U.S. advertisers reach out to Muslim consumers

NEW YORK: For years, few advertisers in the United States have dared to reach out to Muslims.

Either they did not see much potential for sales or they feared a political backlash. And there were practical reasons: Muslim-Americans come from so many ethnic backgrounds that their only common ground is their religion, a subject most marketers avoid.

Now, though, that is beginning to change.

Grocers and consumer product companies are considering ways to make their goods follow Muslim rules, which forbid pork, gelatin and pig fat, often used in cosmetics and cleaning products. Retailers are looking into providing longer skirts even during the summer months, and mainstream advertisers are planning to place some commercials on the satellite channels that Muslims often watch.

“I think Muslims have had to draw into themselves,” said Marian Salzman of JWT, a large advertising agency in the WPP Group that plans to encourage clients, including Johnson & Johnson and Unilever, to market to American Muslims. “It puts an increased burden on a marketer, post-9/11, to say, ‘Look, we understand.’ ”

Marketing to Muslims carries some risks. But advertising executives, used to dividing American consumers into every sort of category, say that ignoring this group – estimated to be about 5 million to 8 million people and growing fast – would be like missing the Hispanic market in the 1990s.

Companies in the Detroit area, where there is a dense population of Muslims, are leading the change. A McDonald’s there serves halal Chicken McNuggets; Walgreens has Arabic signs in its aisles. And now, Ikea, which recently opened a store in the suburb of Canton that has had trouble attracting as many Muslim customers as hoped, has been touring local homes and talking to Muslims to figure out their needs.

The store there plans to sell decorations for Ramadan next fall and is adding halal meat to its restaurant menu. Catalogues will be offered in Arabic, and female Muslim employees will be given an Ikea-branded hijab, to wear over their head if they wish.

Marketing to Muslims is, of course, mostly intended to increase the companies’ sales. But advertising has also long been a mirror of changes in society.

Salzman pointed to ads in the 1960s that featured Jewish products like Levy’s rye bread, which, she said, helped bring that group more into the mainstream. She also noted that ads from companies like McDonald’s in the 1990s portrayed busy mothers who admitted that they did not cook every night like their mothers did.

“Marketers have actually helped us to rewrite the rules about what we’re comfortable with,” she said.

Because the Census Bureau does not ask about religion, there is no authoritative count of Muslims in America, though some Muslim organizations provide estimates as high as 10 million. Others say it could be a low as 3 million people. Many live in Orange County, California; Houston; Georgia; northern Virginia; New York City and Long Island; and, of course, the Detroit area.

Over the last few months, JWT conducted a large study of Muslims in the United States and Britain to determine whether they would be receptive to specialized advertising. There were 835 people in the United States study.

Salzman said the study found that Muslims were buying many standard products but that they felt excluded from mainstream advertising. In particular, she said, they wanted companies to recognize their holidays.

Almas Abbasi, a radiologist in Long Island, New York, who was one of the people interviewed by JWT, said she would be grateful for advertising that included Muslims.

“If Ramadan starts, and you see an ad in the newspaper saying ‘Happy Ramadan, here’s a special in our store,’ everyone will run to that store,” she said.

Muslim Americans spend about $170 billion on consumer products, JWT estimates; this figure is expected to grow rapidly as the population expands and younger Muslims start working.

Over the next few weeks, JWT plans to reach out to the chief executives of all of its major clients, including Ford Motor and HSBC, to encourage them to market to Muslims in the United States and Britain.

Just what approach companies should take to reach Muslims is far from clear. The market is diverse, and Muslims will disagree about whether the Muslim women in ads should wear the hijab, for instance.

Nationwide Financial Services has already been advertising to people from Pakistan and India, many of whom are Muslim. But it prefers to focus on their country of origin, said Tariq Khan, the director of ethnic marketing at Nationwide.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday April 29, 2007.
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