With a global population of 1.8 billion people, all united by a faith that quite nearly guides their every consumption choice, the Muslim consumer represents one of the most promising segments for marketers today. Many of us based in Asia—where more than half the world’s Muslims live—are very familiar with this premise. In Indonesia, where 90 per cent of the 250 million-person population identifies as Muslim and the middle class is projected to double within seven years, the idea is still more deeply embedded.
But while many a marketer has viewed shariah—the Islamic law which outlines how Muslims should live and consume—as a guidebook on how to build and pitch products to them, simply applying these principles to sell parallel products has typically proven ineffective. The challenge runs much deeper. To win over Muslim consumers, both product and pitch must resonate at a religious level. The marketing has to advance beyond defining traditional economic, psychological or functional need fulfilment. The shariah marketer, in other words, must articulate how it can fulfill a fourth: the spiritual.
To any marketer, this obviously creates a much higher hurdle for getting to the consumer. Spirituality is deeply personal, which makes marketing around it all the more difficult to position as genuine, given that one is bringing commerce into the equation. With Islam in the picture, the shariah marketer also takes on an even larger responsibility: to demonstrate how the collective community of Islamic peoples—ummah—can benefit from what is being offered. While the cultural values behind Western marketing encourage a focus on individual benefits, the opposite is true for Muslims: Shariah law teaches it is the duty of individuals to cooperate and protect each other.
Effective marketing to Muslims consumers therefore focuses on Islamic values—upholding customs or helping to advance a stage in the individual’s spiritual journey as defined in the Quran. But that’s the easy part. The practice of successfully marketing shariah-friendly products is much more difficult. The delivery must come off genuine, personal and connected—to the very life journey of the individual consumer.
Our strategy: Amanah
At Sun Life, our experience in achieving such delivery and building a successful practice for marketing to the Muslim consumer has been a journey built upon one fundamental principle: amanah. An Islamic word meaning to “uphold trust,” it has inspired the foundations of our entire strategy for marketing life insurance to Muslim consumers.
Like many other products, life insurance as conventionally structured is forbidden to Muslims. So when we decided to pursue this fast-growing segment, we chose not to mirror our existing offering with Muslim parallels, but to build and market our shariah products as originally Islamic ventures. Our thinking was that if we are asking Muslim consumers to give us their trust to be their insurer, we first have to earn it by being authentically Islamic ourselves. Our shariah marketing, like our products, is therefore built from the ground up on Islamic foundations.
In practice, we bring this commitment to life in our content, delivery and customer experience by constantly checking if our approach is authentically Islamic; if it has earned the trust we are asking for. In all content, for example, we place the focus squarely on community benefits of the product, rather than references to individuals’ potential gain. Investment products emphasise that each participants’ money is pooled to collectively protect and benefit the group. Marketing images accordingly also only show whole families or even communities together.
When delivering these messages, we focus almost exclusively on word-of-mouth dissemination. While quite a departure from most marketing today, we prioritise this people-intensive “guerrilla marketing” approach because it is the best way to ensure our authenticity. We have learned the hard way, however, that it is not enough to make this decision to focus on people: The people themselves must be authentic members of the Muslim community. Particularly early on, when our recruitment function was just getting off the ground, we did not always place the right agents “into the field.” Almost without fail, even if our content was authentically Islamic, our message was getting lost in the delivery. Now, we go to painstaking lengths to identify and train the people who can actively and authentically engage in the Muslim community while representing Sun Life. What’s more, to reinforce their fit, we ensure that each of them receives the blessing (and are often even chosen with guidance from) local Muslim community leaders. Because of these methods, our agents are now empowered to join social gatherings at the mosque or within the community and when appropriate and relevant, share information about our products.
Lastly, and returning to the underlying responsibility of ummah, we organise the customer experience around giving back to the community. Unconventional though it may sound to Western marketers, we consider CSR and community activities to be a core element in earning our Muslim customers’ loyalty. So we raise our profile not by extolling product benefits but by participating in and giving back to our customers’ local communities.
Even today, we have just begun to break the surface in tapping the enormous opportunity in the Muslim consumer segment. So as we look toward the future, we hope that more and more marketers will also start engaging Muslim consumers with trust and authenticity. In the end, we expect that more unification across the board will benefit us all and finally unlock the great potential in this market.
Elin Waty is director and chief distribution officer, PT Sun Life Financial Indonesia