The Muslim population is currently more than 20% of the global population and marketers have been quick to segment them as an audience. But is religion alone ever a strong enough driver to categorize consumers, or are there other elements which are more relevant?

Marketing to Muslims has been an issue discussed in marketing terms for a few years now, due to the specific requi­re­ments of the Islamic faith which does affect some key product categories such as banking and food. But beyond this, the catego­ri­zation seems somewhat redundant. There are almost 1.6 billion Muslims across the world making up about 23% of the world population. By 2050 they will be almost 30%1. They form the majority in more than 50 countries of the world and large minorities in many others including the US, UK and many important western countries.

There is massive diversity among Muslim cultures based on weather, topography, local norms and languages. Globa­li­zation is a factor in play here as well with inter-marriages and migrancies further evolving these cultures and creating newer and more varied societies. The only thing that all Muslims share among each other is their faith (with their ritua­listic practices in greater varia­tions too). This makes what we refer to as “Muslims” a group as diverse as all humanity.

Can we come up with one “formula” to market to such a diverse group of indivi­duals? I don’t think so. There are many things that Muslims share globally like their core faith and basic acts of worship. But then, in all other matters they might behave differ­ently from one another. Even among Arabs (who are a minority ethnic group among Muslims) there is a lot of diversity. In Saudi Arabia, for example, it is etiquette to wipe one’s plate after eating, whereas in Egypt this is consi­dered rude.

I have perso­nally experi­enced these challenges as a marketer. Early in my career I worked for a company that launched a “feminine care” brand in Pakistan. We thought that simply adopting the Saudi model in Pakistan would work. In Saudi, this brand was marketed on TV and displayed openly on store shelves. Under our “search and re-apply” philo­sophy we made an ad which we thought would strike the chord of Pakistani consumers. Lo and behold it did. Women were out on street! Not buying but protesting. We were challenged in the Supreme Court that the company was promoting “un-Islamic norms”. We were told that sisters could no longer watch TV with their brothers. It became one of the most difficult legal battles for the brand. Somehow, the brand overcame this challenge. But it also made the team realize that Pakistan is in some ways “holier than Saudi”.

This project fueled a further study to better under­stand “shopper habits” for the personal care category in the Middle East. The company chose to conduct the study in Dubai as this is a country where you can find people from all backgrounds. An interesting learning that came out was that “feminine care” products in an Arab super­market like the Co-operative were placed on the shelf. Arab women were not shy to pick the products up and throw them in their trolleys. On the other hand, in South Asian stores like Lulu, these products were discreetly displayed. A brown paper bag was closely placed near the product. This allowed the buyer to wrap her purchase in the bag before throwing it in her shopping basket. This was similar to what was happening in Pakistan. This eureka moment in the study made it clear that Pakistani shoppers’ behavior was similar to Indians rather than Arabs. It was not the religion that was governing this habit but rather the South Asian cultural norms.

A recent exami­nation of the Millward Brown Link ad testing database allowed us to compare global norms to Muslim countries (Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi, Turkey and Malaysia) in an effort to see if they have any signi­ficant simila­rities which would be useful to marketers. Our infor­mation backed-up the findings of the “shopper study” mentioned above. The Muslim countries generally fell in with the global views on key things like the use of children in adver­tising contri­buting to enjoyment and persuasion. In other measures there was more than one country behaving differ­ently to the others. So in summary – there is no one formula for what makes a great ad for Muslims just as there is no one formula which targets all people.

It’s a fact of the modern world that due to increased geographic mobility and the proli­fe­ration of digital commu­ni­ca­tions, marketers need to regard all audiences as multi­cul­tural. The best marketing formula is always to think global and act local – taking into account what local means in any parti­cular context. This would mean for example that under­standing Indonesian or Pakistani marketing nuances is much more important than under­standing Muslims. This is what global brands like Apple, Coke, Levi’s, Kit Kat, Zara, and Dunhill have success­fully achieved.

These companies are able to cater to a universal insight that exists for a global consumer. Apple’s brand idea around “simplicity” caters to a universal need of avoiding “complexity”. This empowers a person to be part of the future. And this is the reason why Apple is such a great brand.

One thing that managers of these great brands are able to do is localize the context of these universal ideas. They are able to fit these brands in the cultural context of different societies. And this is why we might see a South American taking a selfie while disco­vering the Aztec monuments, and on the other side of the world an Arab taking a selfie while circu­mam­bu­lating the Kaaba in Makkah.

To make a brand “global”; it is vital to satisfy a universal need and then localize the offering by keeping local culture in mind. This is the formula for marketing to Muslims. This formula is true for the rest of the world too.

Key Takeaways

  • The Muslim community is over 20% of the population, but beyond their core faith and acts of worship there are many diffe­rences between them.
  • Local culture is an important influence on the behavior and prefe­rences of consumers and can have a greater effect than religion.
  • The most successful brands satisfy a universal need and adapt their marketing to local culture.

By: Noaman Asar, Country Manager, Pakistan Millward Brown