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How do you solve a problem like... reaching out during Ramadan?

How can brands engage with consumers sensitively during Ramadan?

Each week, we ask readers of The Drum – from brands, agencies and everything in between – for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

Ramadan is one of the biggest religious moments on the planet, but one rarely recognized by advertisers. Last week, Omar El-Gammal, planning director at Wunderman Thompson, wrote about how to connect with audiences during this important time in the Islamic calendar. To follow up, we asked the global industry for their advice for brands looking to reach out during Ramadan.

How do you solve a problem like... reaching out during Ramadan?

Anish Daryani, founder and president director, M&C Saatchi Indonesia

Ramadan 2021 will be unlike any other. As vaccines present a ray of hope, and lockdowns are relaxed, Muslims the world over will be seeing their loved ones in person, a welcome change from the year before. A post-pandemic Ramadan presents opportunities for businesses like they’ve never seen before. From consumer durables to fashion, and personal care to digital products, the Islamic community will splurge on gifting and for gratifying pent-up needs. If brands are not riding this wave, it is certainly an opportunity missed.

The numbers speak for themselves. The halal product market is expected to grow from $1.4tn in 2017 to around $2.6tn by 2024, with the largest share of the market value coming from North America. Another report states that Muslims will account for 2.2 billion people in 2030, that’s 26.4% of the world’s total projected population of 8.3 billion.

A worthy argument for brands to be a part of the conversations around Ramadan is that one in every four people in the world will be celebrating. It is the most significant festival of the year for them, and in most cases they spend 40% to 50% of their annual earnings in a single month. Besides, they will be contributing to many charitable causes, as Islam requires them to contribute 2.5% of their savings and wealth to the poor and the needy. Brands can come forward and provide platforms and means to aid zakat, associating with different causes that also help accomplish their brand purpose. Besides, it helps brands drive inclusion and in return gain acceptance and loyalty of a significantly large consumer base.

Arvinder Gujral, managing director, SEA, Twitter

Though perhaps better known around the world as a month of fasting and abstinence, Ramadan is a celebration characterized by kindness, hope and generosity – and gifting is a huge part of this. In fact, conversations around shopping during Ramadan increased by 22% on Twitter in 2020 compared to the previous year.

The challenge is ensuring sensitivity around the nuances of the holy month, so it’s important for brands to be on the pulse of conversations. For example, on Twitter, the focus is often around sharing information, inspiration and positivity – with that in mind, the most successful Ramadan campaigns typically incorporate an educational element (how to better follow guidelines) and emphasize the spirit of giving and positivity.

Akanksha Goel, founder and managing director, Socialize

Brand owners should question their place in any religious observance. But if you think about what Ramadan means to Muslims around the world, with its emphasis on family, community and eating together, you realize it has cultural importance as well as religious, which creates space for brands. We’re working on a campaign for Old El Paso in the UAE, for example, built around reducing iftar food waste via an app that gives you recipes using your leftovers and tortillas. Every time a recipe is shared they donate to a local food bank, giving this Mexican-inspired brand a culturally appropriate, purposeful place in Ramadan.

Vaishali Sarkar, chief executive officer, Wunderman Thompson Indonesia

In a Muslim majority market like Indonesia, where Ramadhan carries an even bigger significance than Christmas globally, brands need to understand the human sentiment associated with the celebrations. And find not just one but multiple intersection points, be it struggling with hunger pangs while staying committed to fasting for 30 full days (food and beverage brands) or visiting your aging parents in their hometown via Zoom as they struggle with their phones to allow a video call from you (telco brand) or providing food/new clothes for the needy across the nation (food/retail/financial service/delivery service brands).

It’s only when a brand can immerse itself seamlessly within the human experience and essence of Ramadhan that it can truly connect with Indonesian hearts.

Sufia Parkar, regional director of diversity and engagement, Europe and UK, McCann Worldgroup

Don’t picture an elephant! Are you not picturing an elephant? The impossibility of this tells us how brands currently think about Ramadhan. A month of fasting from food becomes a food shopping extravaganza. Isolated ‘Ramadhan Kareem’ displays in food aisles come across as ham-fisted (pun intended) attempts to reach the Muslim pound without understanding the lived experience for Muslims. Many of the 3.5 million Muslims in the UK with purchasing power exceeding £20bn choose this month to really connect with what matters to them. That includes over £130m in charitable donations, much of it given in daily small increments.

Many stay awake till late praying and many wake up in the middle of the night to eat. When coffee came to the UK in the 17th century it was known as the Muslim drink. It would be great for coffee brands to be confident enough to engage with wakeful Muslims. Where is the recognition that with over one million under-25s, many tens of thousands mark a significant rite of passage every year by fasting for their first time? Are brands aware that Prophet Muhammed told Muslims to wear nice clothes for Eid? So yes, there is an elephant in the room after all – the elephant is the missed opportunity to engage with Muslims more purposefully and authentically.

Carol Tay, senior director sales South East Asia, Verizon Media

In South East Asia, where Ramadan and Hari Raya are celebrated by many, the challenge isn’t getting brands to activate but instead to do so meaningfully in a way that is tasteful and sincere.

Brands need to understand the nuances of the season and cater to consumer behavior and schedules during this period – and in every touchpoint ensure that they provide utility and value to the customer that is meaningful. In Singapore, we have worked with brands big and small to help them do so successfully, reaching audiences at optimal times through trusted, diverse channels. This includes campaigns with a ready-to-assemble furnishing brand on home tips to get ready for the festive celebration, and a consumer electronics and furnishing retailer running Ramadan special promotions.

Shelina Janmohamed, vice-president, Ogilvy Islamic Marketing

What if you could have access to an audience that contributes £31bn to the UK economy? And what if I told you that according to research at Ogilvy, 62% of this audience is feeling disappointed in the brand engagement – but 78% would welcome brands?

These numbers should be making brands sit up and take notice. It's simple, isn’t it: it’s a huge business growth opportunity and it is a chance to practice meaningful inclusivity. That is to say, it’s a way to grow your brand at the same time as making an actual difference to the lives of under-represented consumers – in this case Muslim consumers – because Ramadan is as important to them as we consider Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day to the mainstream. So rather than thinking of Muslim audiences as a ’diversity’ tick box, it's time to think about how this is part of annual planning. The most important thing is to not do it as an afterthought. Ask experts who can guide engagement and campaigns.

Tom Ollerton, founder, Automated Creative

We ran a Ramadan campaign for a global consumer FMCG brand in MEA.

We ran hundreds of ads over a series of human- and machine-created ‘sprints’ that allowed us to dig deep into the cultural triggers that were right for the brand.

It was fascinating to see that the Suhur meal drove the best performance alongside the watching of popular TV shows, both bookending the fasting period, and from an image perspective families outperformed individual visual triggers.

The advice here is not to make assumptions or guess, but test a huge range of visual and written triggers based on an understanding of the unique moment that Ramadan is for your audience.

Komal Tariq, media network manager, Brand Advance

Food plays a vital role in during Ramadan. Each day families come together to celebrate breaking their fast with huge meals before dawn and after sunset. As a Muslim woman living in the UK, I thought it was crazy that brands don't take advantage of this event by pushing FMCG products. I have always used Ramadan to try new foods and many of my friends and family do the same.

Mainstream brands do not target us during this period in the same way they do with other religious events such as Christmas or Easter, but with 2.6 million Muslims in the UK, that reach alone should be enough for brands to care.

Alvaro Bretel, head of strategy at Virtue MEA

Ramadan is not only about fasting, nor about Iftar tables filled with delicious recipes. It goes beyond religion. Ramadan is a time of introspection, of spiritual reflection, a time of rejuvenation. It’s a month of humility, passion and wholesomeness. It helps us be more grateful for what we have.

In that sense, Ramadan is a cultural happening from which anyone, Muslims and non-Muslims, can learn a lot. However, brands in the western world shy away from engaging with their audiences during this month. Why have we normalized the Christmas ad where we just get across the values behind it through an emotional story, but avoid even mentioning Ramadan? The holy month is the perfect time to build bridges that unite people through common values in the divided and polarized world we live in. It just needs brands that are willing to take a stand to participate.

Lee Mabey, media strategy director, Dentsu UK

Firstly, you need to ask the client “Can you afford to ignore a population of 3.3 million with a collective buying power of £20 billion?” These numbers alone identify why brands should connect with Muslim consumers in general and not just during Ramadan, although the month does lend itself to more relevancy in message targeting. Muslims are the fastest-growing faith group in the UK with a distinctly youthful skew. These are the future decision makers, and Ramadan is the ideal time to start a long-term engagement strategy with the Muslim community.

Brands are rightly concerned with being labeled opportunistic or inauthentic. Brands should therefore take the time and make the investment to understand this fascinatingly diverse community – or, better still, bring Muslim marketers into their team to bring a real-world perspective and maintain an always on, always relevant approach.

Mouna Kalla-Sacranie, communications and campaigns strategist, Blue State

Ramadan is a month of abstention, self-reflection and reduced consumption. For brands looking to engage Muslim audiences, Ramadan activations should be the last of your worries. Through years of Pride and Black History Month, there are numerous case studies of brands opting for the ‘We care about you (but only for this month)’ tactic, and we see time and time again how this consistently misses the mark. If you want Muslims to care about your brand, see us, understand us and cater to us throughout the year. Wishing us Ramadan Mubarak on top of this is just an added bonus.

Charlotte Birley, managing director, Alive

Unlike Christmas – a time when we see brands vying for commercial gain, and frequently very little reference to religion – Ramadan’s core experience is about empathy, community and connection.

It’s important to bear in mind that it would feel highly inappropriate for brands to activate purely for commercial gain. Companies should find ways to genuinely support their Muslim employees during the fasting month and embrace the spirit of gratitude, humility and self-restraint.

Connection is key at this important time in the Islamic calendar – a time when many Muslims give to charity and reflect upon what is important to them. The holy month goes far beyond just fasting. Really empathizing with the Muslim experience is critical for brands looking to play a role at this time.

Each week, we pick a new topic for discussion. Want to join in? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com to be included in future editions of this series.