Month February

  • My conversion to the joy of the beach holiday: so this is what relaxing is all about

    This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National today. It’s no secret that I’m just back from my travels to Singapore and Langkawi!

    Book in hand, legs outstretched, feet perched on a small stool, I’m sitting on a balcony overlooking a white sandy beach. The sea is clear, with the gentlest of waves slowly bringing the tide in. The sun is bright and golden hot, its fierce edge softened by a light tropical breeze and a glass of the freshest juice beside me.

    It was not a kind of heaven that I had ever imagined for myself.

    Squashed in between travelling for work, and immersing myself in the vibrant city-state of Singapore, a couple of days at a beach resort had been almost an afterthought, booked only hours before departing from London.

    I chose the Malaysian archipelago of Langkawi mainly because the flights fitted into my schedule. I hadn’t researched the hotel, but took second-hand advice from someone who had stayed there. It was, in short, not the kind of holiday planning that fits my usual meticulous and detailed holiday regime.

    Boarding the flight for Langkawi, I flung myself onto the airplane with a gusto that only the overworked and under-rested can muster. Asleep with exhaustion before the flight had even taken off, my eyes opened as we glided into a lush green island.

    A little later, I walked into the hotel lobby and gazed over the resting guests through the far window that framed the sea into the horizon. I was smitten.

    I’ve seen beaches and coastlines before, so this in itself was not new. I had always pitied those who wasted away their days lying still by a square of water, sleeping extravagantly while their skins burnt under the sun. I had always been puzzled as to why someone would travel far away from home, only to lie down and do nothing for several days, on one chair. In my view, holidays were to be savoured to the fullest by seeing everything, talking to everyone, visiting every sight, and enjoying every cuisine. Sleeping was dispensable. I considered going on holiday just to lie down or sit still to be a debilitating malady.

    As I swam in the infinity pool, its waters blurring into the distance and turning into the sea and then the horizon, I reflected on how my search for calmness had replaced the craving I had once felt to dispel quietude and embrace loud and vibrant travel experiences.

    No doubt age is a factor, as is the increased intensity of work and family life, in yearning for rest and pure pleasure. I have less inclination or energy to be constantly rushing from tourist trail to tourist trail. I’ve escaped from a seven-day-a-week schedule, to realise that there is nothing lovelier than feeling sun and breeze and hearing the rustle of trees.

    However, I still couldn’t lie down on a recliner by a pool for a whole day, just lying or sleeping. I need interesting and unusual activities in which to engage. I need to know that I did something new on my holiday. I need to create a bank of sustainable and substantial memories that will survive me into my older years.

    And I still doubt I could spend a full week in only one resort. After just two days I was itching to see what the island had to offer.

    And I know that this is the quiet period at the beach. If the resort was swarming, my holiday paradise would quickly turn nightmarish. After all, no Eden can withstand endless people with no attractions.

    Given my caveats for earthly paradise, I’m already planning my next visit.

    I declare myself a convert to the beach holiday.

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  • Published on Building global halal brands

    This was published in the FT yesterday.

    The race is on to establish powerful international ‘halal brands’. The stakes are high: by some estimates, the global market for halal products is worth $500bn a year.

    But it’s a market strewn with confusion, as separate Muslim countries try to establish recognised standards and producers from outside the Muslim world also hurry to enter the market. That leaves many Muslim consumers crying out for reliable brands that will help them guide their choices.

    First, for the uninitiated, what is halal? In its broadest sense, it applies to anything that is “permitted” or “lawful”and covers everything from food to finance to logistics. In a narrower sense, it covers anything made from animal products, especially food, personal care products and pharmaceuticals.

    Certification in these industries can be especially tricky. That makes it all the more important for marketers to establish credible brands that give Muslim consumers the assurance and confidence they crave. As halal brands proliferate, those that can establish instant recognition and credibility will gain a larger mind share and pocket share among Muslim consumers. As in any industry, brands that establish first mover credentials are likely to win.

    For now, the race to establish recognised brands is being conducted at country level. Brunei Darussalam sees the ‘Brunei Halal Brand’ as a means of diversifying its economy away from oil. It focuses primarily on food and offers small and medium sized enterprises an umbrella brand under which they can reach an international audience.

    As part of that effort it plans to open a UK facility in Birmingham, a city with a large Muslim population. It also wants to strengthen its Islamic association in the minds of Muslims, with a tourism initiative titled “Brunei Islamic Experience.” The aim is to net a share of the blossoming halal tourism market, which requires halal certified hotels and restaurants.

    Singapore is also vying to create value with its Singapore Halal Brand. The minister for Muslim affairs spoke recently about how a quintupling of halal-certified restaurants has boosted tourism. Given that two of Singapore’s biggest markets for tourists are Malaysia and Indonesia, the increase in halal food availability is a clear win.

    Similarly, Malaysia’s JAKIM (Department of Islamic Development) wants to establish itself as a global standard, supported by the Halal Industry Development Corporation, set up by the government.

    Governments outside the Muslim world are also joining in. New Zealand Trade and Enterprise has identified halal as an emerging global trend that holds promise for the country’s food and beverage and cosmetics industries. The government in the Philippines – a predominantly Roman Catholic country with a Muslim minority – recently issued halal guidelines. Even Carrefour in France has brought a range of halal products to market – though French retailars have been rather coy on the subject.

    We must take Muslim nations at their word when they say they are developing Muslim brands with a view to the welfare of their Muslim citizens. But to achieve that aim, internationally-recognised standards will be important, by delivering clarity and ease of deciphering the various halal brands.

    None of this means there is not room in the market for many brands. But there are tips to follow and pitfalls to avoid if a brand is to enjoy success.

    Even where standards are shared, brands of course will vary. This is where differentiation is important. Brands can exhibit different values and can excel tremendously through communications and engagement with target consumers. For brands that want to win loyalty, standards are the technical backbone, the must-have qualities. But for the brand to engage with consumers, it must be a friend and support the consumer’s Muslim lifestyle.

    The most important quality for a consumer halal brand is to offer clear, simple and credible information on what makes the product halal and who has certified it. With modern manufacturing techniques involving a myriad of ingredients and processes, and inputs from multiple sources, it can be hard for a lay customer to know definitively whether a product is halal.

    From our own research across Muslim markets, we found that Muslim consumers yearn for brands to help them identify products to support their chosen lifestyles. The halal brand they select becomes a byword for the level of piety that suits them and represents who they are.

    Brands must explain their halal credentials, of which one aspect is a clear and credible logo. But a halal brand is much more than a logo. It must stand for values that are important to the Muslim consumer: purity, integrity, transparency and wholesomeness, to name a few. For tech savvy futurists who are the most influential among Muslim consumers, putting clear information on the web is crucial. Equally important is that retail staff should be primed on the halal logo used and the certifier.

    For products other than food and beverages, an explanation of what it means to be halal and how the product achieves it is even more important. In the halal cosmetics industry, this means no alcohols and no animal-derivative ingredients. There is also a growing trend towards ethical and organic production, as well as use of traditional, local ingredients.

    What national brands must avoid is conveying a sense of competitiveness or bickering. While standards may vary, there is nothing more off-putting for Muslim consumers than what they see as the un-Islamic behaviour of putting another brand down or causing confusion. Above all, brands must exude credibility.

    The last point is particularly crucial for halal brands from non-Muslim countries. Muslim consumers will ask: under what authority is this product deemed halal? Our research found that Muslim consumers are not averse to such brands. Whether they are of Muslim origin or not, along with halal credentials, what consumers want is quality, care and clarity.

    Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are mooting unified halal standards. Such moves should be supported – the more products that carry a global halal brand, the more familiar and accepted it will be among consumers.

    But unification is not easy. Participants must see the value in going through the process. In Brunei, for example, restaurateurs said the process was too complicated. Certification must be rolled out with positive buy-in, or it risks alienate those providing goods and services. Hotel owners in Malaysia faced exactly this issue.

    The takeaway message is that credibility and clarity are the fundamental pillars of any global halal brand. Muslim consumers see halal brands as their allies in building their Islamic lifestyle. Halal brands must keep this trust in mind and ensure that their products and communications express how this trust is valued, and how the brand helps to safeguard its consumers’ well-being.

    Shelina is a senior strategist at Ogilvy Noor, the world’s first bespoke consultancy for building brands with Muslim consumers. Ogilvy Noor is part of Ogilvy & Mather.

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  • BBC Radio 2 “Pause for Thought” : Second Chances

    This is the text for my Pause For Thought that was aired this morning on BBC Radio 2 on the subject of ‘Second Chances.’

    You can listen to the audio if you are in the UK for the next 7 days.

    Last week the British Museum opened an exhibition about the hajj the Islamic pilgrimage. It‘s believed to be the first ever of its kind, showcasing historic artefacts collected from around the Muslim world which depict how integral this journey is to the global Muslim population.

    Mecca of course has religious significance for Muslims as the place towards which Muslims pray. It is the destination for the journey of a lifetime. But more than this: taking part in the hajj gives pilgrims the chance for a fresh start, to wipe away the sins, the regret, the remorse and the hurt we so often carry with us for years.

    Although it’s the iconic black cube called the Kaba which springs to mind when speaking of the hajj, it is in fact the desert known as Arafat which marks the turning point for pilgrims. Here under the fierce afternoon sun in the barren sands the pilgrims will gather to pray for purification and forgiveness. This is where redemption is granted.

    As afternoon gives way to dusk, they move forward to the next stage of the hajj, ready to begin their second chance. All the troubles and peccadilloes are wiped clean. There’s a palpable lightness of step in the feet of the pilgrims, an excitement at beginning life anew. Even the white clothing that all pilgrims wear is a public display of starting again.

    When the pilgrims return home, they’re greeted by the whole community who present them with garlands of fresh flowers. In Muslim countries even ministers will go to the airport to greet the returning hajjis. This is because the entire community recognises that these people have been given the opportunity for a second chance. This becomes a public celebration, to rejoice in the chance to start afresh.

    We don’t need to wait for an epic once in a lifetime event to give ourselves a second chance. We too can spend time thinking about how we will move forward, unshackling ourselves from our previous burdens, and releasing our regrets.

    We must look forward just as the pilgrims do in the hajj, rather than looking back. Like the pilgrims, realising we are not alone in this quest gives us strength.

    Most importantly, just as the pilgrims embrace the opportunity for a second chance, we too can be kind to ourselves and offer ourselves the chance for redemption.

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