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Ramadan advertising in the west is behind the times, here's how to fix it

Coca-Cola and McDonald's have ran more thoughtful Ramadan campaigns in Muslim majority countries / Coca-Cola

The month of Ramadan is upon us. Muslims around the world will be fasting from sunrise to sunset, that means no food or drink (yes not even water) during daylight hours.

Ramadan falls at a different time each year, as it follows the Islamic lunar calendar. Evenings throughout the month are frequently punctuated with friends and family dinner invitations, in homes or restaurants. Some people even meet up later for pre-dawn breakfasts. Following Ramadan, Eid celebrations commence for several days and mark the end of fasting. Brands should think of Eid almost as a Muslim equivalent to Christmas. What they will find during this period is that food, friends, family and gifting reach another level.

Further food for thought is that Islam is the world’s second largest religion behind Christianity. According to the Pew Research Center, Muslims will grow more than twice as fast as the overall world population and, in the second half of this century, will likely surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group

However, Ramadan advertising in the west is at least a couple of decades behind the times.

I want to illustrate my point by looking at Christmas ads. In the west, if a brand produced an campaign that showed a handful of white mum and dad families smiling, muzak in the background, with the message ‘Merry Christmas, come and shop with us’ it would be labelled as toothless bland wallpaper, and even worse out of touch.

So why should the same approach work when creatives show a couple of South Asian families on-screen saying ‘Ramadan Kareem’ (which basically translates from Arabic into ‘Ramadan greetings’).

If we look at London, where over a third of SMEs are Muslim owned, and 12.4% of the population is Muslim, with some boroughs rising to over 30%, there have been a few local ads and in-store displays featuring Arabic calligraphy, stars and crescents, and no pictures.

However, essentially they embody the same half-hearted play-it-safe attempt I’m highlighting.

Just like multi-ethnic relationships and children are on the rise, brands would do well to consider the UK Muslim convert population also of over 100,000 and their influence on non-Muslim friends and families.

In Muslim majority countries, there have been more thoughtful Ramadan ads, which have worked because they've shown show global brands (like Coca-Cola and McDonald's) celebrating monocultural norms and customs; a nod to say 'we remembered and we care'.

That’s a good starting point, but most of us want to elicit deeper feelings and actions from our potential consumers, for our advertising to resonate and work. In 2017, Tesco debuted a Christmas advert in the UK featuring a Muslim family, which received mixed receptions. One clanger expressed by the Muslim community was that the supermarket wasn't actually selling Halal turkeys. Personally, I was left hoping a brand would run a Ramadan advert where it featured non-Muslim families.

How to give a Ramadan

Looking at previous campaigns there are clear gaps in marketers' understanding and room for improvement, so here are 12 pointers on how to address those and run successful, meaningful campaigns for next year's Ramadan:

  1. You’re not advertising religion, it’s not a religious ad. it's an ad intended to serve the faithful and drive brand affinity and consumption. This is an important nuance
  2. Although it's a religious month, there are many Muslims who fast but are not religious and don't pray , but they just fast because of the cultural and festive atmosphere, or as a month of physical and emotional detox
  3. Not all Muslims are South Asian, and the majority of Muslims do not speak Arabic as their native language
  4. Muslims live in a state of duality – where they share a religion that brings them together, but still hold onto their own distinct ethnic, national, and cultural heritage
  5. Younger generations are becoming more culturally complex with hyphenated identities
  6. Most Muslim women don’t wear a hijab (a headscarf), but hijabs have become a handy Muslim identifier and a diversity box-tick for brands. In the identity-politics battle let’s not forget that being a Muslim is about more than wearing a head wrap
  7. There are many styles of wearing a hijab, and those that wear them read them as cultural signals, in much the same way as some people would a pair of trainers
  8. Black Muslims are often overlooked, yet many have had some of the biggest impact on popular culture inside and outside of the Muslim community
  9. Social media usage among the demographic you want to target is heavy during this month
  10. Research by Dr Nihal Ayad and I found that, regardless of religiosity, the most offensive thing that advertisers can do is be patronising Muslim audiences.
  11. For agencies, make sure there are creatives on your team who mirror the target audience for sincere authenticity
  12. You need to get the balance right between appropriation and appreciation, and alienation and integration. Ultimately though, remember that from a marketing perspective Muslims want to fit in and be loved

More than ever, advertising showcases minority community diversity on grounds of race, gender, disability, and body size, but the nuances and complexity of religion as a demographic, geographic, behavioural, and psychographic segmentation factor are both underdeveloped and underutilised in comparison.

There aren’t enough meaningful characters to support these depictions and more could be done by advertisers to link religion to these other minority traits.

The 90s saw a shift in thinking towards the mainstream accepting African American culture and entertainment and we can see how now it’s become a juggernaut source for popular culture today, not to mention a vehicle for many advertising and branding campaigns.

Ramadan is ripe for offering the same positive disruption.

Nike flies the black fist with Colin Kaepernick and rocks the hijab with Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, as did Barbie, but no advertiser has yet has delivered a Muhammad Ali-like knock out blow in the Ramadan ring.

Marketers should take the lead from sport, music and entertainment: sign up Guz Khan, Nadiya Hussain, Mo Salah, Mo Farah, Paul Pogba, Sadio Mane, Sonny Bill Williams, even Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens)… just make sure your ads champion storytelling, cultural relevance, nostalgia, music, humour, grit, and meaning.

I get it, maybe marketers fear a social media backlash from vocal minorities on far right, or suspicious conservative Muslims, but remember that the Muslim majority wants to be represented.

Work with specialists, doing due diligence and consulted experts who swim in the same waters as these communities and topics will serve as a buffer to any possible backlash.

Also remember that while the media has already reported the Muslim opportunity: it’s not an opportunity, it’s a community, so brands need to be in it for the long game. You're talking to a young and growing population, whose beliefs are becoming more complex, so move with the times.

And if you want respect, authenticity, diversity, and stand out, then they’re over here waiting for you.

Professor Jonathan A.J. Wilson is marketing consultant and author of Halal Branding

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