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  • From FT.com: Marketing for Ramadan

    Ogilvy Noor’s thought piece was published this morning on FT.com

    By Shelina Janmohamed of Ogilvy Noor

    It’s less than six weeks until Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, and the busiest marketing time in the Muslim world. So any brand worth its salt should be paying attention to their relationship with Muslim consumers.

    In majority-Muslim nations, this is the month when advertisers spend the lion’s share of their marketing budget. But brands are increasingly waking up to the opportunity to engage with minority Muslim populations too, after all consumption rises during Ramadan right across the world’s Muslim communities.

    During the recession advertising spend fell and then flatlined during the Arab spring, due to uncertainty over consumer confidence. But recently, there appears to be an upturn.

    During the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, from dawn to dusk for the whole month, Muslims refrain from physical intake. The evening meal called iftar (breaking of the fast) is a mini-celebration, and takes place at sunset usually with family and friends, after which Muslims can eat and drink until a final (suhoor) meal just before dawn.

    This year as Ramadan falls in the summer in the northern hemisphere, fasts are particularly long, and correspondingly, the night times reserved for eating and prayer, as well as socialising and shopping, are particularly short.

    Iftar is traditionally is taken at home with family and guests. It usually falls to the wife to prepare a sumptuous meal. While this is a huge task – she may spend most of the day in preparation – many women see it as a joy to feed their brood. Brands that help them in their struggle to create the perfect family meal will garner loyalty.

    Increasingly popular too are restaurants and hotels offering set menus, or all you can eat buffets.

    Of course as everyone rushes to get home for iftar – punctuality is crucial – traffic jams wreak havoc on the streets and tensions run high. With people stuck on the road, and the Islamic injunction to feed people the iftar, charitable organisations often hand out food on the street.

    Two of the most potent symbols of Ramadan are the crescent moon and dates. The Islamic calendar is lunar, which means that a new month begins when the crescent is seen in the night sky. Dates are the recommended food for breaking fast and become ubiquitous during the month.

    As a result, brands liberally sprinkle images of crescents and dates on all communications. But they should take heed that these are lazy clichés best used in moderation unless products actually have something do with crescents and dates.

    Brands are up against a fight, when it comes to consumer communications. Ramadan is a noisy time, and advertising is cluttered. So here is the silver bullet you need to make your brand stand out: the job of your brand is to help Muslims to better achieve their personal, community and spiritual goals during this month.

    The key is to move past glib generalisations about Ramadan to deeper insights into consumer behaviour and aspiration.

    For example, it’s trite to point out that Muslims are hungry, and insensitive to advertise food during the day. But here’s an example that injects humour into the experience of counting down to iftar. And this ad and this one respect the unspoken norm of avoiding ostentatious displays of food until after dark.

    Food shopping begins several weeks before Ramadan so brands should be well prepared with their marketing materials and product availability in channel.

    Stockpiling, product shortages and price hikes are a commonplace occurrence. Palm oil for example, rose to a seven week high on rising demand before Ramadan.

    Basic commodities can become unaffordable, forcing governments to step in to protect the consumer. Merchants exploiting this period face penalties. In the UAE the Ministry of Economy has warned traders about price rises and is encouraging traders to import produce before Ramadan.

    There are traditional foods, such as Moroccan harira soup to break the fast. Drinks also vary across regions as the popular choice for iftar, examples such as Vimto in the Middle East, and Rooh Afza in the Subcontinent.

    TV viewing habits change dramatically. In the Middle East a whole new slate of TV dramas – a business in itself – are aired in the evenings.

    Many dramas are made for export particularly from Turkey and Egypt, but there is a growing desire for home grown programming. In the UAE, a series of Emirati-made and themed programmes will be broadcast for the first time during Ramadan.

    TV scheduling encourages people to spend the entire evening at home in order to stay up to date with the soaps. So TV advertising is a popular if expensive choice for brands. But brands need to think carefully if it is cost-effective and reaches their target audience.

    Social media can be effective, and reach a younger tech-savvy audience, but brands must consider in which countries and demographics are suitable. Qatar for example has one of the world’s highest penetration of smartphones, and Indonesia ranks number 4 in terms of Facebook users. But social media penetration shows great variability.

    Brands can use technology cleverly to be helpful to Muslims. Ramadan appsRamadan portals, SMS reminders of the time to break fast and daily recipes are all examples of being a friend and support rather than a commercial opportunist during the sacred month.

    Internet usage patterns change. In Saudi Arabia for example it peaks between 12 and 3am just before suhoor, reflecting the way people stay up and use the web for entertainment and connectivity. Brands need to get wise to such enormous shifts.

    For the travel industry, business can be quiet during Ramadan. Austrian Airlines is cutting the number of flights.

    Yet with careful planning there are opportunities. Religious tourism to Makkah and Madina is naturally popular. But there is increasing encouragement to experience Ramadan in other Muslim countries, as eating norms are respected, and there is a strong communal atmosphere. Turkish Airlines, for example, is promoting “Ramadan in Turkey.”

    Ramadan packages in traditional holiday destinations such as Thailand are also appearing where the menu for the all-inclusive deals is specifically for night times, and kitchens are open for the pre-dawn meal.

    Perhaps counterintuitively, shopping becomes a popular past time in Ramadan. Night markets spring up.

    An online shopping portal in Malaysia brings the consumer voice to the fore: “Ramadan is a season of spirituality and togetherness; precious moments that should be spent with family and friends instead of being stuck in traffic and fighting crowds in shopping malls.”

    The Muslim consumer that should be at the forefront of every brand’s planning: that Ramadan is not a commercial festival but a time of self-improvement and spiritual gain.

    Brands therefore need to work hard to integrate Ramadan into a wider strategy that fits with brand values. Simply put, Ramadan engagement with Muslim consumers should not be a one off, but a chance to turbo boost an ongoing relationship.

    Shelina Janmohamed is vice president of Ogilvy Noor, a specialist consultancy for building brands with Muslim consumers.

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