Shedding Light On The Neglected Muslim Consumer Market

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Ogilvy CEO Discusses “Noor” Islamic division at American Muslim Consumer Conference, says US Muslim Spending Power Over $170 Billion

Chief Halal Officer of American Halal Co networks with attendees at the second annual American Muslim Consumer Conference in New Jersey. Photos by Sameh Abdallah.


 

The full keynote address of Ogilvy & Mather CEO Miles Young

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American Muslims know their community has money. Lots of it. They save it, invest it, and donate it.

And they spend it to the tune of around $100 billion per year.

Despite this rich and willing spending demographic, mainstream US companies seem to be oblivious, creating targeted marketing campaigns aimed at African-Americans, Latinos, and dozens of other slices of the American population but ignoring the American Muslim consumer.


Last year, a professional networking group of young Muslims mostly from New Jersey called Mlink set out to change that. They held their first annual American Muslim Consumer Conference in New Brunswick, inviting Muslim entrepreneurs, business advocates, and researchers to help describe the American Muslim consumer.

This year’s American Muslim Consumer Conference, themed “Charting the Landscape”, dealt with some of the same issues describing and categorizing the American Muslim consumer, but also dealt with the idea of how companies can best market to the Muslim consumer. Significantly raising the profile of the annual gathering was this year’s main sponsor, world’s largest marketing and communications firm Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.

Recognizing the untapped potential of global Muslim consumer buying power, Ogilvy & Mather created a corporate unit dedicated to consulting companies on how best to market and brand their products and services for Muslim markets, appropriately calling it Ogilvy Noor. (‘Noor’ is the arabic word for ‘light’ – Ed.)

Attracting over 350 registered guests to the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick, the full day conference’s first keynote was titled “the American Muslim Experience: What Headscarves, Halal Chicken Nuggets, and the Super Bowl Have In Common” and delivered by Gallup analyst Magali Rheault.

Each of about nine sessions throughout the day focused on a particular aspect of the Muslim consumer market.

The first session, “Marketing to Muslims: Media Realities and Analytical Strategies in the Muslim Landscape” featured a panel of marketing directors, consultants, and strategists. Prominent and much appreciated among them was Steven Pilchak, the General Manager for Best Buy in Dearborn, Michigan whose store incorporated Eid greetings in an advertising campaign last year. The advertisement received some negative feedback from Islamophobic groups, but sales actually increased after the advertisement, which coincided with the Thanksgiving season. Nazia Hussain, also on the panel and the director of Cultural Strategy at Ogilvy Noor, said the lesson to learn from Best Buy is not to back down when promoting diversity and inclusion.

“Making Muslims feel included [is very important] … because [right now] Muslims in America feel marginalized and ignored,” Hussain told the Muslim Link, adding that the new “Noor” unit of Ogilvy & Mather is focused on helping companies “empathize with Muslim values” and aligning their products and services to those values.

The second session, “Halal: Challenges and Opportunities in North America”, was moderated by ISNA Secretary General Safaa Zarzour and had a panel which included zabiha.com founder Shahed Amanullah and Dr. Mehmood Khan, a vice-president and Chief Scientific Officer at Pepsico. The five member panel explored the debate on the value and importance of “halal” to the Muslim market, what is considered “halal”, and how uniform “halal standards” can be developed globally.

Actor Faran Tahir, who played the villain in Iron Man and also played a major role in Star Trek, delivered the afternoon keynote address and discussed Muslim stereotypes. He said in the acting business today a Muslim name assumes the actor generally plays the bad guy role.

The third main panel looked at specific case studies of American Muslim firms partnering with mainstream corporations to reach wider markets. Of note were Joohi Tahir, the Vice-president of Marketing and Sales for Chicago based Crescent Foods, and Jack Acree, Executive Vice-president of American Halal Co. Both firms produce frozen halal products and sell their products in large stores like Walmart, Costco, and Whole Foods. Tahir, whose firm sells frozen halal chicken products, said Walmart reached out to them and solicited their products.

“Mainstream is coming to halal, not the other way around, and we should be proud of that,” she said, adding that Walmart data suggests that more than 50% of the customers buying Crescent Food products at their stores are non-Muslims.

Others on the panel cautioned on being dependent on large corporations to sell products, since purchases by firms like Walmart drive the per unit cost down and make profit margins very slim for smaller companies. The panel also discussed how the mainstream marketplace “lives and dies by data”, and due to the severe lack of data on the halal market, judging its progress is very difficult.

The forth session was unique and entertaining, taking a panel of experienced, successful, and at times sharply critical businessmen and placing young entrepreneurs with their business plans in front of the panel.

Northern Virginia resident Omar Khawaja, CEO of Little Big Kids which makes fun, educational products for the “under 7 crowd”, was appreciated for bringing much needed products to the marketplace, but also cautioned by some panel members. Tariq Farid, CEO and founder of Edible Arrangements International, said Khawaja needs to pursue his idea full-time. “If you’re going to ask investors to invest, they are going to ask how invested you are,” said Farid.

Adnan Durrani, one of the founding partners of Stonyfield Farms, among the largest organic yogurt companies in America, peppered Khawaja with questions on profitability, unit costs, shipping costs, and other numbers, trying to make the point that entrepreneurs must have a firm grasp of every measurable aspect of their operations.

Other entrepreneurs taking the hot seat were a New York based Islamic themed jewelry maker, a proposed kabob restaurant following the Chipotle model, an online advertising network, and a California based online magazine. The five entrepreneurs were chosen from a pool of about 25 that applied.

In the conference’s final keynote address, Ogilvy & Mather CEO Miles Young underscored the importance of “Islamic branding” – exposing the values Muslims are attracted to, and then aligning the marketing message to those values. Defining those values, according to Young, is the first challenge.

“[Those] adjectives – values we need to seek out [are] – honesty, respect, consideration, kindness, peacefulness, purity, patience, discipline, authenticity, transparency, trustworthiness, humility, modesty, community, and above all else sincerity of intent,” said Young.

The second challenge was to gather solid data on the Muslim market to show Muslims are not one large “homogeneous green block”.  Third, the Muslim consumer market must “convey normality”, said Young, citing that while Jews only constitute 2% of the US population, about 30% of American food products are kosher.

Ogilvy & Mather’s Nazia Hussain said her company’s sponsorship of the American Muslim Consumer Conference was a “profile building opportunity” for Ogilvy Noor. The firm also sponsored the World Islamic Economic Forum and the Oxford Islamic and Branding & Marketing Forum during the last year.

Murshed Chowdhury, part of the organizing team for this year’s conference, said attendees, vendors, and partner businesses were “floored by the execution, content, and professionalism” of the conference. About a dozen vendors had booths at the conference. Next year he said they hope to double the participation of mainstream companies and raise more awareness in the Muslim Community and beyond.

For more information on the conference, visit http://americanmuslimconsumer.com.

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