting values such as women empowerment, aspiration and education. The key in Saudi Arabia is to remain sufficiently “under the radar”. An example of a successful, cheeky campaign was the one run for lingerie brand “Change”, which was distributed via online and point-of-sales media only. This cleverly pokes fun at the censors while simultaneously staying within the actual rules of censorship.

Myth #3. Middle East: one culture and one language. Most Arab countries abide by “classical Arabic” for both spoken and written forms of the language. But each country follows different linguistic conventions on the local level, with different culture-specific interests – just take a look at the most commonly searched terms across the region to see that brands who treat the region as a homogeneous whole do so at their peril. In fashion for instance, Saudi women long for luxury designer Abaya and Thawbs, whereas the current trend in Egypt is Arabic slogan T-shirts. This is a reflection of growing patriotism following the recent political uprising.

Myth #4. Cars and women are not a good match. While currently women are not allowed to drive, the issue is not as clearcut as it is sometimes thought. It is the focus of heated debate at the top levels of government and society in Saudi Arabia, as they understand that the issue has a negative impact on the country’s image abroad. It may be time to prepare marketing efforts for this enormous untapped market in case the opportunity opens up.

Myth #5. It’s all bling bling. The luxury market in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East is huge, not just for the rich elite, but also for an emerging middle class with increased spending power for lifestyle goods. But this doesn’t mean that only shiny will sell – in fact, IKEA (despite its well-documented airbrush gaffe) is very popular precisely because it offers a more restrained, unflashy approach to furniture.

In summary, being too provocative can backfire, and being too conservative can lose the audience’s attention and be a waste of money. For maximum payout, there’s no perfect rule book to follow. Most important is to observe closely what’s happening on the ground, take carefully assessed risks, and get a strong grip early on about how your message is likely to resonate. For help navigating cross-cultural differences, contact us.