The World: More to Islamic branding than meets the eye?

Islamic brands, and the ethical values they can embody, have the potential to reach far broader audiences.

There is a new big thing in the world of marketing - and it is green. Not the familiar grass-green of the environment, however, but a deeper green - the traditional colour of Islam.

Islamic branding is beginning to receive serious public attention - and it was one of the key themes at the World Islamic Economic Forum held at the end of last month in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where 60 per cent of the population is Muslim.

Meanwhile, in the West, recent research by JWT among Muslim consumers highlighted their importance as a market segment. In the US, Muslims are already being described as the "new Hispanics". While recognition of this new target for primarily Western marketers is timely, the issue is far deeper and more complex. What is the role of Islam in the growing multilateralism of the global economy itself?

The pure arithmetic, of course, is persuasive at one level, and all the more so outside the UK and the US. There are 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide - and the number is rising fast. Of these, only 20 per cent belong to the Arab world, the majority being located in South and East Asia. The rub, however, is that the Islamic world still only accounts for 5 per cent of the world's GDP. The issues of the Islamic world tend, therefore, to be those of the developing world. But brands that can compete in the global marketplace are necessary weapons for economies that want to avoid long-term marginalisation. It is as simple as that.

The values that this one-fifth of the world's population shares are immensely strong, although woefully misunderstood in the West. Islam is equated with identity and defines behaviour in a way that makes how you do things as important as the things you do, so the gap between belief and behaviour is remarkably narrow. A strong sense of community and welfare underpins all activity in the Islamic world, and informs its business ethics. The traditional prohibition on images makes the culture heavily reliant on verbal communication.

These values - and Sharia law - have shaped the business and marketing culture, and certain key factors have become identified with Islamic brands. "Sharia compliance" is one of them, to the extent that it has become a synonym for "Islamic brand".

But Islamic branding is actually more complex than this, and exists at three levels. At the most exclusive level, overtly Islamic brands base their appeal strictly on Sharia principles. Such brands are particularly concentrated in the finance and food sectors. Beyond that, there are brands created by Islamic-rooted organisations, informed by Islamic beliefs but that are broader in their appeal (airlines or telecoms companies would be an example). And then there are brands that emanate from Islamic countries but are not religious in character; many Turkish brands fall into this category.

Confusingly, the distinction is not often made between the three types of brand, but all three share a common purpose, which is to re-balance the importer-exporter relationships between the Islamic and the non-Islamic worlds.

To do this means harnessing the language and concepts of branding in each of these categories. So it is just becoming clear, for instance, that Sharia compliance in itself is not a sufficiently differentiating factor. Brand choice requires emotional cues as well. And, at every level, the competition is against foreign brands - which means beating their emotional appeal.

My feeling after Kuala Lumpur is that Islamic branding is at something of a crossroads: if it recognises that there is a difference to be bridged between Islamic products and Islamic brands, then it should be the "next big thing", and something that helps, incidentally, to bridge the cultural and economic chasm that separates the "globalised" and the Islamic worlds.

In doing so, Islamic branding can offer the world new ways to add value to all kinds of products. The concept of halal food, for instance, seems to capture a craving for purity that goes well beyond a religious franchise. In another example, up to 60 per cent of the consumer base for Islamic financial products in Malaysia can be non-Muslim. The importance given to community welfare in Islam breathes new life into the concept of corporate social responsibility, and relates it much more closely to the brand than is usual in the West. And we may even see the creation of a new Islamic design ethic that values intrinsic worth, analogous perhaps to Scandinavian design, for example.

In the West, "Islamic" is so readily and so unfairly equated with the "obscurantist". But anyone who has been involved in an advertising business in countries where moderate Islam is the prevailing voice will know they are highly creative, highly charged workplaces, more than capable of ultimately redressing the one-way flow of global ideas.

- Miles Young is the Asia-Pacific chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. He addressed last month's World Islamic Economic Forum held in Kuala Lumpur.