Why brands can't afford to ignore the US Muslim consumer

Android featured hijab-clad women in its "And You" campaign.
Android featured hijab-clad women in its "And You" campaign.

American Muslims are looking at more than just product when making purchase decisions, says the president of Ogilvy Noor and CEO of Geometry Global, APAC

There are approximately 7 million Muslims in America who represent $170 billion in spending power. But according to the Brands, Islam and the New Muslim Consumer study by Islamic branding agency Ogilvy Noor, 86% of them believe that American companies need to make more of an effort to understand their unique needs and values.

The 15-to-35-year age subset of this group — referred to as Muslim Futurists — are particularly eager for brands to communicate to them in a truly relevant way. They are young, tech-savvy, brand conscious, worldly and vocal. They feel connected to a multinational audience through their part in the Ummah, the global Muslim nation. They believe in combining the best of modernity and American lifestyles with their faith. More than half the world’s Muslim population self-identifies in this way, and that number is higher in the U.S. 

Muslim Futurists want brands to be open and transparent both in their values and accountability, as well as in their supply chain. They don’t want to be pandered to but rather understood, included and communicated with.

The area in which the most progress has been made is halal food, which must be inspected and subjected to a monitoring process. For example, Saffron Road is a halal ready-to-eat meal brand that launched in Whole Foods. While its halal status and range of international cuisines made it a surefire hit with American Muslims keen to buy instant food, the brand’s expansion into new dietary requirements, certifications and traceability has expanded its reach beyond the Muslim audience.

Almost every street corner in New York is home to The Halal Guys cart, where hungry New Yorkers will happily queue for hours to get a taste. The Halal Guys are so successful that they have recently announced plans to establish a nationwide chain. Their success is proof that with a great product, in this case born of Muslim requirements and tastes, a brand can expand.

This isn’t the first time American brands have reached out to segments that are part of the fabric of American life, even in the face of objections. In 1911, Procter & Gamble was the first company to advertise that its vegetable shortening product, Crisco, was kosher. The U.S. kosher market has grown today to an estimated $12.5 billion, but only 25% of kosher consumers are actually observant Jews. Other consumers believe simply that kosher food is healthier. It is likely that halal food will have wider appeal than its core target Muslim consumer for similar reasons.

Smaller brands have also realized that courage and subtlety can go hand in hand to appeal to this audience. Toms of Maine and Whole Earth Burger are brands that focus on the organic nature of their products and don’t trumpet their halal status. Despite this, they are very popular with young Muslims because Futurists don’t want to be trumpeted at — they just want to be respected and catered to. The simple, accessible information on the brands’ website, the core brand value the use of subtle language have combined to create brand affinity among this group.

While food is the most obvious category within which to engage Muslim consumers, this is a holistic opportunity to tap into a burgeoning Muslim lifestyle. Muslim fashion is worth $226 billion globally and online start-ups are creating everything from conservatively stylish evening wear to sporty burkinis for swimming. Other examples include Halal vitamins, greeting cards for Muslim holidays and an online dating website that might draw some parallels to Tinder. Futurist entrepreneurs are taking matters into their own hands and establishing brands that cater to Islamic values.

When we compare the shopper decision journey for Futurist Muslims with non-Muslim shoppers, we notice two important differences. First, Muslims tend to put greater emphasis on the provenance of brands — the ethical and cultural behavior that the brand portrays. Companies that are seen to be vulgar, wastefully extravagant or politically hostile to Muslim issues tend to fall off the Muslim shopper consideration set at an early stage. This applies to both manufacturers and retailers.

Second, halal considerations insert themselves into the decision process, when considering food, personal care and financial purchases. This isn’t just a case of whether products are compliant but also the venues and channels through which they are sold. American Muslim Futurists also tend to rely heavily on social media and word of mouth when making pre-purchase decisions and determining the authenticity of brands.

Additionally, Muslim Futurists are extremely digitally savvy and globally connected and have the potential to be vociferous brand advocates not just in the U.S., but internationally too. At a time when marketing budgets need to be optimized, Muslim Futurists are a very attractive segment.

Large multinational brands have begun to realize this potential and are taking small steps to appeal to this audience. Both Coca-Cola and Jeep featured Muslims in their Super Bowl ads while Android featured women in hijab headscarves in its "And You" commercial.  Still, a vast opportunity that is inherently win-win still remains, and marketers would do well to sit up and take notice. 

John Goodman is CEO of Geometry Global APAC and president of Ogilvy Noor.

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