Archive for : November, 2010

All American, All Islamic: The Bright Future for Islamic Branding in America [Video & Transcript]

The following is the transcript of Miles Young’s speech from the 2010 American Muslim Consumer Conference.

Thank you so much for that introduction and thank you to the American Muslim Conference for organizing this informative, provocative and, I believe, hopeful and inspiring day. This is the second edition of this conference and I know I can say on behalf of all the sponsors that it has been an unqualified success. And I am confident that we will see this event grow year after year in size and stature as America and the companies that do business here come to realize the crucial role that the Islamic consumer will play in the future. On a personal note, I am very honored to be given this spot as a non-Muslim and conscious that I am presenting the views of an outsider. I therefore do present them with all humility.

Let’s just, as we close the day, take a moment to take consider the broader context. Because it is the broader context which every journalist asked me about during the lunch hour when I was doing interviews. The United States is in the midst of an uneasy period of relations with the Islamic world. Mistrust and misunderstanding flows back and forth, at the national level, and at the individual level. There is an emergence of some hardcore radicalism on the far edge of the political spectrum in American politics and reminders for some of us historians of the dark days of the post war period. As Sean Willets has recently argued in an article in the New Yorker, fears for security are being translated into fear of Islam as a whole. The United States’ battle against violent organizations seems likely to turn into a proxy war against Islam as a whole.

It could, but actually, I don’t think it will. And I give you that answer rather particularly as a European – for two reasons.

First of all, because what you have in the United States is certainly not what you have in the Netherlands, where a political party has been elected into a powerful position purely on Islamophobia. What you have in the United States are not riots in the streets between police and Islamic people as you do in France. So there is something very different here. There is a kind of psychological problem, and it seems to me to be born out of fear. And fear comes from ignorance and ignorance comes from what you don’t know – from a lack of knowledge. As a newcomer to the United States I’ve been rather astonished actually by the ignorance of Islam and the ignorance of Muslim people. But the good news is that while ignorance exists, ignorance can also be dispelled. And that I feel that is part of the theme of this conference and one of the reasons why it is so important. Secondly, because although we hear a lot of bad news in the media there’s also a powerful desire in the US and I think the Islamic world to tighten the links. Our friends at Gallup have recently pointed out that that both the majority of Americans and citizens of Islamic countries desire better understanding between the West and Islam. And given that fact, contrary to conventional wisdom, Gallup also found that people in the Islamic world admire the west.

So, time and time again, I’ve been asked by journalists today “why now?” and “why is your company involved in this?” “Isn’t it dangerous?” “Isn’t it risky?” And actually I have a very simple answer for that, which is that every multinational corporation I know of has got a diversity policy. Every multinational company I know of publicly states its commitment to inclusion. And how can you believe in diversity and inclusion if you practise rabid exclusion? If you treat in a pejorative way a community that absolutely has the right to be regarded as central to and included in society? So to me it’s absolutely not an option not to be involved. It is not an option.

Of course, it is not just altruism. We heard in the entrepreneurial session some really exciting, ambitious business plans. It has to make business sense. The global halal market is worth $2.1 trillion dollars and it is growing at $500 billion dollars a year. While we don’t know exactly, we can safely assume that American Muslims comprise a very attractive quantum of spending power. And we also heard today that they are the best-educated religious group in American. We know that over 40% have bachelors’ degrees thanks to Gallop. It comes as no surprise therefore that they are strong earners. It makes this community the richest Islamic population probably in the world and quite different in character from other Western minority Muslim communities. Now Islam is already the third largest religion in the States. It is a faith on the rise. As Meghrani reminded us, we don’t really know exactly how many there are. But let’s assume its somewhere between 6 to 8 million. I think that someone just mentioned that’s the size of a reasonable European country. Let’s say Portugal. Well, my own holding company has net revenues of $100 million dollars in Portugal. That is not something to sniff at. And intriguingly, the Islamic population, whatever it exactly is, is probably about the same as where the Hispanic population stood around 25 years ago. And you know around 25 years ago you started to have the set-up of Hispanic advertising agencies in the US. They still exist. They have multiplied. Which says to me that this community will go the same route, will follow the same direction, and will become increasingly central to American marketing and advertising.

Let me turn briefly to the bigger world, which I believe we need to understand. Nazia, my colleague, mentioned a landmark survey that Ogilvy Noor has done on Islam and the new Muslim consumer. Just a word on why we did it. We did it for two reasons. One, because we have a strong business in majority Islamic markets around the world. We employ many Muslims. We have relationships not just with global clients, but with local Muslim clients in the countries where we do business. Two, we also believe it was important to get this agenda on the desks of CEOs globally. We heard today about a tipping point. It is a disgrace that there are no clients at the forthcoming World Halal Forum. But one of the things we constantly have to do is to make sure that those CEOs realize that importance of the size of this opportunity. And if they fail to take advantage of it they are in fact neglecting their strong shareholders’ interests.

So to me there are a number of challenges, which we have to overcome. And the first challenge for Islamic branding is for there to be some coherent viewpoint of what Shariah-compliant branding actually is. There is no one-size-fits-all definition. But it is worth reminding ourselves of what the values are and we heard them today. The nouns. These are the nouns we have to sing out: honesty, respect, consideration, kindness, peacefulness, purity, patience, discipline, authenticity, transparency, trustworthiness, humility, modesty, community – above all of sincerity and sincerity of intent. And all those words sound very very familiar to us because they are the words that have come to the fore in the age of transparency, which has been driven by the internet. They are the words which are referred to when marketing gurus talk about the need for authenticity. They are the values that any smart brand would want to espouse. They have to be put in the context of the mainstream and not of the minority. There is a communication problem, because of the confusion of Sharia values with a very narrow association with Sharia law in the West. Islamic branding can help solve that problem by incorporating Sharia values into brands, and the creative properties that go along with brands and the ideas that communicate brands – and by doing so in an engaging way and not in a legalistic or formulaic way. So the starting point for understanding the Islamic consumer must be an understanding of the role that compliance plays in people’s lives as a set of practices that are lived in concert with religion.

The second challenge for us is to understand that the Muslim community is like any other – not homogenous. I believe this is not understood by those who are the detractors and opponents of the Muslim world. And I also believe that if it is understood that it will dramatically increase empathy. So part of the “othering” which stigmatizes this community today is based, I think, on the belief that it is just some kind of homogenous green block. And actually that’s not surprising when so little market research or classic segmentation work has been done into the behavior of this community. Part of the benefit of the sort of the research that we’ve heard today from a number of sources is that we can see the community in a much more intelligent way. And certainly it is possible to divide it into two different macro-groups based on generational factors and on the role of faith. One group are rather more traditionalist, collectivist more with a sense of belonging, more strongly aligned with Sharia values of compassion, quietly proud. But the second group is what we call the Muslim futurists. This is the group that we in the room today should really be thinking about. And as we heard the presentations just a few minutes ago I think that this is the target audience of the majority of those businesses. These are not just another manifestation of Gen Y or millennials: they are steadfast followers, according to our research, of Islam. But they do seek to engage in the West, to engage in society and to be proud of the society in which they live while not compromising their principles. As marketers, this is the group that here in America I surmise we need to be particularly focused on, fascinated by. Can you imagine though any other community in America that has to endure ignorance and sometimes bigotry from high-profile media commentators only to see those people rewarded with multimillion-dollar jobs? It is a challenge.

And the third challenge is to convey normality. I believe this can be partly be done by analogy. For instance there is an analogy in the United States of the kosher market – $12 billion dollars back in 2008, 13% of the American population purchases kosher foods even though Jews only account for 2% of the American population. And that market is growing like a topsy and is becoming quietly mainstream. There is a parallel here with halal. The Jewish population at 6 million is smaller than the Muslim population. But it is interesting to reflect some 6% of purchases of kosher food in America are Muslim. Probably an understatement; it may be higher. So I think there is a role for branding in the States that is very specific. Brands must inform, educate, reassure the Muslim consumer, but I also believe they have to reach out beyond the Muslim consumer and the very act of reaching out beyond the Ummah legitimizes their role as brands without in my view necessarily undermining them.

And my fourth and final point refers to the challenge of soft power. I think the context for all the discussions today is a lack of soft power of Islam in the United States. And therefore the hard power of Islam is diminished. And it is extraordinary, isn’t it, that all the charitableness of Islam is given no credit or not enough credit. The reason is the lack of soft power. At the end of the day it is all about cultural things. If you consider countries, for instance, Japan, during its economic rise, it also suffered from a lack of soft power and spent a lot of effort to trying remedy that. You had a phenomenon, which was called “Japanese National Cool”, which meant conveying Japan as a cultural entity, as a center of design of advanced of cultural assets, or even of cartoons. Pokémon was an ambassador for the cultural “cool” of Japan. China is going through the same issue at the moment. It is trying also to turn itself into a design, arts and creative center. I am on the Prime Minister’s economic advisory council in Turkey. The main concern of Turkey, which is a secular country with an Islamic population, is that it completely lacks the soft power that it should have relative to its hard power.

Now all research and experience shows that creative design is the major component of soft power. I suggest to you today that something that hasn’t really come out of the session is that Islam is not strongly enough associated, in this country, with design: with graphic design, with the arts, with fashion or creative design. And in this sense it differs from the minority Muslim communities in Europe and certainly from the majority Muslim communities. And let me tell you, art and design diffuse fear. They normalize, they soften. And as I reflect on my own industry I feel there is much more that we should be doing to encourage young Islamic designers to be proud of their Islamic dimension as well as their role as designers. So Islamic branding has to make no concession what so ever in terms of design sophistication. We saw today in the entrepreneurial presentations some references to design but the last mile, really walking the talk about design is the most difficult thing.

Today, I think the consensus was that we are at the beginning of a journey. There are some fantastic and encouraging steps and examples and we heard some of those today. I thought that the Best Buy example was really inspiring – what Steven Pilchak talked about. He wanted to do something big. He wanted to do something different. He believed in diversity. He wanted to find a creative way of connecting based on what the consumers around him wanted. I thought that his video deserves a much wider airing than just in this meeting. Adnan, Saffron Road, is an example of Islamic brand that has got creativity baked into it. And we also heard the role of research at arriving at that brand identity. So these are some great examples, but they do sit within something of a soft power vacuum. And if you want an illustration of something that I would regard as good practice in this area, we should look at the sort of branding that is done for organic and free-range products in Europe. It’s really smart. It has very strong design ethic. It is very sophisticated and it transforms the category.

So drawing all these strands together, I think there is an important point on branding to be made here today. It was Farhan [Tahir] who reminded us that he was a product as an actor and he also had a brand. And the difference between a product and a brand is something that actually my company was built on. It was David Ogilvy, who is our founder, who was probably the inventor of contemporary brand image thinking. And he made the distinction: a product is something that is hard, it is all about bits and bytes, it’s got features. You can feel it. It is tangible, it is made on a production line or it is designed in an office, but it is solid and it is defined. A brand is something very different. It is not so rational. A brand is fundamentally an emotional thing. A brand is a relationship between any manufacturer, any seller of services, and the customer. The brand is actually owned by the customer. It is such a mistake to imagine that it is owned by the manufacturer. So Coke is not a fizzy soft drink as a brand. That is what it is as a product. But it is more than that. Coke is selling optimism. Optimism defines the Coke-consumer relationship. Optimism makes it a brand.

Thus, for instance, I feel a bit uncomfortable about so-called halal branding. Because I think there is a dangerous of misunderstanding here. You know halal is a process, halal is an ingredient. At the very most it is an ingredient brand like Intel is to a computer. But it’s not in itself a complete brand. As one of the speakers asked today, and I thought it was possibly the most important question I heard, “what is the halal premium?” That is an important question. Because it asks that what makes one halal brand better than another halal brand? The answer lies of course in the brand, not in the compliance. It lies in the emotional triggers based on the consumer’s needs and attitudes and motivations. So halal products become brands when halal becomes just a subscript. It is a certificate not a brand. And at the point where we have normal competition between rival halal brands then we will have halal branding. Otherwise what we are talking about is frankly nothing more sophisticated than the sort of branding that existed in Eastern Europe in the communist period.

I do think there is a general deficiency of creativity in halal branding. It is seen as something that has been invented, nothing wrong with that, by producers, but actually the subject of this conference is about consumption. Maybe this is a message or a plea to The World Halal Forum. Abdul Hamid, you talked about the importance of finding a language. It is critically important. But it goes beyond that. It also means finding a narrative, which the language has to express. And it goes beyond that. It means defining the emotions, the imagery and the design, which walk hand-in-hand with the language. This is particularly the case, in my view, for local brands. Unless local brands embrace this, then I fear that the multinational brands will just take over and dominate.

But if we get it right, the consumer desire very definitely is there. There is no doubt at all. And I believe that it is perfectly possible for Islamic branding to exist, to be targeted, to be sophisticated, to be effective, to be empathic and to be appropriate. And in so doing, we should realize that the Islamic market has commercial potential to be sure, but it has a more important role perhaps to play in the future. Because those Muslim futurists I talked about, they are America’s children just as much as any other younger demographic.

Which brings me back to that critical role of branding. Branding normalizes. Branding explains. Branding elevates. Branding inspires. Branding is a former of soft power. I think that Islamic branding can help break that vicious change of “othering”, of dehumanizing, of demonizing which somehow is cinching around America’s soul. Islamic branding can de-other, it can re-humanize, it can give respect.

And it should in time begin to show that the flow of ideas in creative capital in the world is not one way, and that Islam is not a target but a resource, one of the well-springs of our collective future. So that we can say from our hearts, “all-American, all-Islamic” in one phrase, with a sense that it does indeed signal a bright future.

Thank you very much.