The key to connecting with Muslim Americans, finds Tanya Lewis, is respecting their unique qualities while recognizing the similarities to other US consumer markets.
One look at the American-Muslim demographic will reveal a young, educated, affluent population that's both highly loyal and eager to be engaged by US companies. Yet, the market is basically untapped.
Research conducted by Pew Research Center, Ogilvy Noor, an Islamic branding consultancy, media research and advisory firm DinarStandard, and other organizations has begun to shed light on the American-Muslim market's spending power, with annual estimates ranging from $125 billion to more than $200 billion.
“The total population is 6 million to 7 million and it's growing really fast – about 6% per year, whereas the overall population growth in the US is about 1% per year,” says Aimée Chiu, director of media, communications, and PR at the American Islamic Congress. “At minimum, we expect it to double in the next 20 years.”
Given the dramatic growth slated for the American-Muslim consumer community, Lisa Mabe, founder and principal of Hewar Social Communications, says, “Missing the Muslim market today would be like missing the Hispanic market in the 1990s.”
A 2010 Ogilvy Noor study found almost 75% of American-Muslim consumers want to feel like an integral part of the wider community, 98% feel US brands don't actively reach out to them, while 80% prefer to buy brands that support Muslim identity, such as through promoting and celebrating religious festivals.
Getting the word out on Islam
Lawrence Kopp is president of The TASC Group, which mostly represents advocacy organizations, progressive causes, nonprofits, and NGOs. The TASC Group's crisis communications work for Park51, a multifaith community center that opened near the World Trade Center site last September, caught the attention of the Islamic Circle of North America, which hired the firm to expand efforts to educate people about Islam and Shariah, which Kopp explains as a code of living one's life as a good Muslim, similar to Judaic Law or the Ten Commandments. “9/11 was a tipping point for Americans and dramatically affected the US public and the prejudices we believe about Islam the faith and Muslims in general,” says Kopp. “There are 1 billion-plus Muslims in the world and the vast majority don't live in the Middle East. Americans' view is warped and has been exacerbated by the media.”
Shariah edicts include honoring God, being a good neighbor, being a devout Muslim, truthfulness, and dietary laws.
“It has nothing to do with changing local, state, or federal laws – in fact, it obligates Muslims to live within the laws of the country in which they reside,” notes Kopp. “Shariah is a word that's been used by racist and hate groups to harm Muslims and the Islamic faith and by political organizations and politicians to gain political advantage.”
The Islamic Circle of North America hired the TASC Group for the Defending Religious Freedom, Understanding Shariah campaign that launched in March 2012 with a yearly budget of $3 million to $4 million.
The campaign entails a 24-hour hotline (1-855-SHARIAH) to answer questions about Shariah and Islam, website defendingreligiousfreedom.com, and engagement on the Islamic Circle's Facebook pages.
The effort looks to mobilize 40 national Islamic Circle chapters, thousands of volunteers, and approximately 15,000 attendees of its annual convention. Education and interfaith events, town hall forums, and other activities are scheduled for 25 US cities. In addition, seminars will be held on 20 US college campuses.
There will be traditional media outreach, as well as PSAs, billboards, and radio ads in about 20 US cities.
Chiu notes that American Muslims mirror the general public in education and income levels, and the percentage of affluent American-Muslim households earning more than $100,000 per year is nearly equal to general population households. She also says higher education is a priority for American Muslims, adding that they have an affinity for careers in engineering, law, and medicine.
A 2011 Pew study found 82% of American Muslims are satisfied with how things are going in their lives and 79% rate their communities “excellent” or “good.” In 2007, Pew found American Muslims and the general public equally satisfied with the state of the nation (38% and 32%, respectively), but by 2011 those numbers broadened greatly – 56% of Muslim Americans felt satisfied with the state of the nation compared to 23% of the general public.
“It's a prime segment because they're feeling very positive, they have a good amount of money to spend, and they're really open to brands,” adds Shelina Janmohamed, senior strategist at Ogilvy Noor.
The American Islamic Congress' director of government and international relations John Pinna, an American Muslim himself, says it's vital to understand that the US is home to the most diverse Muslim population in the world.
“It's a multifaith, inter-ethnic multicultural group – it's not homogeneous,” he explains. “It's multifaith in that multiple sects within Islam exist in America. The mantra of American Muslims is ‘work hard, make money.' Though we're diverse, that's a commonality. We consider ourselves Americans. We go through the same growing pains every other immigrant population went through. We're looking to be recognized as American Muslims.”
Janmohamed echoes the sentiment, noting that American Muslims don't want to feel segregated. “They feel very American, very patriotic, and part of the American lifestyle,” she adds. “To be fully included, the products they need should be available to them in the mainstream. This is a key underpinning.”
Halal-certified products are in high demand – 81.2% of American Muslims responded to a 2011 DinarStandard survey that mainstream companies could win loyalty by increasing availability of halal products. According to the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, halal is defined as “lawful or permitted.” Its requirements for consumer products include no pork, no alcohol, and various criteria for treatment of animals and slaughter practices.
“Halal is really just a health preference, though there are religious implications,” Pinna explains. “Halal is to Muslims what kosher is to the Jewish population. Access is an issue. For instance, if you want to have halal steak night in Washington, DC, you've got to come to my house.”
Interestingly, quite a few big American brands, such as Krispy Kreme and Hershey's, are widely sold and very popular in Muslim-majority countries yet they don't appear to be reaching out to American Muslims. (Krispy Kreme recently got halal certification in the UK).
“Halal products are nothing new for many of the largest, most innovative CPG companies,” says Mabe. “Many have had halal products for years in Muslim-majority countries. As awareness about the growing Muslim consumer market continues and companies begin to see the power of Muslims, both in number and in spending, more of them with existing halal production overseas will begin to consider adapting products here to meet halal requirements.”
Halal products have great potential to appeal to broader US consumers, such as those seeking organic, natural, and ethically produced products. Janmohamed says vegetarian products are more likely to be halal and overlaps between halal and kosher requirements often mean one product can get certification for both. She also notes crossover potential with cosmetics, beauty products, and women's clothing.
Saffron Road, maker of halal certified packaged food, was founded by practicing Muslim Adnan Durrani. The brand is a testament to the crossover potential of halal products.
“We wanted to create a brand and a brand platform relevant to halal consumers,” explains Jack Acree, Saffron Road's EVP of sales and marketing. “Through the branding process it became clear we wanted to be relevant to all Americans who shared certain values in terms of food.
“We walk a line of how halal we are in terms of how we position ourselves,” he adds. “There's a danger of segregation – such as kosher foods, which until recently, by and large, were very segregated in stores. We never shy away from being a halal company, but we look at a much broader audience than just the Muslim market. The majority of our consumers are likely not Muslim given the sheer number of products we sell in stores such as Kroger and Publix [in areas without a high concentration of Muslim customers].”
Saffron Road, which Mabe represents, launched at Whole Foods in August 2010 during Ramadan, a major annual Muslim celebration. Both companies reached out to American Muslims through various online and in-store channels and both have been widely recognized by the American-Muslim community and mainstream media.
“American Muslims are waiting to be addressed,” Acree says. “In a Gallup poll, they identified themselves as Americans first, Muslims second. The way we communicate with them is very modern, very American, and it's based on including them. From the get-go, we were very active within social media and we built up to the Ramadan pro-motion last year with Whole Foods. When addressed in a respectful way, their response is overwhelming in terms of loyalty and talking about it within the community.”
Acree raises an important point about the speed with which messages – both negative and positive – spread through this community. The Ogilvy Noor study found 83% of American Muslims feel it's their responsibility to inform all their friends and family of what they know of a brand's behavior and sentiments.
The community is also relatively young and very active online. Gallup puts the average age at 36. Pew's “Demographic and Economic Profile of Muslim Americans” re-ports Muslims regularly use social networking sites more than the general public – 57% compared to 44% – and they closely mirror the general public in the amount of TV they watch and video games they play.
Standing by a decision to reach out to American Muslims is critical. The Ogilvy Noor study found nearly 99% would stop using a brand that has offended Muslims and 65% would do so even if available alternatives weren't as good.
In addition, 70% want American companies to be unafraid to support Muslims in public. Lowe's learned this the hard way late last year.
Launched in mid-April in Malaysia, this buying site similar to Groupon targets the growing Muslim middle class and hit 100,000 subscribers in its first month, according to CEO Iskandar Ezzahuddin. While not exclusively targeted to halal-certified products, the site allows users to customize their account to filter out inappropriate deals, such as those involving alcohol. The site also works with vendors and retailer partners on verifying halal certification.
A global social network set to launch in mid-July during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and celebration. Istanbul-based Salamworld will provide Muslims a place to share knowledge, skills, and useful information, as well as jobs and business opportunities. Content will follow Islamic law. The site hopes to have 5 million to 15 million users by the end of 2012 and will be available in eight languages, including English, Turkish, and Russian, with more to follow.
The company was running ads on The Learning Channel program All-American Muslim, but backlash from the nonprofit Florida Family Association prompted Lowe's to pull ads from the show, which ended up being cancelled this past March after one season.
According to the association's website, it pressured advertisers because the show “appeared to be propaganda designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and
Sharia [sic] law.” The website also touts that the organization influenced 101 of 122 companies (Walmart, P&G, Starbucks, and Disney among them) to discontinue advertising during All-American Muslim.
Lowe's eventual decision to pull the ads compounded criticism.
“American-Muslim consumers are really conscious that [reaching out] takes commitment,” says Janmohamed. “They appreciate something small, but US brands need to be a bit brave. Whole Foods is a great example. It promoted products, stuck by it, and got sales and good will.”
Education about Islam and Shariah, which is Islamic religious law, is clearly important for both US companies and non-Muslim US consumers. Shariah has been cast as a threat by numerous conservative lawmakers and pundits who hold that adoption of its tenets is an extremist strategy to infiltrate and harm the US. Newt Gingrich advocates a federal law mandating that Shariah law not be recognized by any US court, while 13 states are considering legislation forbidding Shariah.
Beyond the issue of negative stereotyping and the need for education is lack of available resources for outreach to this market. “There's a lack of time and money, as well as a focus on trying to reach other multicultural groups that may be larger or have more money to spend,” Mabe says.
Understanding Muslim values and analyzing products to determine if they already meet halal standards or can be easily modified to meet them are good first steps.
“Muslim consumers seek respect, understanding, and outreach – all subsets of the broader idea of wanting empathy,” Janmohamed explains.
“Hone in on understanding their values – especially mutual values shared with mainstream American culture, such as hospitality, family, and charitable giving, in brand messaging and actions,” Mabe adds. “For a product that doesn't need adapting, say a smartphone, the company could just change messaging to focus on something relevant to Muslim lifestyle, such as the call to prayer.”
Both Chiu and Pinna say it's unnecessary to be an expert on the religion to engage.
“Many people think they need an understanding of Islam,” says Pinna. “Do respect the religion, but engagement mechanisms are the same as any other population. Apply the same vehicles thoughtfully. American Muslims are just like all other Americans –they buy sneakers, watch TV, and seek engagement not just from a religious perspective. Companies need not understand all the sects. They need to know it's a faithful community, but just like everyone else otherwise.”
As with any demographic, companies can benefit from supporting local Muslim communities and aligning with influencers and thought leaders. Even small gestures, such as including greetings and well wishes to Muslims in messaging on websites, social media properties, or through in-store promotional materials for Ramadan or for Eid, a religious holiday that falls after Ramadan, will resonate.
Aligning with influencers continues to be a priority for Saffron Road. Work with blogger Yvonne Maffei of My Halal Kitchen is ongoing, while a relationship was recently established with Amanda Mouttaki of MarocMama.com. The company is also sponsoring bloggers to attend food conferences, including BlogHer Food this month.
Community outreach has also escalated this year. Efforts include sponsoring events for Zaytuna University, sponsoring a Muslim family health expo in Michigan, and reaching out to Muslim centers, mosques, and imams in local com-munities, particularly in the western US to help raise awareness of an upcoming product launch at 30 Costco stores.
Saffron Road's plans for Ramadan, which starts in July, include posting Ramadan-centric content on various owned online channels, blogger giveaways, media relations, charitable donations tied to new Facebook likes, and retailer promotions and coupons. Acree adds that Whole Foods will host in-store promotions and sales and feature Saffron Road on its website.
Chiu says the American Islamic Congress is excited about increased understanding of the American-Muslim market and the values it shares with the general population.
“Saffron Road has shown the potential to reach broader market segments,” she says. “It's easy to understand that as companies market to this segment, the potential for social change and the building of social acceptance is there.”