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Marketing To Muslim Consumers Is Easier (And Harder) Than You Think

This post was written by Azmia Magane and edited by Gin Walker.

It’s no secret that Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion.

Muslim consumers are a rapidly growing demographic with tremendous spending power, present in virtually every market in the world. The disposable income of Muslims in the USA alone reached $98 billion in 2013. In 2015, Muslims spent $1.9 trillion globally, and this figure is expected to reach $3 trillion by 2021.

Despite this, Muslims are a largely underserved and frequently overlooked economic sector. Since a whopping 90% of Muslims say that their faith impacts their buying habits, categorically ignoring the needs of Muslim consumers is clearly a costly mistake. So too is plowing in blindly without considering the particular nuances of this multifaceted market.

So how should you market to Muslim consumers?


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Halal nail polish – a shining example

If you (wisely) decide you want to include Muslim consumers in your targeted campaigns, there are a few things to keep in mind to avoid major mishaps.

This past year, I brought my own Muslim-targeted brainchild to life, with the help of Tal Pink at Orly. #HalalPaint is a limited edition halal nail polish collaboration between Orly and Muslim Girl, with six moisture-permeable, halal-certified shades, which launched during Ramadan 2017.

The launch was wildly successful (though I say so myself!) and the first production runs sold out quickly. To tease out exactly why things went so well, let’s look at the story of how #HalalPaint came about.

In August 2016, as I was getting ready to head to Morocco for my wedding, I was on the prowl for the perfect polish. Nail polish was one of those products I had a lot of problems finding as a Muslim woman. Most nail polish not only contains a bunch of ingredients that I can’t pronounce and I certainly don’t want on my nails, but it also creates a barrier between the nail and the water we use to make ablution before we pray, generally making it a no-go. There were few options on the market that met my needs and the color selections were really limited.

I saw that one of my favorite brands, Orly, had launched a line called Breathable. Breathable’s unique formula allows oxygen and moisture to reach the nail, so I believed wearing the polish wouldn’t interfere with the ablution that Muslims make before prayer. The polishes were vegan, cruelty free, and halal certified (halal means “permissible” in Arabic). I was overjoyed and knew that if I was this excited other Muslim women would be too.

I reached out to Orly to talk about targeting the particular needs of Muslim women. Almost a year later, my vision became a reality when the collection was released on June 5, 2017.

It was the first collaboration involving a mainstream American brand to cater specifically to Muslims.

As a collaborative effort, #HalalPaint wasn’t something that Orly marketed at Muslim women. One of my main objectives, when I approached Orly, was that Muslim women wouldn’t be tokenized by capitalistic corporate America to sell their product. I didn’t want to “sell out,” so to speak – I wanted Orly to “buy in,” and give Muslim Girl creative direction of every aspect of the project, which they were absolutely on board with. The only way this project could truly bridge gaps and foster beauty inclusivity was to be for Muslim women, by Muslim women, and centering on Muslim women.

Marketing to Muslim consumers
A pop-up on halalpaint.com clarifies that, while the polish is moisture permeable, because the team at Muslim Girl are not credentialed Islamic scholars, we’re not qualified to state that it’s “wudu friendly.” Rather than potentially overstepping our bounds in terms of religious rulings, we instead direct consumers to consult their trusted clerics or leaders for advisement.

We put love and conscious effort into every creative aspect of the collaboration, down to the last detail of the packaging and promotional visuals. It was important to us to showcase that Muslim women aren’t a monolith, and to include our Black Muslim sisters in the visuals as well as Muslim women who choose not to wear hijab. We wanted all Muslim women to feel included and represented.

I wrote impassioned op-eds about how important the collaboration was to me in terms of both beauty inclusivity and sociopolitical resistance, in Elle and New York Times’ Women in the World.

As the partnership began to attract attention, we were extremely vigilant about contacting any media outlets that portrayed us as having invented halal nail polish, because we most certainly didn’t. It would have been irresponsible of us to allow that false narrative to continue, so we were quick to nip such stories in the bud.

With the snowballing media attention inevitably came intense scrutiny. Soon after the launch, petitions emerged online, drawing attention to old social media posts by Jeff Pink, the founder and CEO of Orly. In social justice circles, these posts were seen to be problematic – and assumed to represent Orly’s position, which was never the case.

Although we never worked directly with Mr Pink on the project, Orly took on and handled the situation beautifully. In a gesture of good will, they gave up their profit on the #HalalPaint project and made a donation to a pro-Muslim cause. It wasn’t about money for them – it was about beauty inclusivity from start to finish. Kudos to Orly for launching a product that not only fostered diversity, but catered to other needs of Muslim women, such as their demand for cruelty-free beauty products.

I made this statement about the project in an interview with Vogue around the time of the launch, and I stand by it:

Americans tend to have a very one-dimensional image of who Muslim women are and it shows in the beauty options available to us. There’s a troubling misconception that [we Muslims are] all alike and can’t act for ourselves. A small act like choosing a nail polish color becomes a way of defining ourselves in a society trying to tell us who we are and what we believe.

An open market is about options and choices. That’s what Muslim consumers, like any other consumers, need to have.

And that’s one reason the #HalalPaint campaign was so successful – it focused on the ideal of inclusivity and choice, acknowledging the variety that exists within and between Muslim communities.

Crucially, #HalalPaint also:

  • was rooted in the real needs of Muslim women
  • was devised by Muslims for Muslims, so the mainstream brand that backed it was not viewed as exploitative
  • addressed other concerns of many Muslims (and non-Muslims) in being vegan and cruelty-free
  • didn’t claim to have ‘invented’ the concept of halal nail polish, but sought to serve the Muslim community by making the product widely available.

How can you make sure your marketing for Muslim consumers checks all these boxes?

Well, first you must get to know who you’re talking to. It’s Marketing 101.

Market research – getting up close and personal

For any focused campaign, market research is vital. Targeting a population without involving it in marketing decisions can, and inevitably will, backfire – sometimes to the point of causing alienation or even wild offense.

Because Muslims are so often the topic of conversation without any representation, I have a saying I like to use:

Nothing about us, without us.

In other words, if you want to target Muslims, talk to Muslims.

What better way to get reliable information about the needs of Muslims than to ask actual Muslims?

Think about it this way:

A good business solves my problem – it’s transactional. A great business is transformational.

A great business is an ongoing conversation, in which consumers actively participate in the company and the process. There’s not just an exchange of material goods, but an exchange of ideas.

Good sells products. Great creates life-long customers and relationships. Why settle for good when you can be great?

So, invite your customers – actual Muslims – to participate in the research, design, testing, and marketing of your product. To be part of the conversation and exchange of ideas.

When it comes to non-Muslim businesses targeting Muslim consumers, building a relationship through this kind of collaboration is essential to avoid appearing exploitative.

Indeed, in the USA, industries acknowledging Muslims as part of the mainstream consumer base – and offering us a chance for representation on our terms through relationships like this – can go a long way in combating the anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric that has been sweeping America’s sociopolitical climate.

Marketing to Muslim consumers
American cable TV neglected to interview Muslim panelists about the “Muslim ban,” instead focusing on the opinions of relatively unaffected non-Muslims. Image from Media Matters.

If you don’t know where to find Muslims, perhaps try … a mosque.

Yes, it seems like a glaringly obvious place to start, but in fact there’s little to no research indicating that any business has ever approached a mosque to conduct market research. Most, if not all, mosques would be more than happy to field questions from non-Muslims about Muslims and Islam, especially if it helps serve our community.

After all, by design, businesses are a community service. They pose solutions to problems. What are the needs of the community? What products would cater to the Muslim consumer? What products would be unlikely to sell?

The Internet can put market research at your fingertips.

And Muslims, particularly millennial Muslims, are avid Internet users – The Economist recently revealed that Muslims are using digital technology at higher rates than average – so there’s plenty of useful data out there.

There’s an abundance of information to be found just by perusing original content on major English-language websites for Muslim audiences – Muslim Matters, Productive Muslim, and Mvslim, for example, as well as The Tempest (a Washington, DC-based outlet that recently launched in Dubai). Other popular online haunts for Muslims are re-blogging sites like the London-based Ilmfeed and the Arab-centric Step Feed.

Another popular platform that can be leveraged for market research is Quora – although anyone can answer, you can direct your questions specifically to Muslims, and request that Muslims respond. Here are a couple of examples of questions relating to marketing to Muslim consumers.

Marketing to Muslim consumers
Marketing to Muslim consumers

Reddit, the self-described “front page of the Internet,” also boasts an active subreddit on Islam at /r/islam, where you’ll find Muslims discussing everything, from debating Islamic jurisprudence to asking for duas (supplications or prayers). You’ll also find material that occasionally makes viral headlines on outlets like Mashable, such as this heartbreaking letter written by a Muslim teen in London.

Granted, Reddit is also home to fake “ex-Muslim” trolls who “voted Trump” and a ton of anti-Muslim trolls, too. So, as for information from any source, it’s always advised to do further research and validate answers.

Then there are popular sites focused on specific locales, such as Cairo Scene, Lovin’ Dubai, UAE Viral, and Time Out Dubai. A quick and easy way for a non-local to expertly find sites like this (or any other categorically similar sites) would be to use Facebook’s “Page Suggestions,” which pop up any time you “Like” a page. If you “liked” Lovin’ Dubai, for example, Facebook might direct you to check out Time Out Dubai.

Marketing to Muslim consumers

Online message boards for Muslims like ummah.com provide a wealth of invaluable information and discussion as well.

We can’t talk about Muslims and the Internet without mentioning some of the ummah’s ubiquitous hashtags. In the ummah (Muslim community), hashtags have a multitude of uses – including some revolutionary ones. Social media played a pivotal role in the pro-democracy protests that broke out across North Africa and the Middle East between 2010 and 2012, known as the Arab Spring. Ever since they became a mobilizing force behind these protests, hashtags used on social media (and hashtag activism) have continued to be of utmost importance in the Muslim community.

Some of the predictably basic tags are #halal (“permissible” in Arabic), #haram (“unlawful”), #Islam, #hijab, #hijabi, and #Muslims. A few standout social media stars are #MuslimWomensDay, #BlackOutEid, and social justice tags like #NoMuslimBanEver, as well as Saudi Arabia’s #women2drive tag, which was one of the driving (!) forces behind Saudi Arabia’s long overdue decision to let women take the wheel from June 2018.

Many hashtags like #MuslimsReportStuff, #MuslimID, #NotInMyName, and #MuslimWomensDay are a way for Muslims – so often talked over or talked about, rather than to or with – to reclaim their narratives and make their voices heard.

Using hashtags to jump on a trending topic is a great way for brands and businesses to align themselves with their Muslim consumer base. But take great care not to hijack, exploit, or co-opt the hashtag. Instead, join the conversation and add value by sharing supportive messages, or relevant articles and artwork.

Product market fit – are we made for each other?

Having got to know your potential customers and built up collaborative conversations with them, you should be in a good place to understand how well your profile, your product and the timing and nature of your intended marketing will go down amongst Muslim consumers.

There are several important factors to consider. For example, if you’re thinking about marketing alcohol or casinos in a Muslim-majority country, or products with pork or alcoholic ingredients, you’re pretty much wasting your time, as these things are haram, or impermissible.

By the same token, products that don’t contain pork or impermissible ingredients miss valuable marketing opportunities when companies don’t draw attention to the fact that their products are halal.

A great example would be products that use beef gelatin instead of pork gelatin. Muslim consumers typically avoid gelatin at all costs because it usually comes from pork, but if the label specified that the gelatin was beef-based, halal, or “does not contain pork,” it would create new opportunities for consumption.

You may have heard the old adage “Timing is everything.” This tried-and-true statement definitely applies to marketing to Muslims. Ramadan, the holy month of Islamic fasting, and Eid, a twice-yearly celebration, are times that companies marketing to Muslim consumers should be particularly conscious of. In fact, Ramadan is listed by The Economist as the third biggest sales period for supermarkets in Britain – right after Christmas and Easter. In 2016, The Economist projected that Tesco, a British supermarket, would make $43 million on Ramadan sales alone.

Once you’ve identified that your product is appropriate for a Muslim target demographic, you have a few other bases to touch on. Muslims are an incredibly diverse population – marketing imagery should reflect this. Not all Arabs are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arabs. Not all Muslim women choose to wear the hijab (veil).

Cultural sensitivity is of utmost importance. Avoid stereotypical imagery – such as camels, bearded men, veiled women, and deserts – unless they’re representative of the specific population you’re targeting or particularly relevant to your product. Otherwise, businesses risk playing into racist tropes or commodifying and exploiting Muslims as an aesthetic for the sake of “diversity.” Georgetown University has an excellent fact sheet on common anti-Muslim tropes, available here.

Marketing to Muslim consumers
Images from @sainthoax, via Instagram.

Because the Muslim community is far from monolithic, it’s important to understand the different variables within markets, such as geographic location. There is no universal “one size fits all” for the Muslim consumer. Know the people and the culture of the country you’re aiming to sell your products in.

There are 11 countries expected to join the list of the world’s largest economies within the next few decades. Marketing to Muslims will be required in more than two-thirds of them: six have predominantly Muslim populations, while two have large Muslim minorities. Markets to watch include Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

Marketing to Muslim consumers
These 11 emerging markets are set to join the world’s largest economies – in six of them, the majority of the population is Muslim. Image from Next 11.

Lastly, consider corporate responsibility and your company’s image. Is your company in any way politicized? Do executives or CEOs publicly support politicians or policies that are anti-Muslim or not exactly Muslim friendly? If so, you should probably make a move as a company to address and correct that, as any attempts to engage Muslim consumers in this context will rightfully be seen as exploitative. You can’t expect to have a CEO tweeting in favor of banning Muslims or outlawing mosques, and then expect Muslims to line up to buy your product because you slapped a “halal” stamp on it.

Marketing to Muslim consumers
Image from Abu Khadeejah.

Booming business – tapping into opportunity

If you believe that …

  1. Muslims are not all alike
  2. Muslims are not terrorists
  3. Muslims are people, with needs to meet and money to spend, just like everyone else

… then there are plenty of opportunities to cater to Muslim customers.

Booming sectors right now include modest fashion, halal beauty, halal food, halal travel, Islamic finance, Islamic education, fitness and fitness products, technology, and office supplies.

In 2015, Fortune proclaimed Muslim women as the “next big untapped fashion market.”

They were right. When it comes to fashion, Muslims spend $243 billion a year on clothing – and this number is expected to grow to $368 billion by 2021. Major brands like Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, Dolce & Gabbana, and Mango, have all launched Muslim-friendly modest fashion pieces, the majority of launches coinciding with Ramadan.

Worldwide, Muslims are projected to spend $213 billion a year on cosmetics and beauty products by 2021 – an increase of $46 billion since 2013, according to Thomson Reuters.

Everyone loves food, and Muslims are no different.

Halal food is a huge market, worth $20 billion annually in the USA alone, where Muslims only account for about 1% of the population. Halal food and drink is prepared according to Islamic law, following Islamic dietary restrictions. When many people think of “halal,” they imagine heaped plates of meat and rice drizzled in white sauce, and this dish is certainly popular – Bloomberg dubbed such halal plates “a hit” with millennials, including non-Muslim millennials. In fact, The Halal Guys is one of the most rapidly growing fast food chains in the world, going from a single food cart in New York City to a global franchise with restaurants in Boston, Los Angeles, Orlando, and even the Philippines, just for starters. But halal food actually encompasses much more than just meat and rice combos, and offers huge scope for potential.

Halal travel is another industry with enormous growth potential.

By 2020, Muslim business travel is projected to be worth $22 billion annually, while Muslim travel as a whole will reach $220 billion. Muslim travelers in Europe and Asia account for 87% of the market. Within the halal travel sector, muzbnb, a Muslim version of Airbnb, has already taken off. In Africa, tourism offering Muslim-friendly halal activities is booming.

Other Muslim-friendly ventures are happening in the fitness industry and in office supplies. There’s a need for modest workout clothing and halal protein sources; there’s even an Islamic workout DVD … and a Nike hijab. A quick search of Etsy reveals all kinds of fun cards, stationery, and planner supplies geared towards Muslims.

There’s really no industry that’s devoid of Muslim-specific needs.

Many of the entrepreneurs behind the aforementioned efforts are Muslims creating things for other Muslims – entrepreneurship becomes a necessity when mainstream brands are basically ignoring your existence and needs.

While it’s always awesome to support small businesses – especially Muslim-owned ones – sometimes the convenience factor just isn’t there. It would be fantastic to be able to walk into a Walgreens or CVS during Ramadan and buy an Eid card without having to wait for it to be shipped, or to be able to buy modest clothes in a store so you can actually try things on and skip the hassle of returning things if they don’t fit. Verona Collection, a Muslim-owned modest fashion house, understands this, and recently opened brick-and-mortar storefronts.

Other factors in the mix – it’s not just about religion

In listening to Muslim consumers, you’ll quickly realize that marketing to Muslims shouldn’t be based on religion alone. Muslim consumers are multifaceted and have many other important concerns outside of a halal designation. Other decision-influencing factors include environmental and ethical concerns, sustainability, animal welfare, impact on geopolitical conflicts, women’s rights, and workers’ rights.

Yes, Muslims care about halal, but we also care about tayyib.

Tayyib basically means “good, ethical, or pure.” We don’t really want your halal product just because it doesn’t contain pork or alcohol if you were exploiting your workers, raising animals in inhumane conditions, or profiting from war crimes or oppression to manufacture it.

Of particular importance with regards to geopolitical conflict and the concept of tayyib is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, a global campaign seeking to apply economic pressure in order to end Israel’s violations of international law and stop the oppression of Palestinians. The BDS movement has gained widespread support amongst Muslims and non-Muslims alike in the United States, across Europe, and in Muslim-majority countries like Morocco.

Some of the companies that have been boycotted are Coca-Cola (because they operate plants in illegal settlements on stolen Palestinian land), Hewlett Packard (because they run the ID systems used to restrict the movements of Palestinians) and Sabra Hummus (because they fund Israel’s army).

In December 2017, the United Nations was expected to release a full list of companies and firms they allege are profiting from Israel’s crimes. In the past, similar lists published by the UN garnered global support for the BDS movement that helped successfully dismantle South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Marketing to Muslim consumers
Image from US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

Muslims’ most common criticisms of businesses or society usually involve the BDS movement – or the portrayal of Muslims in the media, or the current sociopolitical climate. Check out this article from C. J. Werleman about the experiences Muslim airline consumers have had #FlyingWhileMuslim. Our concerns about negative portrayals of Muslims by mainstream media, politicians, and brands are valid and should be heard.

Intersectionality, pluralism and crossover markets are increasingly important, as Muslims often belong to many communities simultaneously. There are British Muslims, American Muslims, and Muslim vegans, for example – and there are plenty of non-Muslim hipsters who use beard-styling products originally designed by and for Muslim men.

Gender and age differences amongst Muslim consumers should also be taken into account. The Economist has reported on the “new Muslim market” – young second and third generation immigrants who:

… want to maintain the values of their faith while participating in the consumer culture in which they have grown up.

This market is driven strongly by women, particularly millennial women, looking for modest fashion, halal cosmetics, and a host of other halal services.

Generation M, the Muslim millennials, have come of age, with money to spend.

FYI, Generation M is a term coined by Shelina Janmohamed, VP of Ogilvy Noor. It’s also the name of her book.

The Guardian reports that approximately a third of Muslims are under the age of 15 – an astonishing two-thirds are under 30. Unlike their older counterparts, who may have found it necessary to compromise their faith simply because halal options weren’t available – Islamic home financing, for example, is a relatively new thing – Generation M are refusing to accept the status quo. Instead, they’re bridging gaps in the market and building businesses to meet their needs: providing non-alcoholic beer, organic and free-range halal food, and halal ready-made meals like lasagna, for example.

Meanwhile, as the world undergoes sociopolitical changes – particularly in Muslim-majority countries post-Arab Spring – policy changes that open new markets are imminent, such as Saudi Arabia’s decision to (finally!) allow women to drive from June 2018. Following this large-scale policy change, there came an immediate outpouring of congratulatory advertisements from various car brands such as Cadillac, Ford, Nissan, Jaguar, Chevrolet, and Volkswagen.

Marketing to Muslim consumers

So who’s winning the hearts of Muslim consumers?

H&M – nicely done

In 2015, Mariah Idrissi became the first Muslim woman to feature in an ad for H&M. Far from appearing oppressed in a stereotypical black outfit with downturned eyes, Idrissi, wearing a hijab, looked upbeat, stylish, and chic.

The ad campaign, “Close the Loop,” promoted a sustainable approach to fashion, encouraging consumers to recycle their clothing through a garment collection program at H&M. Not only did H&M feature a visibly Muslim model, but she was presented in multifaceted, eco-conscious messaging.

Predictably, there was a small backlash from Muslims who railed against the idea of the hijab being marketed as a fashion statement. But watching the commercial, the messaging is clear: the hijab isn’t being marketed as a fashion statement, but rather a woman wearing a hijab is being included in sustainable fashion.

Nike – room for improvement

[Update: at the time this article was first written, the Nike Pro hijab had not gone to market. It is now available for purchase.]

Nike’s Pro Hijab, which isn’t even officially available yet, has already infuriated right-wing conservatives, and drawn both praise and criticism from the Muslim community. Right-wing critics accused Nike of “normalizing oppression” and encouraging sharia law, even going so far as to make memes suggesting that Nike are promoting violence against women and gay people and conflating the hijab with female genital mutilation (something that is entirely un-Islamic).

It was not Nike who indulged in anti-Muslim tropes, but Nike’s naysayers, who all employed the false and deeply offensive idea that Muslims are universally homophobic, intolerant, power-hungry barbarians, perpetually engaged in stealth jihad.

Marketing to Muslim consumers
Image from Tell Mama UK on Twitter.

Nike included hijabi athletes in the product development and testing, and incorporated their feedback in the product’s design. However, Nike still came under fire from some in the Muslim community for taking a long time to recognize Muslim women – perhaps now they can make up for lost time and drop some new hijab-friendly modest workout gear.

Other criticisms from the Muslim community had less to do with the product and more to do with the company at large, such as allegations regarding Nike’s previous use of sweatshops. This shows once again that Muslim consumers care about more than just halal certifications and the inclusion of women wearing hijabs.

The Muslim community’s most significant criticism of this product was that Nike didn’t invent sports hijabs, contrary to the media’s presentation. TIME called the Nike Pro Hijab one of 2017’s “best inventions” (despite the fact that it isn’t even for sale yet!) TIME’s article completely ignores the Muslim women who have been creating and wearing sports hijabs for decades, long before Nike ventured into the market. While it’s amazing to see a product catering to a market of Muslim women on TIME’s inventions list, it would be responsible (and commendable) of Nike to reach out to the magazine to make it abundantly clear that Nike themselves didn’t invent the sports hijab.

It’s important for brands to create, own, and control their narratives and stories – not the media.

A public relations effort making it clear that Nike didn’t invent the sports hijab – but instead worked with Muslim athletes to improve upon it, and make it widely available – would go a long way to ensure that Muslim women feel heard and acknowledged, rather than ignored and alienated.

Muslim women don’t need Nike to validate their existence – but it’s nice, albeit overdue, that they have done so in developing the Pro Hijab.

The backlash against the Pro Hijab from both sides – anti-Muslim bigots and Muslims alike – prompted one of the athletes who helped develop it, Amna Al Haddad, to address the issue in this Instagram statement.

Meanwhile, rapper Waka Flocka applauded the Nike Pro Hijab, calling it “low key lit.”

And many Muslim women too were supportive of Nike. Those calling for a boycott haven’t impacted Nike’s bottom line yet – Nike is still in business, and the Pro Hijab is still launching.

And who’s getting the cold shoulder?

Pepsi – checkbox diversity

Pepsi’s ill-fated #woke commercial of April 2017 featured Kendall Jenner shedding her supermodel status to join a street protest – at which she hands a cop a can of cola. In so doing, it seems, she single-handedly puts an end to police brutality, racism, xenophobia, and even – we might assume – Trump’s “Muslim ban.” Phew!

Besides the tone-deaf and fantastical scenario of the commercial, which trivialized overwhelmingly real social and political concerns, Pepsi’s decision to cast Jenner was seen by many as a particular slap in the face for people of color.

Although considered a trendsetter within the white-washed urban market, Jenner is a classic “culture vulture.” She’s a rich, elite white chick, who (alongside her family) has fashioned a lucrative career by fetishizing, stealing, and exploiting Black culture in everything from her own aesthetic to her clothing line. Despite being incredibly indebted to the Black community, she fails to use her position of privilege to take a stand on the struggles Black people face in America.

As if this weren’t problematic enough, the commercial also exploits Muslim women and the hijab to sell soda.

Pepsi included a veiled (and visibly frustrated) Muslim woman, tokenized as a trademark of diversity. She served no real purpose in the commercial except as an aesthetic – a placeholder to prove Pepsi’s “tolerance” in a climate of xenophobia.

Marketing to Muslim consumers

At the time the commercial aired, Trump’s revised “Muslim ban” was set to be heard by a second federal appeals court the following month. And yet Pepsi’s commercial made no attempt to acknowledge this glaring elephant in the room. The protesters’ signs were bland, generic “peace” signs and hearts – nothing to suggest that the reason American Muslims might feel frustrated and inspired to protest could be that an unconstitutional “Muslim ban” was hanging over their communities!

Marketing to Muslim consumers
Pepsi’s commercial featured a sea of disingenuous and ultimately meaningless protest signs. Including “No Muslim Ban Ever” and “Black Lives Matter” placards would have gone some way to acknowledging the injustices faced by minority groups. (And yes, Black Lives Matter includes Muslims, too – nearly 20% of Muslims in America are Black.)

The commercial totally ignored the issues and injustices that people in America have taken to the streets to protest against. Rather, it co-opted the struggles of minority groups, marketing their protests as fun, trendy, and glamorous.

In a statement, Pepsi explained that they were:

trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.

So what Pepsi seemingly intended as a socially provocative piece, to prompt important discussions about diversity and unity, instead resulted in division and derision. The commercial was widely mocked online for days, among Muslim communities and many others. Pepsi ultimately pulled it amidst the backlash.

Pepsi’s blunder is a cautionary case study, for which industry experts blame the company’s in-house ad team. They missed the mark disastrously because they didn’t get outside input.

An external perspective from minority group stakeholders could easily have prevented this costly embarrassment – and indeed given Pepsi the opportunity to take a positive stand by showing their solidarity and alignment with important civil rights causes.

It wasn’t that such insight was unavailable – it was that Pepsi didn’t ask.

Tesco – turkey tokenism

Tesco supermarket’s Christmas TV advertisement for December 2017 showcased 14 different families – meant to represent Britain’s diversity – celebrating Christmas. Included amongst them was a Muslim family. It was the first time that a Muslim family had appeared in a Tesco ad – and it was for a Christian holiday. Despite raking in about $43 million last year during Ramadan, Tesco ran no Ramadan ads featuring Muslims.

Marketing to Muslim consumers

Predictably, there were pissed-off people everywhere. Muslim-haters hated, and threatened to boycott Tesco. Some Muslims responded that Muslims shouldn’t have anything to do with Christmas – although many Muslims in the West observe Christmas as a cultural holiday, with lights, decorations, office parties, days off work, family gatherings, and food.

However, here’s where the biggest grievance with the ad should lie. Tesco captioned the video with:

Every family has a different turkey tale … However you cook yours – from barbecuing to basting – we’ve got a turkey for you. #EveryonesWelcome.

But Tesco don’t carry halal turkeys. Not even at Christmas.

Arguably, the ad concept was a good idea in theory – diversity and inclusion, yay!

But representation is about more than just aesthetics and visuals. It’s about meeting the needs of consumers.

In this case, Tesco is acknowledging Muslims, but ignoring their needs for the very product it’s using them to advertise. This takes the ad from potentially inclusive to reeking of tokenism and exploitation in order to sell turkeys to other people. Simply put, if they cared about selling turkeys to Muslims, they’d have halal turkeys on the shelves.

Mattel – taking all the credit

On November 13, 2017, Mattel unveiled its first veiled Barbie, modeled after Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammed, the first U.S. athlete to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab.

Hijabi dolls aren’t anything new in the Muslim community – Muhammed herself reports sewing hijabs on her dolls as a child, and Instagram user @hijarbie went viral for making Barbie over as a hijabi. She even posted a photo of a doll styled as Ibtihaj Muhammed more than a year before Mattel announced their version.

I would love to see Mattel – and Ibtihaj Muhammed – acknowledge @hijarbie’s pioneering creativity in making the first hijabi Barbie, rather than appearing happy to take all the credit.

Mattel’s mini-Muhammed doll will be available sometime in 2018.

Ford – hackneyed imagery

By and large, it seems like Western companies tend to create ads with Western narratives, even if the ads are for non-Western distribution. Ford’s “Welcome to the driver’s seat” ad celebrating Saudi women’s right to drive is a perfect example of this.

In Adweek’s gushing article, writer Tim Nudd (not a Muslim woman, I’m guessing) praised the Ford ad, reporting that it showed:

An image of a woman’s eyes in a rearview mirror, surrounded [by] black rippled material that’s evocative of a veil.

Even as he’s describing the imagery, Nudd is clearly oblivious to its glaringly stereotypical portrayal of Muslim women.

Marketing to Muslim consumers
Ford: Welcome to the driver’s seat.

Someone was inevitably going to do it, and it was Ford. Go ahead and Google “Muslim women” and see what comes up. Stereotypes. Veiled women, mostly in black, some wearing niqabs – intended as a textbook representation of oppression.

While Saudi Arabia requires women to cover their hair, it does not require them to cover their faces. Yes, some Muslim choose to cover their faces – but vast numbers do not.

Ford meant to welcome women to the driver’s seat – but maybe Ford needs to just sit this one out.

Marketing to Muslim consumers
Jon Gabriel, a New York Post contributor, pretty much predicted the use of Ford’s hackneyed imagery with this tweet.

Coca-Cola – yet more stereotypes

At the beginning of November 2017, Coca-Cola Middle East released an ad called “Change Has a Taste,” depicting a father teaching his daughter to drive, set (inevitably) in the desert. This ad too was intended to align with the customer by celebrating Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to allow women to drive.

While some praised the ad, others have criticized the company for capitalizing on the plight of Saudi women. This isn’t the first time Coca-Cola has come under fire for a potentially insensitive and stereotype-laden ad – a 2013 Super Bowl commercial called “The Chase” featured the overplayed and outdated cliche of Arabs riding on camels in the desert.

Marketing to Muslim consumers
In Coca-cola’s ad “The Chase,” an Arab man was depicted with a camel, because apparently Arab men don’t drive cars … (but Muslim women do!)

Marketing to Muslims – summing up

So we’ve covered a lot of ground – what have we learned?

Here are ten top takeaways to help you ride the wave of opportunity offered up by the surging Muslim demographic – and avoid some classic face-plants.

  1. First, as for any other audience, do your market research! Targeting any sector without building a real relationship with consumers cannot end well – and, when cultural sensitivities are so key, it could be disastrous.
  2. Work out whether your product or business is really a good fit for Muslim consumers. How does it serve them? Could it ever be considered inappropriate, insensitive, or just plain offensive?
  3. Avoid any suggestion of tokenism or exploitation, by seeking to serve the real needs of Muslim consumers – and celebrating the contributions of the Muslim community to your product evolution.
  4. Choose to focus on a booming sector in the largely untapped Muslim market – modest fashion is growing exponentially, for example, and halal cosmetics, food and travel are ripe for expansion.
  5. Many other factors matter to Muslim people beyond their religion – especially environmental, ethical and sociopolitical concerns. To really impact the Muslim market, make sure your tayyib ducks are in a row!
  6. Focus on the ideal of inclusivity and choice, and acknowledge the huge variety that exists within the muslim community.
  7. Muslims use technology more than the general population, so an online presence is vital. Get talked about on Muslim-friendly blogs and websites, as well as apps like MuzMatch and Minder that cater specifically to Muslim populations.
  8. Exploring trending topics in online Muslim communities via hashtags is a great product placement tactic – as long as you’re adding value somehow, and not just co-opting the tag purely for a marketing opportunity.
  9. Muslim travel is booming, so advertising in airports and on planes is a smart bet, especially in Europe and Asia, where Muslim travelers account for 87% of a billion dollar market.
  10. Consider placing billboard ads in strategic locations such as near mosques or halal food markets, and time campaigns during Ramadan to take into account when Muslims are waking and fasting. Ads will likely gain more traction when pushed out earlier in the day rather than in the evening, when it’s time to break the fast. I don’t know about you, but after a day of fasting, the only thing I really want to see is what’s for dinner!

And finally …

As I quickly learned during the #HalalPaint launch, you can’t please everyone – including all Muslims.

There will always be criticisms – whether from ticked-off Muslims, or from far-right conservatives mad as heck that you’re even acknowledging Muslims are people too.

Accusations may range from exploitation, appropriation, and stereotyping, to supporting “creeping sharia” or “stealth jihad.” (I solemnly swear that Muslims really don’t want to take over your company or your country … )

People may even get peeved enough to start a petition to ban your product or boycott your company, which can be scary – especially for smaller businesses.

But, if you’ve done your due diligence and taken all of the above into consideration, chances are you’ve gained an understanding of a new target audience, how to speak to us, and how you can convert us – not to Christianity or Judaism or Pastafarianism … but into contented customers that keep coming back.

Marketing to Muslims isn’t hard. All you have to do is remember two simple things:

  1. We just want to buy things we like, which meet our needs, from brands we love. Like everybody else.
  2. To avoid major mishaps in your messaging, always ask a Muslim.

OR …

Hire us here at Dropkick Copy. We’d be delighted to design you a kick-butt Muslim-friendly campaign that will get your customers clamoring (in a good way) – and WON’T mobilize furious masses to destroy your social media mentions or write soul-slicing think pieces on your copy.

Azmia Magane is a writer and content marketing expert. Check out her website – azmiamagane.com – or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Gin Walker aka the Copy Genie has been writing to transform and help people’s words shine for more than two decades. For high-converting custom copy, content to enchant, or a makeover of your magic words, summon the Copy Genie – your wish could well be her command.

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4 thoughts on “Marketing To Muslim Consumers Is Easier (And Harder) Than You Think”

  1. Asalaam Alaikum, this is really well written
    and should be saved by all readers. The
    data is useful for my ongoing research
    especially around the 11 emerging markets.
    Also it’s great to see the Muslim Market developing
    every year. The Halal Paint case study was
    very interesting. Agree that Muslims base
    their buying decisions around faith
    and the concept of pure. A tayyib centric model
    is effective. I checked out the references and
    they were valuable too.

    It’ll be interesting to see how the Muslim space
    reacts to innovations like virtual
    reality and augmented reality. I have
    my eyes closely on both VR and AR. Still trying
    to see how to launch it across my audience.

    Look forward to more articles. This one
    was detailed and I enjoyed reading it! 🙂

    • Wa alaikum assalam warahmatullahi wabarakatuh. Jazakallahu khairan for taking the tim to comment.

      My own position is that the “Muslim Market” is not a thing. You will find the consumer needs and behaviors of Muslims to be the same as non-Muslims…except for a few niche and specialty products and services.

      I believe Muslims should focus their efforts on becoming the best-in-market businesses for the entire world, Muslim and non-Muslim. Our approach to doing business and creating value in the world can and should improve the lives of all peoples, not just our own.

      Glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  2. Thanks for this article and hard work behind it! A very informative compilation of different industries. This is just the beginning, there is more to do, the numbers say it ALL!

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