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Marketing to Muslims poses a challenge for retailers

As Best Buy recently discovered, reaching out to Muslims can cause a backlash. Even those who champion the targeting of ads to the community steer corporations away from the mainstream media.

January 25, 2010|By Raja Abdulrahim

Some companies have begun to test heavily Muslim markets. Crescent Foods in Chicago, for instance, started selling its halal chicken products at six Wal-Mart Superstores in Michigan and at ShopRite, a regional chain in the Northeast.

During Ramadan, Western Union launched a travel sweepstakes that would give customers who send money to the Middle East, Pakistan and Bangladesh the opportunity to fly home or undertake the annual Islamic hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The sweepstakes lasted through the Eid al-Adha holiday in November and awarded a $1,800 ticket voucher to each of 14 winners.

"We know this is a very special holiday for our Muslim customers," said Maher Kayali, marketing manager for U.S. to Middle East and Pakistan region. "So we gave them that opportunity so they can go to Mecca."

To promote the sweepstakes, Western Union representatives visited mosques and held Ramadan dinners in Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey and Detroit.

"If it's Ramadan-specific and Eid-specific, it's directed to the ethnic media," Kayali said, insisting that such targeted marketing isn't done out of fear of fallout from the mainstream.

But promotions beyond the small Islamic community face roadblocks. About six years ago, Syed Rasheeduddin Ahmed, president of food certification firm Muslim Consumer Group, added his halal symbol to the packaging of bread loaves with the full name of his company written out.

Soon the company was getting complaints, and Ahmed changed the symbol to include just the initials MCG for loaves sent to the U.S. Those shipped to the Middle East still retain his original symbol.

Constraints that advertisers face here don't exist in the Middle East, where Ramadan and the two Eid holidays are times when brands such as Coca-Cola, Nestle and McDonald's are merged seamlessly with holiday greetings.

In Turkey, Nestle launched a campaign during Ramadan, which began in late August, that urged customers: "Enjoy the pleasure of Ramadan with Nestle Chokella." After sunset, when Muslims are allowed to break their fast, Nestle employees went to public squares and neighborhoods to give out samples of the chocolate spread on pita bread.

But a Nestle USA spokeswoman said she wasn't aware of any plans to target Muslim consumers here.

Despite their large buying power, U.S. Muslims remain a small percentage of the consumer market. And for now, it appears advertising and products targeted toward them will remain in small markets and niche media and publications.

"It's almost like a policy thing when you're treated like a voting bloc or a consumer bloc instead of just a quote-unquote Muslim or a shady person in the background," the American Muslim Consumer Conference's Abdullah said about marketing to U.S. Muslims. "It's almost like a validating stance -- 'Hey, you are American.' It just makes you feel more accepted."


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