How can global brands overcome Ramadan as a tickbox exercise?

Coca-Cola Egypt's Ramadan campaign

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts this week and each year we see some brands meekly dip a toe into the Ramadan pool. Up pop clichéd ads giving a nod to the religious festival through customary crescents, minarets and a ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ slogan. Those brands and advertisers then promptly pat themselves on the back with a sense of ‘it’s job done’ and that Ramadan box has been ticked.

But living and working in the Middle East, I can categorically say that this kind of marketing is at best lazy, and at worse ignorant. In the Muslim world, we see many brands going far beyond those clichéd tickboxes and in the process become part of the modern cultural fabric of Ramadan. How can global brands overcome Ramadan as a tickbox exercise?

Ramadan: the missed opportunity

Vimto might not necessarily be a brand at the forefront of minds in the UK. Yet for the last twenty years, it has become the staple, table centrepiece drink, intertwined with the Ramadan ritual across the Middle East. It’s so expertly tapped into the elements that make up this special time for Muslims - family, food, fasting and charity – that its ads are no less eagerly-anticipated than Coca-Cola’s famous Christmas ad.

To illustrate the scale of the missed opportunity here for global brands failing to market correctly, the month-long Ramadan is for many Muslims the only time each year where the whole family is together due to different lifestyle patterns, often in front of televisions. Shrewd brands know this all too well, and will fight it out for the primetime TV ad slots just after Iftar (the breaking of fast) when media consumption is at its highest annually.

In fact, so fierce is the rivalry for those primetime ads that telco brands will typically plan their Ramadan ads and compose the accompanying songs 6 months in advance. Yet we continue to see global brands focus on the three days celebration following Ramadan known as Eid when media consumption is lowest.

There’s also no other time in the year with a higher purchasing drive than the month of Ramadan – buying cars is popular, and some people even gain weight. For a period of fasting, this might surprise many, but it shows how the Muslim consumer is changing and the opportunity for FMCG brands in particular to become part of a new Ramadan ritual like Vimto successfully established.

What do Muslims really want

Other global companies are often not making the same effort to truly understand Muslims or Ramadan. This results in misconceptions about what Muslims want and sometimes, major blunders such as Tesco’s 2015 Whitechapel store display wishing Muslims a ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ with Smokey Bacon Pringles. It could only have fared worse if the major retailer put the display in a store right next to one of Europe’s largest Muslim places of worship – which Tesco ended up doing.

These brands need to think as creatively as possible to cut through the chatter by tapping into what Muslims want. Orange Egypt served an ad encouraging people to share pictures on social of places where they stuck ‘#FaaelKheir’ (meaning: charitable person) - from fridges to front doors – which was a smart way of ensuring the ad campaign touched on what makes Ramadan truly special: charity.

One of the best ads hands down was created by Coca-Cola Egypt. It pulled together a very simple digital ad which went viral despite not being pushed ATL thanks to guaranteeing that all ad dollars would go to charity in line with the benevolent message underpinning Ramadan. It blew its competitor Pepsi’s ad out of the water and has gone down in history as one of the best Ramadan ad campaigns to date.

What’s stopping global brands?

So what’s stopping those global brands from converting that toe-dipping into a plunge in the UK market?

Many brands seem to freak out about getting involved in Ramadan or are reticent due to risks of Islamophobia or hardline backlashes. But while brands may feel stuck in a quandary, Coca-Cola Kenya which runs both Christmas and Ramadan ads has masterfully shown a brand can navigate this rock and a hard place confidently. It is important here that Muslims are not just represented, but represented organically and sensitively.

UK-founded Vimto could easily make an almost ironic segue back to home territory given the authentic brand voice it has around Ramadan and in Muslim religious lives elsewhere. For some British brands, the authentic brand voice in the Ramadan space might be harder to achieve.

Clearly Carling, Ladbrooks or Pepperami should stay clear of this space. Whereas British Airways with its flights to Jeddah (the airport to Mecca), or Selfridges with its multicultural clientele, or Twinnings with its Chai variant and links to the sub-Continent would probably do a great job of wishing customers a peaceful Ramadan (or Ramadan Kareem in Arabic) in a creative way.

On the global stage, one might easily imagine a twist on the traditional breaking of fast snack of milk and dates in a Ben & Jerry's Special Edition Milk & Date "Ramadan IceKreem". Or how about a General Mills glow in the dark, slow energy release, Suhor Special Edition Lucky Charms, perfect for the pre-sunrise last meal before fasting starts and a great way to leverage the cereal's marshmallow moons and stars.

Yasser Akram is regional managing director for the Middle East, Seven Brands. He tweets at @YasserAkram

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