By Charlotte McEleny, digital editor

January 25, 2021 | 10 min read

As Muslim consumers gain more agency in the marketplace, brands across the world are changing the way they speak to – and about – this audience. Can they communicate without condescension?

When Unilever set in stone the commandment that its brands shalt not sow stereotypes, a collective ‘amen’ went up across much of the industry. And for many young Muslims in particular, it was a vow long overdue.

The danger of insulting and isolating potential consumers through crude stereotypes is a clear and present danger for brands – particularly those hoping to woo young Muslims. More importantly, the promotion of stereotypes is one of many factors driving division and racism in the world and limiting a wider understanding of the personal and spiritual choices that people make.

And while Muslims make up a large proportion of the audience of many mainstream brands, their potential as a consumer group has only recently been recognized by some of the world’s biggest. Such as Nike, which has sold the Pro Hijab line since 2017 to enable hijabi athletes to compete in comfort.

Shelina Janmohamed, vice-president of Islamic marketing at Ogilvy, runs one of the few major agencies with a specialized unit for marketing to Muslims. She says that Muslim consumers want brands to engage with them as Muslims. “Over 90% of Muslims we spoke to said that there is something about their Muslim faith that informs their consumption. This is particularly the case among young Muslims, and those under 30 make up approximately two-thirds of the global Muslim population.”

Their aspiration, says Janmohamed, is to live in a way that brings together their faith values and identity with the best that modernity has to offer. “They see consumption and brands as a way to uphold those values.”

But where there is opportunity, there’s often risk. In the case of marketing around faith, and to Muslims in particular, there’s a fine balance between finding a connection and stereotyping.

“Most faith-abiding consumers live a life guided by the teachings of their religion and it shapes their thinking, behavior, values and tradition – but also the way they see themselves in the world and the way they navigate consumerism too,” explains Nazirah Ashari, TBWA’s head of planning in Malaysia. “It is an element so rooted in them that requires a connection of some kind from brands in order to be relevant.”

Finding this connection is a challenge, particularly with a faith that is so widespread and diverse. In the past, advertisers have focused on the Arab world when representing Islam. Over 60% of the global Muslim population lives in Asia, however, with 15% in Africa and a sizable minority throughout Europe.

In the United Kingdom, Zeal Creative conducted research among young Muslims in a bid to understand the relationship between their buying decisions and their faith.

The agency’s head of planning, Callum Saunders, says of the findings: “Clichéd color palettes such as green and white run the risk of missing the mark with an emerging audience of younger Muslims. We heard in focus groups that this reflects the colors of ‘brand Pakistan’ rather than the diverse and wider make-up of Britain’s contemporary Muslim consumers.”

Saunders adds that this response from younger audiences shouldn’t provoke a distancing from family or heritage. Instead, he says it signifies a need for brands and for wider popular culture to understand how followers of Islam live in modern Britain. With religious observances such as Ramadan worth more than £400m to the UK economy, moving beyond stereotypes is a commercial necessity even in countries where Islam is not the majority religion.

The common advice for those seeking relevance is to adopt a purpose-led approach and to actually follow through. TBWA’s Ashari points out that faith-based communities place a high value on ethical behavior. “I’m a believer that the way a brand approaches its relationship with faith-based consumers says a lot about the kind of business it is. I’m not saying the goal is for a brand to become religious in nature – though there are brands with very specific propositions for people of faith – but it’s important to note that almost every religion puts ethics on a pedestal. So a brand that cares about finding relevance with a faith-based audience must be ethical first. Start with that and relevance will follow.”


Edelman Malaysia’s managing director Mazuin Zin says that, after 20 years of research through the company’s Trust Barometer, the resounding message is that trust and purpose are key to gaining ground with younger buyers. “Strictly in our experience, today’s audience responds better when you treat them as individuals rather than as a conventional, stereotypical tribe. Social media has given them the voice that brands and businesses can’t afford to ignore. And they are keen on how your brand can help them resolve real-life issues rather than dialing-up clichéd empowerment messages. So ‘purpose’ is the new religion that they respond to and trust.”

Zin goes on to explain: “We’ve seen that walking the talk on purpose is the only way into the lives of young people, irrespective of the faith they follow. We’ve seen how brands – be that Unilever, Telekom Malaysia, HP or Novartis – get the desired engagement and trust scores from their respective audiences when they walk the talk on their brand purpose and the causes they are championing in society.”

The advice is also championed by Jonathan AJ Wilson, who is professor of brand strategy and culture at Regent’s University London as well as editor-in-chief for the Journal of Islamic Marketing and the author of the book Halal Branding. He says that, as with all faiths, Muslims are so culturally varied that even purpose-led debates need to move to new arenas. “Like other faith groups and minority segments, Muslims are culturally nuanced,” he explains.

“Elsewhere, debates have moved forward to address issues such as colorism, body positivity, gender equality in the workplace, sustainability, and away from basic representation using signals such as a headscarf or celebrating religious festivals. If ‘Islamic branding’ is to succeed, it has to be part of these wider initiatives. Similarly, I have argued that the halal food industry could do more to explore some of the Islamic values outlined in holy texts. Some young Muslim consumers have observed these in the rise of veganism, and supported it by adopting more flexitarian lifestyles.”

Purpose-led marketing isn’t a new phenomenon. But inertia from insincere messaging has driven many young people to require brands to walk the talk. Indeed, Edelman’s Trust Barometer Report shows this as a key trend.

Social media, which has empowered young Muslims across the globe, has also driven demand for brand trust. Saiful Islam, head of storytelling and communication at Muslim market specialist agency MIN, says that while social media has played a big part in both marginalizing and empowering people, it has also given rise to a lot of new communities and groups.

“Previously, people may have been hesitant to talk about their faith, their hijab struggles or how modesty matters. Today though, youngsters are able to know there’s someone like them out there. This idea of relatability has created more trust in faith.”


For Muslims around the world, this is a pressing need. Islamophobia is on the rise, as seen in hate crimes such as the Christchurch shootings and the state-sponsored persecution of the Uighurs in China. TBWA’s Ashari says that passion from young Muslims to share their faith and rally around its cultural importance is not just a trend, but a necessity amid the darkness.

“Simply put, it’s scary to be a Muslim in the world right now. All these events are happening because people have decided to make an enemy out of us and our faith, instilling fear among good Muslims and taking away the pride in ourselves and our choice of faith.

“Couple that with the connection Islam has with public perception, the prejudices that we endure – especially Muslim women – and the stereotypes that limit us from achieving our fullest potential. Because of these things, young Muslims – individually and collectively as a global community – want to reclaim our narrative and reassert pride in our identity. Yes, it is our way of empowering each other and our choices. But I refuse to call it a trend because, for many, there is no choice but to rise against a reality that’s dark and hurtful.”

However, Islamophobia could potentially dampen nascent movement among brands creating products and services that fit the lives of Muslims. Shaad Hamid, who heads growth marketing for south-east Asia at GrowthOps, explains: “I’m actually seeing a dark trend emerge as a result of Islamophobia. Since businesses are trying to cater to Muslim customers due to financial reasons, a movement to counter it appears to have emerged. Which is essentially saying, ‘if your products are halal, then I’m boycotting you’. This may lead to many businesses not having an incentive to cater to Muslims.”

Still, there are many brands that have navigated the complexities and which are creating products and marketing that empower Muslim consumers. Representation in marketing is just the starting point for brands in majority Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. And in the travel and beauty sectors, some brands are beginning to go beyond ensuring diversity in their communications. Given that many Muslims choose to live a high-participatory lifestyle – praying five times a day or electing to wear a hijab, for example – tailoring experiences around this can be highly rewarding for both consumers and brands.

Ashari cites TBWA’s 2019 Muslim travel research as she explains: “We foresee young Muslim female travelers to be the next disruption, particularly those hailing from Malaysia and Indonesia who have started traveling independently or in all-female groups. We call this area of interest ‘sisters on tour’, whereby one-in-three females have already traveled for leisure with girlfriends and a high percentage are planning to do so.”

This ‘sisters on tour’ trend has given rise to hijab-free holidays – female-only beach holidays spent in private villa accommodation with access to a private swimming pool. Even in many halal-conscious hotels, there is a set time period every afternoon where pools and spas are only accessible to women and managed and staffed by women, adds Ashari. Likewise, brands like Sunsilk and Rejoice are leading the way in creating haircare products for hijab-wearing women.

Businesses aiming to market to such a nuanced group of people must empower individuals while using the power of a brand platform to represent and amplify diversity. Rather than being put off by this challenge, brands should see marketing to modern Muslims as a part of their efforts to cultivate real relevance for consumers, harbor long-term relationships and walk the talk on the issues that really matter.

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