lots of rugs - Market Leader 2011

What Muslim consumers expect

What Muslim consumers expect

 In this exploration of the world of the Muslim consumer, Miles Young outlines the important features marketers should understand. It is ironic that the standards that Muslim consumers expect from companies and brands should be the drivers of enlightened Western practice: brands should be sincere, honest, friendly and committed to improving life. What’s not to like?

 The Muslim market is bigger than the market in India or China, yet it receives a tiny fraction of the attention. And it is not just that the numbers are there, but the value is also. The GDP of the five large Middle Eastern countries is the same size as India’s, but on a population that is one-third of it.

Most global enterprises, whether from the West or the East, have a BRIC strategy. But many are starting to look at the Next Eleven (N11) countries (Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Turkey and Vietnam) as having a high potential of becoming the world’s largest economies in the 21st century along with the BRICs. And 53% of the population of the N11 countries are Muslim.

Muslim countries have some of the youngest populations in the world. There are more than 750 million Muslims under the age of 25, representing 43% of the global Muslim population, and 11% of the world’s. But the numbers alone do not tell the whole story.

From the 1970s we have witnessed an Islamic Renaissance, perhaps as profound as its European counterpart of the 16th century. The reassertion of thought and culture that this has produced, at a time of technological change, means that this is an active, creative and innovative constituency, and one that is on the move. It is also one from which we in the West can learn.

There are two challenges that Western marketers face when contemplating this opportunity. The first is that global enterprises still operate within matrix structures in which the primary axis is geographic. However, the Islamic world is a powerful vertical segment that unifies attitudes and behaviours, but not always by geography.

This causes significant issues of sponsorship within organisations. Where does the Islamic conscience rest? I suspect it will increasingly be with global product management, another vertical function. Now if it is anywhere at all, it is within local markets in product management. In other words, the big transition needs to be from a local/tactical function to a global/strategic one.

The second challenge is the tendency of the marketing and advertising industry to see the Muslim market as just another segment. In this mindset, it becomes equated with ‘greys’ or the ‘pink dollar’.

Of course, all these are valid targets for segmentation strategies, but the Islamic opportunity differs qualitatively. We are not looking at a segment that is qualified by one primary difference, be it age, orientation, language or skin colour, and then whether or not attitudes and behaviour vary from a norm. We are looking at an alternative norm, one where the starting point is Islamic identity and everything else is secondary. An American Muslim is a Muslim first and an American second. An American grey is an American first, and grey is a qualifier. Much of the conventional marketing canon does not cope intellectually with the Islamic opportunity.


Despite the heterogeneity of the Muslim countries with majority or significant minority populations, Islam bonds their daily lives and consumption habits through the centricity of faith. Muslims’ belief in the significance of Islam in their lives is pervasive.

In the mammoth Gallup survey conducted from 2001 to 2007 in more than 35 countries the number-one response for more than 90,000 Muslims when asked what they most admired about the Islamic world was ‘people’s sincere adherence to Islam’. It is the word ‘sincere’ that needs to be added to the traditional lexicon of marketing practice.

At Ogilvy & Mather, we have created a branding consultancy, called Ogilvy Noor, staffed by Muslims from our offices around the world, to help global clients do exactly that. We define Islamic Branding as ‘branding that’s empathetic to Shariah values, in order to appeal to the Muslim consumer, ranging from basic Shariah friendliness to full Shariah compliance in all aspects of a brand’s identity, behaviour and communications’.

In the West, Shariah has become narrowly associated with some of the harsh practices of Shariah law tainted by the extremist practices of radical Islamists. But Shariah values are in sharp contrast to that. Some of the values are honesty, respect, consideration, kindness, peacefulness, authenticity, purity, patience, discipline, transparency, modesty, community, dignity. Underpinning the working of Shariah in daily life is ‘sincerity of intention’.

Although few non-Muslims would argue with any of these, the starting point for marketing and branding must be a consideration of the profound importance that Shariah compliance plays in the lives of modern Muslim consumers. We need to appreciate how their devoutness, regardless of its level of intensity, affects their lives as ordinary people just like everyone else. We don’t believe that there is such a thing as a Muslim brand. Nor is it particularly helpful to think of brands as having religious beliefs. The classic case was that of the ‘Mecca Colas’ – post 9/11 – which wore religion on their sleeves and on their cans. They failed on two counts.

First, because they were not actually that sincere. They simply cashed in on a moment of political history. And second, because they misunderstood what it was to be a brand. They were merely carrying superficial badges.

We have just completed the first phase of study. The primary findings here emerge from four majority Muslim markets – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Malaysia. However, they have been qualified and sense-checked in other, both majority and minority, markets. So, what did we learn? While segmentations of Muslim consumers have been attempted before, they have often tended to merge into relatively simple scales of devoutness in terms of adherence to Islam on a scale of ‘liberal’ to ‘conservative’. It seems more profound to look instead through the lens of the role that religion plays in their lives.  On this level there are six nuanced segments that cohere into two rather different macro-groups. One we call a ‘Traditionalist’ mindset and the other we call the ‘Futurists’.

 Global enterprises still operate within matrix structures in which the primary axis is geographic. The Islamic world is a powerful vertical segment that unifies attitudes and behaviours, but not always by geography

 Celebrating Difference

The Futurists are young and this is the group that marketing and branding practitioners should be fascinated with and focused upon.

But at the start, it is very important to avoid the Western journalistic temptation to see these as just another version of Gen Y or Millennials. The Futurists are differentiated by the degree to which they see themselves as steadfast followers of Islam in a modern world. They are driven by a purpose that is very different from that of their peers. Global brands need to avoid seeing these consumers through Western eyes. Rather, they have an amazing opportunity to empathise with the cultural mores that mainstream journalism tends to at best misrepresent and at worst stigmatise.

In contrast to the Traditionalists, the Futurists are more individualistic. Their religion is their own choice, not just imposed on them. Their pride is intense, regardless of the extent to which they would be categorised as ‘devout’. In the broadest sense they believe in ‘struggle’ – the struggle to remain true to their faith while carving out success in life. They believe in education and, with it, the right to ask questions – typically deeper and more probing about the intentions of businesses than the Traditionalists.

They want to get ahead; as activists they see Islam as an enabler. They seek to integrate a more globalised lifestyle with their own culture, but do so without fundamental compromise. They value creativity, and they’re global. Muslim youth in Lahore exchange Ramadan tips with youth in Dhaka and in Jakarta at the click of a keyboard. It’s a flatter, wider Ummah (or community) they are creating, but one in which they feel strong responsibility to an Islam to help change things for the better.

 Making the change

One of the implications for us of Futurists is their attitude to halal (meaning ‘permissible’ and often associated with meat, but can refer to anything permissible in the Islamic faith), especially in majority Muslim markets. The Futurists are increasingly prone to question the details (ingredients in food particularly) behind what they buy. Where Shariah compliance is assumed to be a given, any maladroit behaviour or slip-up will get headline status – and the Futurists will be particularly unforgiving.

The scepticism of Futurists means that a ‘halal’ logo alone is no longer enough. In our research, Malaysian respondents tended to be the most discerning, being the most developed consumer market in relation to Shariah, and where Muslims live alongside non-Muslims.

Increasingly, though, we believe Futurists everywhere will seek pure choices. In the frequent absence of facts, corporate reputation – and the apparent or not Shariah-friendliness of the corporate brand – assumes a critical importance.

We have derived a ranking of the relative importance of Shariah-compliance by product categories. At the top, food, dairy, beverages and oral care scored highest. In the second tier, consumers ranked fashion, personal care and ‘regular’ finance. In the third tier were airlines, resorts, financial and insurance products. The essential continuum is from body-sensitive to less so.

At the extreme end, Muslim consumers will tend to identify ‘halal/haraam’ (permissible/forbidden) as irrelevant to some categories, for instance software, or even to imply a halal usage effect that makes it in effect compliant if the ultimate benefit of its usage is positive development for the community. ‘If we use it for a good purpose then it is Islamic, and if we use it for an evil purpose, then it is not Islamic’, said a Pakistani respondents.

Getting the branding right

From all of this we can deduce a very specific role for branding in the Islamic future. Brands must inform, educate, and reassure the consumer about product quality through innovation. They must also demonstrate a proactive anticipation of their informational needs – the surest way of garnering trust. But facts alone don’t make a brand. A brand is a relationship at an emotional level. And the Muslim Futurists are also an extremely emotional consumer group who want to be talked to on their own terms.

One finding that may seem surprising in terms of traditional media stereotyping is that we have seen no clear-cut preference in terms of ‘global = bad’ or ‘local = good’ – or the other way round. Global brands, for instance, are seen clearly as leaders in quality and innovation, and are appreciated for their values. They have heritage and longevity. On the other hand is the lurking fear that they are cynical in their approach to Muslims – ‘ticking the boxes’. The opportunity is for global brands to communicate their genuine Shariah-friendliness.

On the other hand, local brands evoke national pride, are seen as less profit-oriented, and are often formed on local insights. But quality worries persist, innovation is questioned, the information can be woefully inadequate, they are sometimes seen to be opaque – and their advertising is clearly recognised as not being of a ‘global standard’. For local brands, quality, innovation and transparency are critical hills to climb.

We have been able to derive what we call the Noor Brand Index, a quantified ranking of brands’ perceived Shariah-friendliness. All these brands are within the compliance zone, ie none are haraam. At the top of the index are Lipton, Nestlé, Nescafé, Nido and Kraft, two corporate brands and three product brands. Hot drinks and juice brands do well, reflecting their role in communal consumption. In each local market, local brands such as Boh Tea, Maaza, Al Rabie, Juhayna, all fare well.

The two poorest performing brands are HSBC and RBS. Global financial brands in particular suffer from a belief that they cannot in principle be Shariah-friendly. In spite of heavy investment in ethical divisions such as HSBC Amanah, they are contaminated by behaviours in non- Muslim markets.

Brands such as Nescafé and Lipton, on the other hand, represent a gold standard that any aspiring global player in this area would do well to study carefully. At their roots lie a holistic understanding of their consumers, and an active engagement with Islamic values throughout every element of the marketing mix and beyond, including the way employees are treated. Overall, from a global perspective, we can hypothesise some important principles for the development of a robust Islamic marketing and branding sector.

First, while rules matter, they are not the whole picture. Intention matters more. In this light, the role of Muslims within global workforces in helping create intention becomes, in my view, very important. One very positive effect has been the huge surge of pride among our Muslim employees around the world. Second is the branding, when eventually the conditions for it are right, it needs to make no compromises in sophistication.

There are twin dangers here. One is that Islamic branding is seen as something worthy but fundamentally second-rate. But our Muslim Futurists, whether they be in Bangladesh or California, will demand better. The other is the argument from some Islamic academics that emotion in advertising is wrong. This is a minority view, but it should not advance or gain credibility.

Islamic branding can help bridge the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims. It re-humanises and gives respect. More than that, it should in time begin to show that the flow of ideas and creative capital can be two-way, and that the Islamic world is not so much a target as a resource for all things in which the new Muslim Futurists take pride.

Edited version of speech by Miles Young at the Inaugural Oxford Global Islamic Branding and Marketing Forum, July 2010. [email protected]