Harriet Robertson
May 21, 2015

Faithful and mainstream simultaneously: The modern Muslim opportunity

Modern Muslims see themselves as both part of their religious tradition and citizens of the mainstream world. It's time for brands to move beyond clunky and piecemeal approaches to reaching them.

Harriet Robertson
Harriet Robertson

Estimates say there are around 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, or about 23 per cent of the world’s population. In Asia-Pacific, where around 62 per cent of the world’s Muslims live, nearly one in four people are Muslim (Pew Research). 

Islam prescribes many aspects of daily life, so it is only natural that faith impacts on the way Muslims relate to brands and products. It is no surprise that marketers are increasingly seeing Muslim consumers as the next great global opportunity.

However, success to date has been patchy, and there have been some truly bad examples of global brands trying to reach out to Muslim consumers. High-profile missteps and associated PR disasters highlight the dangers of getting it wrong and facing a vocal backlash. Everyone living in South East Asia is aware of the recent halal scandals involving McDonald’s, Cadbury’s and other multinationals in the region.

Consequently, global brands have tended toward risk-averse strategies, such as local brand acquisitions, and limited their efforts to ‘meat and money’—shariah finance and halal foods. Perhaps more recently we can add beauty to this list. These efforts, whilst often lucrative, can feel clunky and piecemeal. 

We as marketers and brand builders have been lazy, afraid or unimaginative in our efforts to understand the Muslim consumer. This will not be good enough to capture the attention of the next generation of Modern Muslims. It’s time to raise our efforts and progress our thinking.

Mipsterz, hijabbers, hijabsters

Much has been written about the new kind of Muslim consumer, but beyond the various portmanteaus what is it that sets this generation of Muslim consumers apart from their predecessors?

At Flamingo we use 'Modern Muslims' to describe a mindset, not an age-bracket. It is a growing group of men and women who are simultaneously faithful, open-minded, digitally savvy and connected, independent, imaginative and creative. 

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Like others who subscribe to the so-called millennial values, they enjoy all aspects of their identity without compromise.  Modern Muslims are not rebels—they work within the rules of Islam, not against them. For them, faith, progress and modernity are not antithetical. They are inseparable. They want and expect it all. 

Characters such as Abbas Rattani from Sheikh & Bake, the outfit that coined the label ‘mipsterz’, or Yuna Mat Zara’ai, the Malaysian pop princess, are the figureheads of this emergent group. Their influence has wide reach, and in Asia-Pacific you cannot fail to notice the rise of this movement, from the ubiquitous skinny-jeans-wearing-hijabbers on the streets of Jakarta, KL and Singapore to modern madrassas that offer religious education alongside computer programming.

This negotiation between modern life, traditional values and faith is centuries old, but digital technology is offering modern Muslims a new tool for navigation. Women are especially active online, and fashion-lifestyle blogs, Instagram feeds and forums abound. Unlike their mothers and grandmothers, women of this generation are able to self-express, create and share experiences with like-minded individuals across geographical boundaries.

What is really important and special about this mindset is that it sees itself simultaneously as both Muslim and part of the wider mainstream modern world. They hold onto both of these spheres of identity simultaneously.

Brands that connect

These conversations and tensions offer fertile ground for brands to build relationships with the modern Muslim consumer. Interesting marketing and product innovation moves are being made, sometimes unintentionally, as brands tap into the intersections of modernity and traditionally Islamic values such as community, family, modesty and social responsibility.

The success of The Body Shop in majority-Muslim countries shows how a company’s ethical policy and ‘naturalness’ credentials appeal without having to be strictly halal. Collaborations between Liberty’s London and Dina Torkio, the well-known British mipster, or the Ramadan collection by DKNY show how mainstream fashion retailers are tapping into the increasingly lucrative modest fashion movement. An accidental boom in sales for Inglot, a breathable nail varnish that doesn’t interfere with pre-prayer ablution rituals, gives an indication of the untapped potential for brands that can help reconcile the simultaneous needs for religious observance and modernity.

For all the complexity and cultural differences across the Islamic world, Muslims share common values that brands can tap into. Often these values transcend Islam’s boundaries and are relevant to a broader consumer set that is seeking safer, ethical and more wholesome experiences. 

What is interesting about these examples is that they illustrate how you don’t have to be a 'Muslim brand' to successfully connect with this new generation of Muslim consumers. There is no need to feature a hijab-wearing housewife in your TV adverts, pepper your packs with halal stamps or shout about your shariah compliance. Striking a chord with modern Muslims might not require an overhaul of your brand key or elaborate NPD initiatives. 

Modern Muslims are embracing and celebrating their identity at the intersections of Islam, modernity and progress. They are ahead of the curve in terms of digital behaviours and have a heightened sense of fashion and style, with a global mindset and ambitions. They are looking for brands and products that are living and behaving in these ways too. 

Harriet Robertson is director at Flamingo


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