A new Sikh awareness campaign takes cues from Barack Obama and the Mormons

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A new National Sikh Campaign combines TV and digital media buys with an on-the-ground, grassroots effort to educate Americans about the religion.

U.S. Sikhs recognize that they have a branding problem. Sixty percent of Americans admit that they know nothing about the world’s fifth largest religion, whose adherents are often assumed to be Muslims.

This week, the nonprofit National Sikh Campaign aims to tell Americans who they are through national advertising. TV spots airing on FOX and CNN, coupled with digital films on Facebook and YouTube, feature Sikhs who love "Game of Thrones" and are on their school’s PTA. Some are Indian and some are white, demonstrating the group's diversity.

But the campaign also carries a more serious agenda. Since September 11, 2001, there have been more than 300 hate crimes reported against Sikhs. A fatal 2012 shooting of six Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin shook Sikh Gurwin Singh Ahuja especially hard. The then-national field coordinator for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign thought, "Man, if we had a 100th of the capability of the [presidential] campaign, maybe things like this wouldn’t happen."

Ahuja’s thought quickly turned into action, and the National Sikh Campaign was born. He’s since become its executive director, raising money for this million-dollar effort. In the beginning, the group took style cues from the Mormon Church, who launched a national advertising campaign in 2010 with a similar brand awareness goal. "The main thing is we learned that it works," he said.

So far, the donated funds have gone to television ads produced by AKPD Message & Media, polls carried out by Hart Research Associates, PR firm FP1 Strategies, a website created by Skyrocket and online spots and social media run by Yellow Line Digital.

The ads are meant to target everybody, Ahuja said, since the group's polls showed that many Americans are ignorant of the Sikh religion. However, the digital ad "Who We Are" purposefully features younger Sikhs (recruited by a Los Angeles agency), whereas the cable news spots "Proud" and "Neighbors" focus on older Sikhs from the Maryland/Washington D.C. area (whom Ahuja found at local temples).

But that’s not all they’re doing, he said: "The ads get most of the attention because that’s the nature of television ads." The group also plans to take a page from Obama’s grassroots playbook and host community events across the country. On Saturday, for example, they partnered with a group called Sikhs of New York to tie 8,000 turbans in Times Square.

And after the TV and digital ads wrap at the end of this summer, Isaac Baker, Partner of AKPD Message & Media, said the National Sikh campaign will target communities in which there are significant Sikh populations with local TV and digital advertising as well as events.

The problem is "how we’re being perceived" versus "what our values are," Ahuja said. "Old, young, white, black, Republican, Democrat, educated, non-educated," they all need to know their neighborhood Sikhs.