Rethinking Arabic for global brands

Like Spanish, Arabic poses a tough challenge to digital brands providing localized experiences. Arabic ranks as the seventh most important online language, with a total audience of 166 million and online gross domestic product (GDP) of $1.7 trillion in 2016. But just as nobody speaks “universal Spanish,” the Arabic used today in homes, on the street and in corporate settings is not a single language. Global companies must make tough decisions about how to roll out campaigns to Arabic speakers in multiple geographies.

Arabic is best understood as a network of related languages 

The languages actually used in conversation, social networks, messaging and content marketing are not Classical Arabic. Instead, they reflect the great variety of cultures, regions and countries where the language spread, naturalized and picked up words and concepts from both colonial and local languages. Each company will want to adopt a different regional variant strategy depending on its industry norms as well as its own brand, channel strategy, budgets and international marketing capabilities.

Common Sense Advisory (CSA Research) recommends a staged approach beginning with a single version and gradually expanding to as many variants as budgets and operations allow. Here is the sequence:

Newbies can begin with a single language. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) has a stuffy reputation but can work for business-to-business (B2B) brands. The problem is that it’s nobody’s mother tongue. MSA’s formal idiom won’t convey intimacy or local flavor, but many brands use it in customer and corporate communications. Content in this language is acceptable everywhere to convey basic information. The alternative is to start with a national language from your biggest Arabic speaking market. Luxury and other B2B brands focused on the lucrative markets in the Gulf states can pick a Saudi-styled variant.

Brands with an entertainment flair can use Egyptian Arabic. To convey a modern, techy or media-savvy flavor, some brands pick the Egyptian dialect. Due to the influence of movies and television made in that country in the last half-century, much of the Arabic-speaking world is familiar with this vernacular. However, Egyptian Arabic does not speak to conservative people in other countries shielded from popular culture — or to younger people who grew up as digital natives, not watching much television. Even with Egyptian, make sure your translators and copywriters know you want a relaxed, accessible voice, not a formal one.

Big brands cover Arabic markets with two separate variants. Marketers aiming for return from their localization efforts can develop separate variants for the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean-focused regions (green versus blue countries in Figure 1). This two-pronged approach dovetails easily with persona-based marketing, allowing conservative language in the traditionally closed cultures in the Gulf, versus the more open and European-influenced societies clustered around the Mediterranean.

Sophisticated marketers can adopt five regional variants. While this approach taxes localization resources and requires extra process controls, it brings the language closer to the intended audience. Brands crossing the chasm from the two-variant model to national-level dialects can use this five-region approach as a transitional step. At this point, digital content is recognizable as locally oriented and reads or sounds tailored to the audience. The largest market provides the language of choice for each region.

Ultimate solution: take Arabic to the national level. The 27 countries where Arabic plays a role all entail unique vocabulary and usage, due to admixtures of local languages and differing influences from ex-imperial languages, including English, French, Italian, Persian and Spanish, depending on the region. Carmakers and luxury brands often use national-level lingo in slogans and campaigns. Digital marketers producing localized content experiences should follow suit.

Not all content requires the local touch

While car commercials feature a local accent, the manual in the glove box is written in MSA. Local adaptation is important, but it does not apply in every case. Savvy marketers will go more local on some material, and less for other content. The first step is in understanding that there is a difference. To be successful in local markets in the Arab world, marketing and localization teams must develop specific resources and process adjustments to allow for the mosaic of regional variants to help the brand, not hurt it.

The data used in this article, and the subsequent recommendations, are based on primary research of annual benchmarks for online languages