Advertisers seek to speak to Muslim consumers

By Liz Gooch, The New York Times

Thick waves of hair cascade over a woman’s shoulder.

She gives a flirtatious flick of her locks and tells viewers that they too can get such a luxurious mane — if they buy the shampoo she is holding up to the camera. That is the script for your standard shampoo commercial.

Cut to the television spot for Sunsilk’s Lively Clean & Fresh shampoo. Another young, smiling woman is the star, but there is not a strand of hair in sight. Her tresses are completely covered by a tudung, the head scarf worn by many Muslim women in Malaysia.

Sunsilk Clean & Fresh TVC

The pitch? Lively Clean & Fresh helps remove excess oil from the scalp and hair — a common problem among wearers of tudungs, according to Unilever, the manufacturer. The company says the product is the first shampoo to speak directly to the “lifestyle of a tudung wearer.”

For decades, many Western companies failed to appreciate the unique needs of Muslim consumers, marketing experts say. Worse, some companies offended potential customers by not understanding religious sensitivities. But as the Islamic population has grown in size and affluence — there are now 1.57 billion Muslims worldwide — more multinationals are seeking to tap into the market.

Instead of simply importing products and advertising from the West, companies are increasingly developing marketing campaigns — and formulating products themselves — with Muslims firmly in sight. “Islamic marketing,” some experts say, is the next wave in branding, and now, as the holy month of Ramadan begins, activity is surging.

“For the last few years, it’s been China and India,” said Paul Temporal, an associate fellow at the Said Business School at the University of Oxford. “The next big market is the Muslim market. There’s this huge group of people who have been relatively untapped in terms of what they want and need, and they represent a tremendous opportunity.”

John Goodman, Ogilvy & Mather’s regional director for South and Southeast Asia, is blunter: “It’s like being in 1990 and telling people that China doesn’t matter. Twenty years ago you might have said that, but now you’re being foolish.”

With Muslim-majority countries spread from Southeast Asia to Africa, and Muslims speaking numerous languages and adhering to varying standards of dress and other customs, approaching the group as consumers can be complex. But as with all marketing exercises, experts say, rule No.1 is to avoid causing offense.

Nike committed a legendary error when it released a pair of athletic shoes in 1996 with a logo on the sole that some Muslims believed resembled the Arabic lettering for Allah. Given that Muslims consider the feet unclean, “producing shoes with the name of God on the soles of the feet is not a good idea,” said Mr. Goodman, who converted to Islam in 1999. “They recalled 800,000 pairs of shoes globally.”

Describing the Nike episode as a “wake-up call” for companies, Mr. Goodman said it had also been a turning point for Muslim advocates, who realized that “if they make a noise, companies would listen and change, that they had economic and social influence.”

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2 Responses to Advertisers seek to speak to Muslim consumers

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