When it comes to big consumer markets, Asia is not short of contenders. China and India, with their billion-plus populations have led the way, while a number of large emerging markets are now also catching the eyes of marketers. But the region is also home to another sizeable consumer bloc, one not defined by country but by a shared religion.
According to conservative estimates Asia is home to an almost 700 million Muslims, some 60 per cent of the global total. While Indonesia is often quoted as the world’s largest Muslim country - it accounts for an estimated 13 per cent of the number of Muslims worldwide - other countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and India can also boast Muslim populations of more than 100 million.
When even a country such as China can claim Muslim populations of between 20 million and 100 million, depending on which data is used, it is clear that this is a market to be reckoned with.
Surprisingly then, save for one or two examples, most brands have been slow to directly target their products and services to this market. “Most MNCs have never really asked themselves whether those consumers have got anything special about them, whether they have got a different relationship with brands, for instance,” Miles Young, global CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, says.
In the past, when Asian Muslim consumers have engaged directly with brands, it has tended to be for negative reasons. Though marked differences exist between Muslims in various countries across the region, when the united Muslim voice comes together, it can be a powerful force. A number of US brands found this out in 2009 when Muslim activists in Malaysia urged consumers to boycott products from companies such as Coca-Cola, Colgate and McDonald’s over US support for Israel’s attack on Gaza.
“The Islamic religion is a highly sensitive topic in Malaysia and must be addressed with respect and tact to avoid untoward incidences,” explains TzeLian Ng, partner of insights at Mindshare’s Malaysia operation. “One very clear insight is that Malays here are very much in solidarity with Muslims around the world. Any issues affecting Muslims in other countries which draw media attention here will affect local sentiments.”
More typically, though, negative sentiment is simply a case of brands misjudging the Muslim consumer. It is not only Western brands that have suffered here. Bintang Zero, a non-alcoholic beverage produced by the Indonesian brewer Bintang, was meant to appeal to religious Muslims who abstain from alcohol. For obvious reasons, the marketing failed. As one commentator said at the time: “What next? Halal pork?”
It seems, though, that brands are learning quickly from their mistakes. Whether a result of the adspend slowdown in Western markets, or a recognition of the growing affluence among many Asia-based Muslim consumers, brands - and their agency partners - are taking the Asian Muslim market far more seriously than before.
A key part of understanding the Islamic market in Asia will depend on being able to segment the Muslim consumer. While religion is the uniting factor, Muslims across Asia are very different from one another and respond to religious messaging in a variety of ways. “Brands need to be careful not to generalise the Muslim community because they are not homogeneous, “ says Guy Hearn, director of communications insights, Asia-Pacific, at Omnicom Media Group. “In addition to the Islamic faith, race, nationality and education play a big part in defining what ‘intensity’ of Muslim the consumer belongs to. Muslims in different countries are exposed to and thus influenced by other cultures.
Muslims in Malaysia particularly are exposed to other religions and are respectful of other faiths.”
In a country such as Indonesia, for example, where up to 75 per cent of the Muslim population are either secular or non-practicing, Robbie Susatyo, managing director of Synovate Indonesia suggests brands steer away from overt Islamic themes. “Indonesia is very different from other countries such as Malaysia or Pakistan,” he says. “It has a different adherence to religion. If someone says marketing to Muslims, there is a risk you are labelling them as extremist or militant. Many Indonesians don’t want to be a part of this. They want to be in the mainstream. As soon as you label someone Muslim, they no longer feel part of the mainstream.”
Similarly, in Pakistan, there are distinct differences in consumer attitudes between the more moderate parts of the country and the conservative north. Sabene Saigol, the chairperson of Lahore-based Red Communication Arts, notes that advertising in Pakistan on the whole concentrates on images of youth, vitality and modernity, without a burqua in sight. In nothern areas, however, communications tend to be tweaked, with, for example, female models in TVCs replaced by male ones, or simply product shots.
But while it can be argued strongly that there is no single Muslim market in Asia, there are nonetheless generalisations that can be made. At Ogilvy Noor, for instance, the Muslim consumer market is divided between ‘Traditionalists’ and ‘Futurists’. While Traditionalists make up 60 per cent of the population in the markets surveyed, it is the Futurist group - which combines a modern outlook with a strong religious commitment - that is most interesting to brands. “We believe the Futurists will be responsible for shaping the future for marketers by virtue of the fact that they enjoy the deepest relationship with brands today and are most willing to wholeheartedly integrate brands into their own lives and wider cultures,” says Nazia Hussain, Ogilvy & Mather’s global director of cultural strategy.
Lian Rosnita Redwan-Beer, the publisher of Aquila Asia, a fashion and lifestyle magazine and website for cosmopolitan Muslim women, agrees, pointing to a generation of new Muslim consumers that are more connected and digitised than their ‘traditional’ counterparts. “These are women who are responsible, curious, culturally-exposed, and very interested in others. They love to share knowledge, info, tips, experience and problems,” Redwan-Beer says. “Within this community, word about an outstanding product, service, or place that meets their spiritual needs travels super fast.”
So if Asia is seeing the emergence of a new, modern Muslim consumer, how best to reach them? On the most basic level, more and more brands are ensuring their products meet Halal certification in various markets. This is understandable. The global Halal industry was estimated by the World Halal Council to have been worth US$632 billion in 2009.
In Muslim countries, though, Halal certification is a given rather than a differentiator. Even in Singapore, for instance, where the Musilm population is in the minority, McDonald’s and other food manufacturers use Halal ingredients not as a marketing tool but because to not do so would mean isolating a significant part of its consumer base. “At a certain stage Halal branding is important to establish credentials,” says Ayman Hamed, director of marketing at Dubai-based Al Islami Foods.
“But a brand has to offer solutions to the Muslim consumers beyond the Halal aspect without losing [sight of] it.”
A more direct approach has been for brands to focus on a specific religious or cultural need and to build marketing around that. Unilever did this several years back with the ‘Clean and fresh’ campaign for its Sunsilk shampoo that targeted hijab (headscarf)-wearing females. Similarly, Malaysian auto manufacturer Proton is partnering with companies in Iran and Turkey to develop an ‘Islamic car’ with a compass pointing to Mecca and built-in compartments for the hijab and copies of the Koran.
But these tend to be one-off product promotions and, it could be argued, do little to create a lasting brand equity in the market. John Goodman, president of Ogilvy Action Asia-Pacific and regional director for Ogilvy & Mather ASEAN, argues instead that brands should take a broader approach to the Muslim market, adopting a marketing plan that sits comfortably with Shariah values, which Ogilvy Noor describes as “a holistic set of practices that guide every aspect of one’s life.”
In its simplest form, this can be interpreted as taking a more ethical approach to the marketing of goods, being aware of the wider values and sensitivities of the Muslim community. In Pakistan, for instance, the Olpers milk brand places family values at the centre of its branding, without an overt ‘Islamic’ branding. This positioning is run out during the year, but is intensified during the peak season of Ramadam, when the brand communicates the more direct connection between the brand and Islam. “Muslims get together, they pray together, eat together, make a lot of donations and help the community. These values sit well with our mother position,” says Ali Akbar, vice-president of the Global Business Unit at Engro Foods.
Importantly, the Shariah commitment needs to go deeper than just sales and marketing, touching all aspects of the company, from manufacturing and packaging to brand story and overall business practices. Research carried out by Ogilvy Noor found, for example, that a commitment to charity and corporate social responsibility chimed well with Muslim consumers. Charity and CSR may be universal values, but they also align especially well with Islamic beliefs - zakaat (charity) for instance, is one of the four pillars of Islam.
“When we say ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’ brand, we mean that it’s a brand based on the ethics and values of Islam, in order to communicate to the Muslim community that this brand adheres to the code you live your life by, therefore associating with this brand would benefit you,” says Joy Abdullah, a director at business and brand marketing consultancy Daily Baraka.
This strategy has the advantage for brands in that they do not have to fundamentally change their DNA but instead need to make sure their business ethics and community outreach are consistent and well-communicated. Most of all, though, they need to be genuine and transparent. “People don’t like superficial reflections on their culture and religion,” says Goodman. “People react badly if they see companies paying lip service or being patronising.”
While good news travels fast among the new Muslim consumer, so does negative sentiment As well as being more accepting of brands, Ogilvy found its Futurists to also be more challenging. “What this combined sceptisism, mistrust and doubt has done is create a class of consumers who ask more questions than ever before,” says Hussain.
This reaction to inconsistent branding can be seen in the Islamic finance sector. Although banking services that are consistent with Shariah law have grown in popularity, financial brands score low on the Ogilvy Noor Index, which measures perceptions of brands in the Muslim world. In particular, HSBC is poorly ranked as it is seen by many Muslims as what Goodman calls “a house with two doors” - one secular and one religious. While HSBC may be offering Islamic finance, the perception is that once the transaction goes in to the back office, the practice is diluted, resulting in a fear of “contamination”.
Abdullah believes such considerations are especially pertinent for Western brands, which arrive in a Muslim country with a well-known back story. “A Western MNC is already an existing ‘corporate brand’ having an image, personality and history associated with it - perceived or otherwise - by its stakeholders across the globe,” says Abdullah. “Therefore, a ‘corporate rebrand’ based on Islamic ethics would not jive with the targeted Muslim consumer.”
But how much of Muslim consumers’ brand perception is based on respect for religious values and how much is because they are successful brands that get their marketing right and produce good products that consumers want to buy? Abdullah says that, at present, religion plays a secondary role. “Currently there are MNCs which are strong brands on their own that have been made available to the global Muslim community through the usual distribution channels,” he says. “But none of these brands were developed based on Islamic ethics. They are brands developed in the classical brand marketing framework wherein a product benefit has been highlighted and, process wise, they are currently ‘compliant” - that is, adhering to specific Halal standards.”
Goodman feels it is a mixture of both: “These brands tend to reflect the core Muslim values very well, and therefore although they don’t ‘align themselves with Islam’ consciously, they do in their value systems and the way they interact with consumers and society, becoming good local citizens in Muslim countries. A lot of the things you need to do to market to Muslims are things you would do to appeal to other consumers. The same values are relevant to non-Muslims as well.”
While this may be a grey area, when it comes to the overall importance of being able to connect with the new Muslim the situation is much less opaque. And while religion will still be a benchmark, the individual’s sense of identity and what they want to do with their life will become even more important. Explains Abdullah: “There are successful multinational companies and regional brands across categories that are fulfilling the needs of the Muslim consumer. But, with the rise in awareness and understanding of Halal, and a growing consciousness of the ‘Muslim identity’, especially amongst youth, it is inevitable that the need for brands to address this identity will be on the rise.”
This article was originally published in the October 2010 issue of Campaign Asia-Pacific.