A market of 1.6 billion people that has scarcely been tapped, Muslim
consumers offer enormous potential to Western marketers - but only if
their values are fully understood, says Miles Young
the next big thing?
THERE is a sense of the arrival of a new "big thing" in the world of marketing - and it is coloured green; not the familiar grass green of the environment, but the deeper green of Islam.
For the first time, it is a topic which is receiving serious public attention; and the future of Islamic branding was in the spotlight at the last World Islamic Economic Forum in Kuala Lumpur.
Meanwhile, in the West, recent research (by JWT) amongst Muslim consumers has highlighted their importance as an attractive market segment. Already in the US, they are being described as the "new Hispanics". While recognition of this new "target" for primarily Western marketers is timely, simply leaving it there is probably not enough. There is a bigger angle; what is the role of Islam in the growing multi-literalism of the global economy itself?
The pure arithmetic, of course, is persuasive at one level, and all the more so outside of the UK and the US. There are 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, rising fast. Of these, only 20 per cent belong to the Arab world, the majority being located in south and east Asia. The rub, however, is that the Islamic world still only accounts for 5 per cent of the world's GDP. The issues of the Islamic world tend, therefore, to be those of the developing world. Brands which compete in the global market place are the necessary weapons for avoiding long term economic marginalization. It is as simple as that.
This looming one quarter of the world's population shares in Islam a set of values which are immensely strong - and woefully misunderstood in the West. Islam equates identity; and defines behaviour in a way which makes how you do things as important as the things you do. The "ummah
" is premised on a view of what is lawful (halal
) and unlawful (haram
), so the gap between belief and behaviour is remarkably narrow.
|"A strong sense of community and welfare underpins all activity, informing business ethics"|
A strong sense of community and welfare underpins all activity, informing business ethics. Islam has little space for imagery and heavy reliance on verbal communication. In varying degrees, Sharia compliance recognizes these requirements, and to some degree, perhaps unsurprisingly, "Sharia compliant" has become a synonym for "Islamic brand."
But Islamic branding is actually more complex than this, and exists at three levels. At the most exclusive level, overtly Islamic brands place their appeal strictly on Sharia principles. These are especially concentrated in the finance and food sectors. Beyond that, there are brands created by Islamic-rooted organizations informed by Islamic belief but which are pluralist in their appeal (airlines or telcos would be an example). And, further still, there are brands which emanate from Islamic countries but which are not specifically religious in character; many Turkish brands fall into this category. Confusingly, the distinction is not often made: but what all three should have is a common purpose, which is to re-balance the importerexporter relationships between the Islamic and non-Islamic world.
Beyond Sharia compliance
To do so effectively means harnessing the language and concepts of branding in each of these categories. So it is just becoming clear, for instance, that Sharia compliance in itself is not differentiating. Brand choice requires emotional cues as well. And, at every level, the competition is against "foreign" brands - which means beating their emotional preference: because compliance, ultimately, is a generic benefit.
My feeling after the Kuala Lumpur discussions is that Islamic branding is at something of a cross-roads: if it recognizes that there is a difference to be bridged between Islamic products and Islamic brands, then it should be the "next big thing"; and something which helps, incidentally, bridge the cultural and economic chasm which separates the "globalized" and the Islamic worlds.
In doing so, Islamic branding can still be unique, and can offer the world a different angle on value maximization.
The concept of halal
in foods, for instance, seems to capture a craving for purity which goes well beyond a religious franchise. Up to 60 per cent of the consumer base for Islamic financial products in Malaysia can be non-Muslim. The Islamic importance of community welfare gives new life to the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility and relates it much more tightly to the brand in the West.
And the opportunity to create a new Islamic design ethic which could be analogous to a design tradition which values intrinsic worth - such as Scandinavian design - also presents itself.
In the West, "Islamic" is so readily and so unfairly equated with the obscurantist. Anyone who touches an advertising business in those countries where moderate Islam is the prevailing voice will know that they are highly creative, highly charged workplaces, certainly more than capable of ultimately redressing the one way flow of global ideas.
Source: The WIRE (Jan, 2008) - Issue 27