Art & Commerce: Marketing to Muslims

Over the past year, we’ve become acutely aware that most brands and marketers are turning a blind eye to the multibillion- dollar American Muslim market. Maybe they don’t recognize that there is an opportunity. Maybe they harbor some of the anti- Muslim fears and prejudices that are so apparent in American media and public life. Maybe they are scared of offending American Muslims, or they fear that by embracing Muslim consumers, they will alienate non-Muslims. Whatever the reason, they are failing to connect with consumers whose combined disposable income is well in excess of $170 billion a year in the U.S. alone.

Marketers are consummate opportunists, constantly looking for new angles, new ways to sell products and new target markets to address. The best among them have an intuition for identifying significant shifts in societies. The marketing industry was the first to recognize “teenage” as a life stage, in the 1950s, and has helped popularize notions of social segments ever since, from yuppies, empty nesters and boomers to Gen Xers, metrosexuals and singletons, not to mention dinks (dual income, no kids) and skis (spending the kids’ inheritance). More often than not, the labels they come up with seem familiar even before they are explained. They are intuitively right, sometimes to the point of being blindingly obvious with hindsight.

So it’s all the more mysterious that global marketers have overlooked a social segment of truly global proportions. Around the world, well over 1 billion people identify as Muslim. Islam shapes their sense of identity, their beliefs and values, and their behavior. From a marketing perspective, it’s unthinkable that Islam would not influence them as consumers, too. Yet there is a gaping void in the global marketing industry’s knowledge of Muslims. Where do global marketers turn for guidance about Muslim consumers? At the moment, there is no single resource.

That is why JWT commenced a study late last year on marketing to Muslims in the U.S. and U.K. As a global organization—with offices in 87 countries, including Muslim-majority nations such as Pakistan and Turkey, and countries with growing Muslim populations, such as the U.S., U.K., France and Germany—we needed a solid body of knowledge about Islam and its followers.

Our initiative—which has included desk research, interviews with experts, face-to-face ethnographies, focus groups and large-scale, in-person surveys—is driven by a conviction that the growing influence of Islam is bound to have a widespread effect on Muslims’ consumption. The aim: to explore how Islam is reflected in the attitudes, behavior and preferences of Muslim consumers, and to identify which brands and products Muslims are more likely to favor, which ones they avoid and which factors determine their preferences.

Why this group? Why not another growing niche consumer segment that may prove less challenging to understand? Let’s face it: Religion is a sensitive issue, and religion and business seem like an uncomfortable combination. Why not steer clear of Islam rather than risk offense?

Four reasons spring to mind immediately. First, Muslims are numerous and demographically vigorous, with high birth rates and a young age profile. While most live in Muslim-majority countries, populations in the U.S. and U.K. are growing. Estimates of the Muslim population in the U.S. vary, but the most widely cited numbers are in the range of 6-8 million, or 2 percent of the population, roughly equal to the population of Jordan or, ironically, Israel. In the U.K., 2001 census data puts the Muslim population at between 1.8 and 2.2 million, or about 3 percent of the population. And while much of the world is aging, British Muslims have the youngest age profile among the country’s religious groups—about one-third of Muslims were under 16 when the 2001 census was conducted.

In the U.S., the sheer demography is compelling: Where 67 percent of the total U.S. population is over 40, 67 percent of the U.S. Muslim population is under 40. Also, 67 percent of U.S. Muslims have a college degree, versus 44 percent of the general population. The U.S. average income is $42,000; 66 percent of U.S. Muslims earn over $50,000, and 26 percent over $100,000, according to Allied Media Corp.

Second, Muslims’ sense of identity is growing. Ever since the Iranian Islamic revolution of the late 1970s, Islam has become an increasingly important factor in the identity of Muslims, especially young Muslims. Many are demanding that their Muslim identity be acknowledged and taken seriously.

Third, most global brands and marketers have not gone out of their way to examine Muslims in depth. They have shied away from addressing Muslims or taking them into account—except at a local level and with products dictated by pure adherence to religious dictates and practices: halal meats; Sharia-compliant ( i.e., non-interest-bearing) financial products; and “modest” dress, including the traditional hijab head covering for women. Our research shows that while Muslims are actually more brand aware than the general population, they see themselves as largely ignored by marketers.

The fourth reason, and by the far the most complicated, involves the crucial social role that brands and marketers play, often inadvertently. Brands and products can unite different peoples in shared experiences and values, providing common reference points—or they can divide them. As uncomfortable as it may sound, where there is consumerism, there is the potential for bridging divides. Consider this: Muslims represent one-fifth of the U.S. market for kosher goods, according to the Agricultural Marketing Research Center.

In the 1960s, Bill Bernbach created ads with the slogan, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye,” along with images of various ethnic groups enjoying the bread. Those ads straddled the social issues of the day and helped lead to a subtle shift in attitudes toward Jews in America. That is the kind of comfort marketers need to welcome Muslim friends, neighbors and colleagues into the shopping fold. Put aside all of the criticism that marketers suffer for glorifying consumerism, and there is a genuine truth in the bridges brands have built over the years. Think of McDonald’s and single moms and working moms in the early ’90s; Volvo, Absolut and Ikea, among others, and nontraditional couples; and the Virginia Slims campaign that “codified” women’s advance to the mainstream (“You’ve come a long way, baby”).

For global marketers willing and able, there are more bridges waiting to be built.