• 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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  • The Ramadan season is over. So what now for Muslim brands?

    This article was published at

    You’ve spent a huge chunk of your annual budget reminding your Muslim consumers that your brand exists. You’ve persuaded them to buy your products during the month of Ramadan and secured sales over Eid. You’re not alone. Your branding peers have been out doing the same.

    But now Ramadan is over and Eid is already fading to a distant memory. What do you do keep up the momentum? Do you sit around moping till next year? Do you reminisce about the spike in sales during the month of daylight fasting and the celebrations that follow?

    In the UAE consumption shot up by 30 per cent on the eve of Ramadan. Some $2.2bn was spent on advertising in Ramadan in 2010. Some companies use as much as 78 per cent of their advertising budgets during this time. But once Ramadan and Eid have passed – then what? Is the Muslim consumer to be forgotten? This is where deep insight is crucial, but where many brands fall down.

    It’s not all over – quite the opposite. According to the Pan Arab Research Centre: “Post-Ramadan there is more economic activity. The month instills new energy into the system.”

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  • Despite our differences, we all need to shop

    This is my weekly column from The National UAE.

    Let’s stop talking about politics and extremism. We need to go shopping.

    Trade was arguably one of the things that once made the Muslim world great (and rich), and created fluid and mutually binding relationships with other great world powers.

    Star products included spices from as far afield as India and Indonesia, Oman’s sweet fragrances of frankincense.  And coffee, ah, dear wonderful coffee with its warm hug of caffeine first thing in the morning, also came from the Muslim world.

    So, at a time when global relations are showing the odd sign of strain (anyone mentioned the mis-labelled ‘Ground Zero’ mosque recently?), what antidote could be more fitting than the resurgence of Islamic branding and marketing as a 21st century phenomenon?

    You all think I’ve lost the plot, don’t you? Some Muslims are going to be up in arms that I’m advocating a supposedly consumerist-capitalist-slave-making-spirituality-stifling paradigm. And Islamophobes are going to say that I’m trying to hide an Islamist take-over inside my recyclable plastic shopping bags.

    Chillax, people.

    Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world’s largest marketing and advertising agencies, has commissioned research to better understand the world’s 1.6 billion Muslim consumers. The segmentation of consumers was not just for shopping’s sake, but to get under the skin of what makes ‘real’ Muslims tick, those1.599999 (recurring) billion Muslims, not the handful of crazy ones who think the way to get your fifteen minutes of fame is to blow things up.

    Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the seeming frivolity of shopping versus the scary headlines of bombings that gives rise to this kind of angst. Or maybe it’s that people who stand to benefit most from upholding the “Clash of Civilisations” thesis don’t want us to see the things we have in common as human beings. These shared aspirations include trying to become better human beings, world peace, eradication of poverty, equality and justice for all, and an end to exploitation, violence and suffering. Oh yes, and we all need stuff, starting from the basics like food, clothing and construction materials.

    So, given our shared human need for things which we need to buy, perhaps we can use trade and commerce, built on ethical, sustainable and non-exploitative principles, to understand a bit more about each other and to build relationships. Please note that I am not advocating a materialist, exploitative, disposable culture. I’m simply pointing out that all human beings need things to survive, and trade is a basic of human civilisation.

    Research produced by Ogilvy & Mather's specialist Islamic Branding division

    So what did Ogilvy & Mather’s research tell us about Muslim consumers? Importantly, instead of judging them on a single dimension of how ‘devout’ they are, it looked at what role religion plays in their lives. Their findings identified two broad categories which they labelled ‘Traditionalist’ and ‘Futurist’ and in each one were a further three segments. ‘Traditionalists’ have a desire for harmony and belonging, they are quietly proud of their faith and align with values of tolerance and compassion. ‘Futurists’ see themselves as steadfast followers of Islam in a modern world. They are individualists who ‘choose’ Islam. Their pride is intense, regardless of the extent to which they would be categorised as ‘devout’.

    The research insights are meaningful because the trick to successful commerce is the same as that needed for international relations and diplomacy: it is to understand the drivers and motivations of people and to give them due recognition.

    So, when we talk about trade with Muslims, we might find ourselves positively addressing wider issues of international relations. In the world of shopping, I believe they call that a ‘two for the price of one’ offer.

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  • Has Ramadan become just another brand to be exploited?

    This article was published yesterday in The National in the UAE.

    This weekend, like many millions of Muslims around the world, I will be making my preparations for the Islamic month of Ramadan. The month’s ethos is one of spirituality, centring around 30 days of fasting from dawn to dusk, during which time eating and drinking is prohibited.

    Food does, however, remain important throughout the month, and iftar, the meal that breaks the fast at the end of the day, is a time for thankfulness, togetherness and sharing.

    The natural result is that preparations include shopping for food to stock up cupboards in anticipation of delicious meals shared with friends and family.

    And so it is evident that even while trying to navigate the frugality of Ramadan, that Muslims, too, are consumers – people who hand over money in exchange for goods that meet their needs.

    I’m an advocate of the needs of Muslim shoppers being given as much attention and care as any other consumer. After all, Muslims need to buy products – including food. And their specific needs and aspirations are just as important as those of any other consumer. And the money of Muslim shoppers is just as good as any other money.

    When it comes specifically to Ramadan, the commercial world has been quick to make money out of a seemingly untapped commercial opportunity. Already, TV soaps, produced to last the exact 30 days of Ramadan, are extremely popular and lucrative. And Eid has become an increasingly commercialised celebration, starting to head towards the same kind of gift-oriented festival that Christmas has become.

    Even in Britain, one of the demographic segments that Tesco’s “World Foods” product line specifically targets is Muslims. In catchment areas with a sizeable Muslim population their stores carry well-laden “Ramadan” aisles. Is this is a helpful service by Tesco, being sensitive to the needs of its Muslim consumers and finally recognising their commercial worth, or is Tesco, like many companies and traders round the world, guilty of the commercial exploitation of the month of spirituality?

    Has Ramadan become the ultimate brand to be exploited? And will companies do anything to get a share of this lucrative market?

    Roy Michel Haddad is the chairman and chief executive of the Middle East and North Africa region for JWT, a global advertising agency. He is clear in his mind that Muslim consumers are just as varied in their needs and aspirations as any other consumer. They just happen to be Muslim. In fact, in his opinion, “There is no Muslim consumer, just a consumer who we have to respond to his wants, needs and desires.” He adds that anyone who looks at Muslims as a commercial opportunity must be wary of assumptions that Muslims can be blanket grouped together.

    In Haddad’s mind, however, there is one clear exception where all the vast diversity of Muslim consumers becomes unified – Ramadan. In fact, he asks provocatively, “Does the Muslim consumer exist beyond Ramadan?” And it’s true that Ramadan is exceptionally unifying throughout a diverse Muslim world. There is a cohesiveness of purpose, timing, and behaviour, which rarely exists at any other time.

    You might be cynical and argue that using Tesco as an example of a company that sees Ramadan as a commercial opportunity is not relevant because it is a brand that is not Muslim, and therefore doesn’t understand the communal and devotional spirit of Ramadan. Your cynicism might lead you to state that while such big brands as Tesco couch their products in the cuddly marketing language of “meeting customer needs” and “being sensitive to cultures and aspirations”, at the end of the day they are just interested in growing their bottom line.

    But what about those companies around the Muslim world that appear to be acting in far more exploitative ways?

    Holy Ramadan, Batman! It's the deal of a lifetime!

    Earlier in July, Al-Riyadh, the Arabic newspaper, reported that two trading companies in Saudi Arabia had amassed stockpiles of key food stuffs. According to Khaled Al-Homaidan, an economic consultant, the aim was to “hoard essential commodities [and, thus] create an artificial price rise in the Saudi market in the coming weeks prior to Ramadan.”

    In Karachi, the prices of sugar, pulses, red chilli, and ghee have climbed ahead of a meeting between the government and wholesalers to fix rates for the month of Ramadan.

    Despite the fact that Qatar has ordered fixed prices for the second year running during Ramadan across 156 food and non-food items, the Peninsula newspaper reports that people fear that retailers may increase the rates of other commodities to make profits. In addition, they are concerned that prices will rise gradually before Ramadan to ensure that the frozen price is already high.

    In Bangladesh, the commerce minister has asked MPs to keep a watchful eye on profiteering during Ramadan by monitoring how goods are distributed from the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh to local dealers. But the risk is that this simply gives politicians the power to decide which dealers gain access to stocks, which, of course, is not without its dangers of corruption.

    In the UAE, the Ministry of Economy is warning that it is consumers themselves who must be vigilant against price manipulation and hoarding. This is despite the fact that it has warned suppliers they will face legal action if the price of basic food items is raised.

    That shoppers need to exert their commercial power is a constant theme across countries where companies and brands seem to be taking a profit-oriented approach to Ramadan.

    According to Al-Homaidan, the customer can play a decisive role in combating greedy traders. “Consumers should be more selective and should boycott products whose prices have increased exorbitantly,” he said, adding that they must increase their vigilance in order to protect their rights and be careful not to become victims of such exploitation.

    And people power is important in upholding the spirit of Ramadan. When the Malaysian tourism minister announced “the first ever Ramadan Summer Festival featuring food, shopping and other fun-filled activities” to attract Middle Eastern tourists, the Consumers’ Association of Penang was “outraged”, adding that Ramadan “is not a tourist product but a sacred month of spiritual enrichment”. They called on the tourism ministry “not to worship tourist dollars”.

    There is certainly a line to be drawn between companies and brands truly serving the needs of Muslim consumers, and those that are out to exploit them. And this is a line that Muslim consumers themselves must patrol.

    Defeating commercial exploitation is about using the weapons that hurt commercial entities the most – by hitting their bottom line, by holding them to public account and by threatening the reputations on which their brands are built.

    Only if Muslim consumers truly believe in the spiritual values of Ramadan and work hard to uphold them for at least this one month of the year, will such abuse come to an end. Otherwise Ramadan will become victim to the very exploitation and material obsession that it sets out to eradicate.

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  • Designing a game-changing Islamic Brand

    Muslims know a thing or two about branding, after all they already own some of the world’s most well known brands. To Muslims, the brand ‘Islam’represents a way of life; the ‘ummah’ is a transnational super-community;‘Halal’ is a global food brand; Ramadan, Hajj, Jihad,and Zakat to name but a few are also all familiar names with their own brand values and brand experiences. All one billion Muslims – and significant chunks of the remaining global population – can identify these brands for you. That is to say, they can tell you the meaning, values and benefits of these ‘products’.

    A global brand is one which consumers perceive to reflect the same set of values wherever they are in the world. Global brands transcend their geographic, cultural or ideological origins, and create strong, enduring relationships with those who consume the brands across countries and cultures. Think of walking into a McDonald’s or a KFC – you know exactly what will be on the menu, and what the food will be like.

    During the expansion of the Muslim world from the 7th century onwards, the ‘Islamic’ brands spread quickly. In many ways, they created a self-sustaining economy. For example, the brand of ‘halal’ meant that Muslims were employed in creating halal products – such as meat – which would be bought by Muslims, creating employment for Muslims, and keeping finance in the Muslim pocket. Even though the immediate objective of Muslims confining themselves to the ‘halal’ brand is to follow Islamic teachings and eat healthy clean prescribed food, the retention of Muslim commerce within the Muslim market is a bonus by-product.

    Let’s keep our focus for the time being on the ‘halal’ brand, to understand why I believe those engaged in creating ‘Islamic’ products today have an upside down approach to ‘Islamic branding’. The ‘halal’ brand, as taught by the Prophet is made up of two parts when it comes to food production. One part is made up of the values that make something ‘halal’, and the other part is the technicalities of the process, like how to slaughter animals.

    The technical procedures are generally well documented and great emphasis is rightly placed on the observation and implementation of these procedures. The ‘halal’ brand is also made up of values such as purity, goodness, well-being, animal welfare, and honest earnings. The same partnership between technicalities and values make up the other brands I’ve quoted like ‘Islam’, ‘Hajj’, ‘Zakat’ and so on. It is the underpinning values that give each of these process their meaning and significance. So, even if you carry out hajj, zakat, salat or any of the other Islamic activities – even if it is to the letter – but fail to grasp the values that it conveys, then the ritual is empty and feels meaningless even to the protagonist. For example, the ritual of hajj is about building brotherhood, and yet in the tussle to complete the prescribed Tawaf, people will happily elbow their brothers and sisters, trample on their feet, or squash others, leaving themselves and others feeling angry, hostile and horrified. The brand value of hajj – building of brotherhood – is lost to the technicalities of completing the tawaf. When the values that underpin the ‘brand’ are contravened, the brand becomes empty and void, and instead of having long lasting results, its impact fades away.

    It may seem a strange way to approach religion and religious rituals in commercial terms like ‘brand’, ‘consumer’ and ‘product’, but if Muslims are to build meaningful, sustainable and innovative brands and products, we have to understand what exactly is an ‘Islamic’ brand, and how should it be constructed in order for it to be game-changing.

    Most of today’s ‘Islamic’ products are a sad reflection of the state of the contemporary Muslim world – focusing on the technicalities of Islam rather than aspiring to live the values themselves. Islamic practice and social discourse today are all about following the rules, rather than creating the ethos and then using the rules to deliver to that ethos. Don’t get me wrong – rules are crucially important, and must be observed. But rules are not the end in themselves, they are a tool to deliver a vision and a set of values.

    The problem with most ‘Islamic’ products today is the same. They tick all the boxes that make them ‘technically’ Islamic. They do this by taking existing products that are not necessarily constructed on Islamic values, tweak them a bit so they ‘technically’ meet the requirements, and then badge them ‘Islamic’.

    Take the spate of ‘Islamic’ colas that hit the world – we had Mecca cola, Ummah cola and Zamzam cola to name but a few. What was ‘Islamic’ about them except the name? They cashed in on a moment in political history when Muslims wanted to boycott the big brands. Instead of taking this moment when there was a captive and willing worldwide Muslim audience to deliver a truly innovative drinks range based on values inimical to Islam, the producers pocketed a short term benefit for themselves by copying another product. They gave a global market sugary teeth-rotting drinks. If they had considered the kind of values that would be great in a drink drawing from Islamic values, they may have thought of something that cleanses the body, is made from pure sustainable ingredients, and whose packaging degrades without damaging the environment. With such a brand-values-based approach to product design they might have won over not just the Muslim market, but a wider global market too – through values and innovation.

    If today’s ‘Islamic’ products are to really mean anything, they must create their brands as derivatives of the main Islamic superbrands that I mentioned at the beginning. That is how they can appeal to the Muslim audience. Muslim consumers will fully understand the ethos of the products and how the products will change their lives. The products will move from being a necessity to being a valued product – which of course increases its desirability and price.

    However, what is even more attractive is that the fundamental ‘Islamic’ brand values will undoubtedly appeal across the commercial and global spectrum to all consumers irrespective of faith. I’ve already spoken of ‘good’ food. The same applies to other values like environmental protection, ethics and fair trade and financial prudence and workers’ welfare. By exhibiting these brand values in ‘Islamic’ products, they will appeal to those from other backgrounds too, as they are universal aspirations.

    I would urge all those engaging in creating ‘Islamic’ brands to move past just tweaking products so that they are technically Islamic, and start thinking about the Islamic values that are crucial to new products and then design products from the ground up. Copy cat products do not change the world. Innovative, game changing products come from meeting real untapped consumer needs. The way they do this is by building brands whose values are meaningful and important to consumers, and which consumers fully believe in.

    A new wave of products that appeal to Muslim money should do more than just meet the technical spec. They must be built on brand values that aim to invest all the goodness of the superbrand of ‘Islam’. What is important is not the label ‘Islamic’ but that the values that are used to design the products are Islamic, and deliver an Islamic brand experience to consumers.

    Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at She has fifteen years of experience in marketing and new product creation.

    This article was published in the Muslim Council of Britain‘s publication entitled ‘Nurturing the Future in Islamic Finance and Thought Leadership’ as part of an international delegation to the 6th World Islamic Economic Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia May 2010. The full brochure can be accessed here:

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