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Turn Muslim Consumersí Problems into Marketing Solutions

Understanding Muslim consumers and marketers, as with understanding any consumer or marketer group, requires a situated understanding

Published: Nov 30, 2011 06:12:42 AM IST
Updated: Nov 14, 2011 12:25:12 PM IST

Companies are discovering Muslims as consumers. According to Nazia Hussain, Director of Cultural Strategy at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, Muslim consumers total almost 1.8 billion people worldwide. The halal market, which refers to that which is permissible according to Islamic law, is worth $2.1 trillion.

Ogilvy Noor became the world’s first Islamic branding agency in 2010 and offers advice on how to build brands that appeal to Muslim consumers. The Ogilvy & Mather venture is one of several efforts to understand the Muslim market. Others are A.T. Kearney’s analysis, Addressing the Muslim Market (2007), JWT’s report, Understanding the Islamic Consumer (2009) and the annual American Muslim Consumers Conference. Oxford University’s Saïd Business School hosted its inaugural Islamic Branding and Marketing Forum in 2010.

Why the burgeoning interest in Muslim consumers? A number of social, cultural, political and economic developments are responsible. A Muslim middle class attentive to the values of Islam and interested in modern consumption is emerging. Innovative Muslim entrepreneurs blend religious principles and capitalist aspirations. Muslim believers see themselves more and more as a supranational community connected through values and lifestyles. New Islamic social movements such as the Turkish-based Gülen community are gaining social, economic and political power.

Executive Certificate in Global MarketingPost 9/11 forces shape the global political economy and international relations. What do these developments mean for global executives? How can managers take advantage of opportunities in the Muslim market? Although a large proportion of the Muslim population is poor, the number of consumers with sufficient purchasing power is significant. As with all new ventures and markets, it’s essential to spend time learning about customers and their contexts.

Özlem Sandıkcı of Bilkent University in Turkey and I have edited the Handbook of Islamic Marketing (Edward Elgar, 2011). This new book provides a timely, critical, and multidisciplinary approach to the intersection of Islam, consumption and marketing.

Our contributors include scholars, consultants and executives who cover topics ranging from fashion and food consumption to retailing, digital marketing, spiritual tourism, corporate social responsibility, and nation branding in the context of the Muslim marketplace. Analyses are based on in-depth surveys and ethnographic research. Some authors examine the relationship between morality, consumption, and marketing practices; others consider the implications of politics and globalization for Islamic markets.

The book investigates consumption and marketing practices in a varied range of Muslim majority and minority countries, including Australia, Bahrain, Iran, Malaysia, Tunisia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

Complex, dynamic and diverse
When looking for opportunities, executives should observe that the Muslim market, just like the “Hispanic market” or the “gay market,” is complex, dynamic, and diverse. A key message of the Handbook is that while Islam provides a set of ethical principles and values, how these are interpreted and negotiated in the everyday lives of consumers and marketers varies across time, contexts, and communities.  Likewise, Ogilvy Noor’s practice “focuses on helping brands understand and empathize with core Muslim values first, before tailoring that understanding to specific Muslim markets,” says Ogilvy & Mather’s Hussain.

One-size-fits-all-Muslim products are unlikely to deliver sustainable success. Segmentation based on religion has been a common approach to Islamic marketing. Yet it is related to a normative view of Islamic ethics — Islam as a set of rules unequivocally and indiscriminately followed by all Muslims. Executives should be cautious about halal as an approach to a Muslim market: different Muslims understand and practice halal differently.

In multiethnic countries, the marketplace is even more complex. Managers at Carrefour know this. In its Malaysian hypermarkets, managers work carefully with government officials to obtain the halal certification of products for Muslim consumers. A separate room exists for the display of non-halal products. When a consumer selects these products, they are placed in thick plastic bags to keep them separate from any halal products in the store.

However, Carrefour’s managers have learned that consumers expect to find certain products in particular locations. For example, it is advantageous to shelve a non-halal product like the alcohol-containing Kikkoman soy sauce next to all other soy sauces. Managers designed a green sticker, “contains alcohol,” to alert Muslim consumers who wish to avoid alcoholic ingredients in food products.

Generating solutions
Instead of starting by thinking of the “Muslim segment,” executives should focus on the daily practices or context for which a product or service might be relevant. Do consumers face any problems in that particular context? Managers should then generate solutions through the product’s design or usage. It can be more beneficial to emphasize solutions that help Muslims live proper Islamic lives rather than focusing attention only on achieving the “halal-ness” of products. Using the problem-solution approach, Ahiida Pty Ltd of Australia, marketed the “burqini,” (modest swimwear) to women who loved swimming but faced the problem of how to dress Islamically for the activity.

Digital media permit marketers to target Muslim consumers without overtly using religious identity to attract their attention. Regardless of customer religiosity, marketers can use digital media to integrate brand messages within lifestyle content in subtle ways on specialized websites: sports, fashion, technology and entertainment. In addition, Muslim-focused or ethnic media are already trusted by the potential customers.

Handbook contributor Mohamed El-Fatatry, named a Global Business Leader of Tomorrow by Chief Executive magazine in 2010, established Muxlim, the largest online lifestyle hub for Muslims worldwide, which reaches 10 million people a year, about one-quarter of them in the United States.

Wilson Sporting Goods Company ran a campaign on the Muxlim network encouraging Muslim basketball enthusiasts to share stories about players in the NCAA National Tournament. The user community rated, commented on, and promoted the campaign across different social media including Muslim-focused Facebook groups and Twitter. Online Muslim sports groups engaged with the campaign and contributed further information for consumption by the community. The campaign’s objective was to introduce Wilson as a brand of choice for Muslim consumers through association with things they cared about.

Muslim basketball players often don’t get significant exposure within the mainstream media. Wilson was able to bring their stories to Muslims and build brand affinity with Muslim youth through supporting and enhancing their passion for NCAA Basketball.

From Muslims to non-Muslims

It’s often possible subsequently to extend a brand’s demand from Muslims to non-Muslims. The burqini solves the problem of how to swim outdoors while protecting oneself form the sun. The burqini is “sunsafe swimwear” for non-Muslims.  Carrefour has discovered that non-Muslims prefer to buy halal meat products because of the safety and quality insured through the government-supervised certification process.

Understanding Muslim consumers and marketers, as with understanding any consumer or marketer group, requires a situated understanding. This contextual understanding goes beyond a focus on the differences inherent in the Muslim consumer. Instead, context emphasizes interactions and interrelationships with objects, people and places.

Differences can result in a misperception of uniqueness. In contrast, examining how consumers interact with objects and other people permits the generation of innovative, productive and sustainable solutions. “After all,” emphasizes Özlem Sandıkcı , Handbook co-editor, “we need to keep in mind that Muslim consumers are not only Muslim but consumers, and Muslim marketers are not only Muslim but marketers. Hence, our goal should be not to prioritize one term over the other but to focus on their co-constitutive relationship.”

Gillian Rice, Ph.D. is Professor Emerita at Thunderbird School of Global Management. She has published widely in international business, specifically in the areas of Islamic business ethics, the environmentally-responsible behavior of consumers, political risk, creativity, forecasting, and trade shows. During 1996-97, she was a Senior Fulbright Scholar at The University of Bahrain, which enabled her to focus on her special interest of marketing in the Middle East. She serves on the editorial boards of several academic journals and is a columnist for “Global Business and Organizational Excellence: A Review of Research & Best Practices.”

[This article has been reproduced with permission from Knowledge Network, the online thought leadership platform for Thunderbird School of Global Management]

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