Brands are at last starting to humanize Muslims – let’s not go back

With Eid upon us, Ogilvy’s vice-president of Islamic marketing Shelina Janmohamed discusses what brands can learn from the first post-pandemic Ramadan.

Two years ago, when lockdown hit us all in 2020, Ramadan was one of the first big cultural occasions to be affected. The Muslim month of fasting was stripped of its congregations and iftar gatherings. Gone was everything that made Ramadan magical for the UK’s approximately 4 million Muslims.

While everyone was trying to survive being shut in their homes and isolated, this meant Muslims felt a double whammy of loss – what others were going through, plus Ramadan snatched away from them. But something surprising happened: with all of us at home, and precious little good news to uplift us, Ramadan and Eid gained coverage and prominence unlike ever before. The challenges of Ramadan got more coverage than ever. Stories were told and iftars went online and became accessible. The challenges of Ramadan became everyone’s challenges, and the joy of Muslims on Eid became everyone’s joy.

Fast forward to 2022, and Ramadan is back, and when it comes to our high streets and online it’s bigger than ever. Fueled by the shared experiences I’ve described, and a more conscious approach to inclusion ignited by the anti-racism movement of 2020, there has been an upturn – and a thoughtful one at that – in engaging with Muslim audiences.

One of my favorites has been the Mr Men and Little Miss ‘Happy Eid’ book. Because what is a celebration without appealing to nostalgia and our inner child?

Tesco created a digital billboard with empty plates that transform after dark, with the caption: ‘In honour of everyone fasting, these plates only fill up once the sun goes down.’ It’s reminiscent of similar ‘sundown’ campaigns in the Middle East and South East Asia, but it feels joyful to be reinvented for the UK.

Iftar was served for the very first time in the Virgin Atlantic airport lounge for Muslim travelers. And on the flights to Pakistan, meal service ordered was flipped in the timing so it would arrive in time for iftar rather than before.

Uber Eats created an initiative offering free iftar meals for their drivers who are fasting. Any employee working at iftar time knows how meaningful that is. Meta also filled fridges in the office with food for employees to take home for iftar to save them that fatigue-with-frantic experience of rushing to cook iftar after work.

At Ogilvy we worked with Sainsbury’s on its first ever Ramadan and Eid campaign. Instead of being stuck in an old-fashioned idea of Ramadan (which has plagued Ramadan campaigns in the UK in past years), the campaign centers British Muslims themselves and their journey through the month, including their wide variety of tastes – and importantly injecting honest humor into the conversation with them. As a Muslim and Islamic Marketing expert on the project, the aim was to be with Muslims in the month and the reality of their experiences, not to run the campaign as an outsider.

Next has taken a holistic approach covering Eid clothing, gifting and homeware. It follows in the footsteps of the likes of John Lewis and Asda, which have already dipped their toes into this approach.

In Ogilvy’s The Great British Ramadan report, we looked for the first time in the UK at the British Muslim consumer experience in Ramadan and Eid, and identified that this broader approach is the key to unlocking a deeper insight and engagement with Muslim audiences.

This is all reflected even in the media requests I’ve been receiving.

Instead of only simple introductions to ‘what is Ramadan?’ and ‘how do Muslims celebrate Eid?’ it’s more nuanced: have retailers shifted their positioning? How has the Ramadan economy grown (a term I coined at Ogilvy)? Will there be a consumer move from independent retailers to mainstream brands? Will this affect community high streets? Even whether the cost of living crisis has been affecting Ramadan spending and Eid preparations.

This is big. Brands and businesses are at last starting to humanize Muslims and see them as a consumer audience that seeks and responds to engagement.

The most important point of all though – which hasn’t happened to date – is to remember that Muslim consumers exist for the remaining 11 months of the year too. The risk that comes with brands resting on their laurels at their Ramadan and Eid efforts – and nothing more – is that Muslims will quickly start to feel like this month of spiritual practice is being commercialized and exploited, rather one important pillar of an ongoing conversation that recognizes, supports and values Muslim consumers.

What should brands (and you, dear reader) do? It sounds obvious, but understand that the audience is the starting point – something that sadly isn’t taken seriously by marketers. Stepping out of the shadow of stereotypes of Muslims and understanding how their attitudes and behaviors intersect with your brand is the first step.

Muslims are not homogenous. So the next step is to identify the core target for your brand.

Build a relevant consumer experience for your brand by standing in your Muslim shoppers’ shoes. For example, one thing I spotted this year at one supermarket, which was (fabulously) offering a Ramadan section, was that it was surrounded by alcohol. Muslims aren’t prudes, and get that supermarkets sell other products. But it speaks to a sloppiness in the end-to-end experience that shows that no one has stood in the shoppers’ shoes.

Create new products and propositions for your Muslim audiences. Too often it’s a lazy reinvention of existing products targeted at the wrong demographic.

Then find the right language in branding and communications that feels as contemporary and sophisticated as it is for other audiences.

Eid will run in the UK from May 1 to May 3. Muslims don’t go into hibernation until next year, so brands need to keep their interest and engagement alive.

Studies from the Middle East about digital engagement have shown that positivity toward brands extends for up to six weeks after Ramadan. Brands should not squander this. Instead, it’s the perfect time to establish longer-term relationships.

Shelina Janmohamed is vice-president of Islamic marketing at Ogilvy Consulting.