Why brands should not overlook the Muslim consumer

Shelina Janmohamed, the vice president of Ogilvy Noor and the author of Generation M, explains why brands should not overlook the 1.6 billion Muslim consumers worldwide.

Working in the communications industry is exciting. It’s about spotting the next big thing, using your powers of analysis to look into the future and see the trends for tomorrow that will shape today.

Part of that is sizing up commercial opportunities, but the really exciting part is uncovering the human stories that underpin the growing markets and having deep knowledge about how to engage with those people.

My book published this week, Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World, locates itself exactly at that junction between a rising consumer segment that is huge in scale and almost entirely untapped, and the stories of young Muslims which are rich and nuanced but surprisingly unheard.

These young Muslims have one defining characteristic – they believe that faith and modernity go hand in hand together, and they deserve the best of both. Positive, optimistic and fully engaged in the world around them, they are seeking brands to respond to their needs.

Look at the numbers: the global Muslim lifestyle market is estimated to grow to $2.6 trillion dollars with an additional $26 trillion for Islamic finance.

The world’s Muslim population at 1.6 billion people is young and brand conscious: one third are under fifteen, two thirds under thirty. Globally, economic growth is low, so the Muslim consumer segment represents a huge opportunity.

Yet businesses have been surprisingly slow to realise the enormity of the market, and slower still to begin to understand and engage. The nervousness and misunderstanding around the simple notion that Muslims buy things, and Muslims want to buy brands is understandable given our media coverage of Muslims.

But it’s time to take a deeper look and see that the stories here are rich, positive and energising, and will help brands reach out to Generation M, but also to reach out beyond and engage with wider consumer trends which Generation M is pioneering.

An extract from Generation M

"There is a perfect storm brewing for the emergence of brands aimed at Generation M: a vast, young, global Muslim demographic with consistent values, brand conscious and loyal; the will to create and promote brands; tech-savvy and globally connected consumers; pioneers of new consumer trends such as eco-friendliness and sustainability in line with wider consumer movements; the ability to harness collective power both within the ummah and across wider sectors and the sophisticated taste and affluence of a growing middle class.

The reason that this is not the story of any other sector, is precisely because Generation M’s faith demands consideration of the ethics of their work, a constant assessment of meaning, overconsumption, extravagance, giving back and stewardship. Of course, these values exist in other business and consumer groups but, the nature of the faith imperative makes these values non-negotiable in production, marketing and consumption as a means of achieving spiritual as well as worldly success.

The ‘third one billion’ of Muslim consumers is coloured green; not the familiar grass green of the environment, but the deeper green of Islam. The reason that existing global brands have been slow to reach out is that global enterprises still operate within matrix structures in which the primary axis is geographic. Instead, the Muslim world is a powerful segment which unifies attitudes and behaviours, but not always by geography. 

The second challenge for brands reaching out to Generation M consumers is the tendency of the marketing and advertising industry to see it as just another interesting segment. In this mindset, it becomes equated with ‘greys’, or the ‘pink dollar’, or Latinos in the US. Of course, all these are very valid targets for segmentation strategies, but the opportunity with Generation M surely differs qualitatively. We are not looking here at a segment which is qualified by one primary difference, be it age, orientation, language or skin colour, and then whether attitudes and behaviour vary from a norm in accordance with that. But for Generation M, the very foundations begin from their faith. So, here is the central point: the kind of brands that we are predicting must adapt in response to Generation M, must bring together faith and modernity and address their aspiration to live a holistic Muslim lifestyle.

It is worth noting that critics who say brands and products aimed at Muslims are wrong or ‘pander’ to Muslims have missed the point: just because Muslims have the commercial world increasingly waking up to their needs does not mean other faiths cannot or should not have the same. And more to the point, Muslim consumers are waiting to be served in a way that meets their consumer aspirations just like any other group, and so far brands have fallen short.

Because the Islamic ideals Generation M aspire to are discussed in terms of ‘universal values’ that appeal to everyone irrespective of faith (or its absence) rather than specific religious prescriptions only for Muslims, these brands have the potential to appeal across the board and offer a refreshing and bold alternative to existing brands. In the short- to medium-term, brands must inform, educate, reassure the consumer about the highest levels of product quality through innovation; and also demonstrate a proactive anticipation of their informational needs – the surest way of garnering trust. In other words, techniques which may be regarded as marginal in the non- Muslim world need to be used or developed.

In a world where there is constant hostility towards Muslims but also increasing scepticism about corporations and their branding efforts, new Muslim brands must be able to navigate existing consumer concerns as well as bringing to life the Islamic ideals they aspire to. Thomson Reuters noted that: ‘the global Islamic economy has a potential bigger than every country in the world except China and the United States.’ The question is how the Islamic economy will draw in other consumers who find its core values and methods appealing.

In particular the importance of design and branding applies as much for Generation M as for the wider consumer audience. In the same way that they are creating a language, culture and look for themselves through fashion and beauty, Generation M’s visualisation of the world in print and video reflects their expectation that modern techniques and standards will be applied to bringing their faith to life. This is particularly evident in the area of advertising and branding, which Generation M consumers complain is filled with lazy design, treating them as though they were 40 years behind the wider global consumer community.

There is a huge chasm when it comes to engaging Muslim audiences from a holistic perspective that goes beyond just logos and lazy stereotypes. One of the bugbears of branding for Muslim audiences is that the quality of design for instance is very poor.

Generation M love brands. They aspire to assert their identity through the brands that they feel best reflect them. But the last thing they want is for their faith to be taken advantage of. Rather, it is important to them that the brand or organisation is on their side, that they are not being cynically targeted as the latest marketing fad, that their demands as twenty-first-century Muslims are really at the heart of the contract.

What they want is for the understanding and communication of their needs to go beyond superficial stereotypes. What they want brands to do – and will happily pay for and offer their brand loyalty for, are the brands that will help the live the kind of lives they aspire to."

Shelina Janmohamed is the vice president of Ogilvy Noor.