The Muslim population in the UK was estimated at 4.13 million last year; in Birmingham alone it was 280,000.
Despite these numbers, brands have continually ignored this growing portion of our UK audience, with the result being that, for too long, we have all been missing out on the vital narratives of peace, family, love and charity that are all important parts of the Islamic faith and Muslim culture. And Ramadan, also known as Ramadhan or Ramzan, in particular.
These narratives, thankfully, definitely came through in the ads this year. Because if we don’t celebrate this and the positive nuanced layers of Islam, brands could well end up perpetuating unhelpful stereotypes that may feed into the unfair and prominent media narratives that Muslims are extremists, oppressors or oppressed.
The aim of The Diversity Standards Collective is to enable brands, agencies and publishers to speak to people from specific communities, across the globe. Asking people about their diverse lived experiences but also their views and opinions about the work our industry creates helps us all make more authentic work that creates an impact.
With more campaigns appearing celebrating Ramadan this month, we asked two of our Muslim consultants what they thought about the Ramadan ads this year and what brands should consider for next year.
Highlighting different narratives
Outside the theme of food, the ads showed great variety in their depiction of Ramadan. Our consultant Nabeela Zaman, a British Muslim content creator, felt the sentiment of inclusion of the community is an important one.
“The ads are good because they illustrate that Ramadan is a special month and most of the narratives highlight the importance of gatherings and spending time with loved ones,” she says.
The Tesco out-of-home ad (main picture), which was time reactive and revealed food after sunset, was especially well received by our consultant Asifa Lahore, Britain’s first out Muslim drag queen and LGBT+ activist.
She thought it was "simple and effective". Lahore adds: "The colours and foods were warm and inviting. The slogan was appropriate and made a British supermarket feel inclusive."
“The Service Plan Experience ad was also great," Lahore says. "It was funny and really brought the family nature that Ramadan brings every year.
“The Sports Direct offering felt well researched and British Muslim-facing, while McDonald’s Singapore was a great idea, particularly the notion of charity, which is synonymous with Ramadan. I just wish the portions were larger and more than just 80 people. It did veer a little on the side of performative.”
Both Zaman and Lahore picked up on Subway’s inclusion of a boyfriend and girlfriend as a progressive narrative. This is something that would potentially appeal to younger generations.
“[It was] my favourite ad and I was so glad it mentioned boyfriends," Lahore says. "I’ve not seen an ad about Ramadan ever featuring boyfriends and girlfriends. This felt fresh and authentic."
A multidimensional community
I heard at a South Asian-focused event recently that "Ramadan feels different each year and always teaches you something new", which instantly made me think of the evolving stories we see in Christmas ads every year.
This is an important message when thinking about future Ramadan campaigns or work featuring communities outside your own. In order to be truly inclusive, you need to be showing nuances, multidimensional narratives and characters. It’s vital to pay close attention to details to avoid your work coming off as performative or tokenistic.
This is why Lahore thought the Mercedes-Benz work would resonate the least with the British Islamic community. She argues: “This ad would definitely alienate non-Arabic-speaking Muslims. Considering Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia have a much larger Muslim population than the Middle East, I struggle to understand the focus on the Middle Eastern experience of Islam.
“It was also male-dominated and elitist. While I appreciated the documentary aspect of the subject making the journey to Mecca, I felt there was privilege permeating the entire piece. It felt contrived and heavily male-dominated, where women barely appeared and if they did, it was as side characters.”
This year, we’ve learnt that well-researched ads with simple narratives resonate well but intersectionality must be considered. Keeping the diversity within one audience in mind requires a deeper understanding such as the variety of identities within the Islamic faith, including ethnic and economic backgrounds, gender and sexuality.
Getting targeted communication right is a continuous learning process, which is why it’s so important to keep having conversations with the communities we’re focusing on.
As to what they expect from campaigns next year, our consultants have clear ideas about how to build on the diversity of representation for Ramadan.
Zaman hopes for more British representation and a focus on charity: “It would be nice to see more ads from English-speaking countries, Muslims exist outside of Saudi Arabia. An important aspect of Ramadan is charity, it would be heartwarming to see brands making charitable donations in honour of the month and fun more initiatives like McDonald's has done in Singapore.”
Lahore wants to see “more women, non-traditional families, diversity in terms of different races coming together and marginalised minority communities such as the LGBT+ community”.
Next year Ramadan is expected to be from 22 March to 23 April. Get the dates in your calendars now and speak to people from the Islamic community to make sure your campaigns will resonate widely and contribute to a richer understanding of Muslims.
While Eid al-Fitr is over, signifying the end of the holy month of Ramadan, Eid al-Adha (or big Eid, as my friend calls it) takes place from 9-13 July. It is a notable three-day celebration in the Islamic calendar, which is often not picked up by brands. Even if you’re not planning any more TV commercials or OOHs, some research into Eid al-Adha and a mention on social media will be appreciated by the Muslim community and help to educate others about the fullness of the faith.
And if we’re thinking about better representation for the large British South Asian population, Diwali is one of the biggest events in the Hindu calendar, which lands in October this year, and I would personally love to see some campaigns featuring the festival.
Asha Harkness is marketing and operations manager at The Diversity Standards Collective.