Why brands should better represent Muslim women

Why brands should better represent Muslim women

2017 saw a league of brands including Nike, H&M and Vogue give a welcome inclusion to the hijab in their advertising. But brands must be careful not to fall for stereotypes, says Ogilvy Noor's vice-president.

For too long our imagery and language about Muslim women have consisted of nothing more than black face veils, long cloaks and words like "oppressed" and "submissive". And our advertising spaces? Well they were almost entirely absent of Muslim women. Which is a surprise, given the obvious: Muslim women buy things too. 

In fact, they buy a lot of things and spend a lot of money, and their Muslim identity is important to them. Our research has shown that over 90% of Muslims say there is something about their faith that affects their consumption.

Muslims make up 1.6 billion of the global population and the Muslim lifestyle market is estimated at $2.6 trillion. In the UK, Muslims number 2.7 million, just under 5% of the population and contribute £20 billion to the economy.  It is a young demographic – one-third under 15, and two-thirds under 30 – and therefore should be hugely appealing to global brands. 

For the young "Generation M" Muslims in particular, being faithful and modern go hand in hand.  They want to uphold their faith principles but have everything that brands have to offer.  

It’s why there was a new headscarf-wearing emoji in 2017, appearing after much lobbying by a young Muslim woman.  

Hijabs were on the runway at New York Fashion Week. It added glamour to the cover of Vogue Arabia’s first edition. We even had our first ever hijabi Barbie – much overdue since Barbie had released a range of colours and body types the previous year.  This was again prompted by a young Muslim woman who created the Instagram feed "Hijarbie."

So do you need a hijab in your brand armory? The crucial thing to remember is that it’s not a copy and paste of a headscarf onto a model, it must be rooted in authentic understanding of her experiences and what your brand can legitimately offer. What can add value to your brand is an authentic strategy to engage with Muslim audiences. 

The hijab: Just do it 

Inspired by UAE weightlifter Amna Al Haddad, Nike took the time to work with a variety of Muslim female athletes with the aim of catering to a consumer market that is too frequently forgotten or neglected.

The brand stuck to its core values: inconspicuous, almost like a second skin. Its product was a functional solution. But the campaign around it was all about the emotional liberation. 

The campaign ignited commentary and strong reactions from Muslim women that ranged from praise to concerns questioning the placement of the omnipresent swoosh on the headgear. But the point was Nike took a bold lead as a global brand, and its product launch set in motion a debate surrounding the role of the veil in advertising, a central theme that cropped up again and again in 2017. 

Hijabi lives matter

Pepsi’s now infamous Kendall Jenner ad hit many dud notes, and its tone-deaf response to a moment of global importance has been widely discussed. But it also missed the mark when it came to Muslim women. While it was good to see a Muslim woman appear, she was of course merely a prop along with an off-key portrayal of hijabi Muslim women. 

Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty brand on the other hand had a very enthusiastic response. She tied together product innovation in her first range of foundations with communications diversity in the models she used, including Muslim women who veil.  Halima Aden, arguably the first global hijabi supermodel, was part of the campaign. As she pointed out on Instagram, this was "#historyinthemaking," 

Tesco’s Christmas ad which featured Muslim women hosting a festive lunch generated a huge discussion about big social questions on people’s minds, through the lens of a shared national moment.  It demonstrated that brand love can be generated by connecting to Muslim women in the UK, but realising that this can also say something about your brand globally, especially in today’s passionate debates about women, equality and representation. 

The takeaway is that you can’t just stick a hijab on your brand and expect Generation M Muslim consumers to flock to you. What you should do instead is ask yourself these key questions: How does my product relate to Muslim women? What role does the hijab – but more broadly their faith – play in their lives and how does this intersect with my brand? And remember that not all Muslim women wear hijabs, nor should we assume that they do, so finding the right methods of representation and engagement are key. 

This conversation about Muslim women and brand engagement is only going to get more prominent this year. And what this consumer group will tell you is that you need to get real insights. You need to get behind the veil. But they’ll also tell you don’t fall for the clichés – or the veil puns. 

Shelina Janmohamed is the vice-president of Ogilvy Noor London. 


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