Halal products and services have evolved beyond Shari’ah compliancy, into a coherent, issues-led brand philosophy
With a 1.57 billion-strong global Muslim population, and most of them coming from what we call the ‘next 11’ emerging economies, it’s clearly a force to be reckoned with. Much has been said and written about the explosion of Halal and its immense potential, but not much about what really makes it tick and how it has become such a big cultural phenomenon.
Keeping it real
We investigated ‘Halal’ through the lens of ‘human experience’– our global planning philosophy, which enables us to deconstruct the zeitgeist by simplifying human understanding. We found ‘Halal’ is actually rooted in three distinct, yet interconnected, counter-trends – Localism, Provenance and Eco-ethical.
These counter-trends are an antidote to rampant globalisation, which has led to mass commoditisation and sameness in our culture.
Consumers are increasingly seeking alternatives to mainstream brands. This growing desire for realness and authenticity is manifested in these counter-trends. It’s the combined forces of these that are driving ‘Halal’ products.
Contrary to popular belief, ‘Halalism’ is no longer just about Shari’ah- compliance. It has gradually evolved as a brand philosophy representing a set of values. This explains why we are seeing this ideology transcend seemingly unrelated sectors, such as lifestyle, travel, and even cosmetics. It’s no longer adequate to stick your ‘Halal’ label or logo on your products.
This was true in the first wave of Halal when we had offerings such as Mecca-Cola and Beurger King Muslim (Beur is French slang meaning Arab, used for second-generation North Africans in France).
Interestingly, these originated in countries without a predominantly Muslim population. They did not succeed in the long run, primarily because they used religion as a superficial badge and clearly did not understand the value of brand-building. Consumers viewed them as cheap mimics of established global brands.
We are now witnessing the second wave where brands are embracing Halalism to the very core.
There’s an increasing commitment from companies to embed Halal in everything they do – right from supply chain and product development, through to communications. Today corporations need to start living the values propagated by Shari’ah – honesty, respect, kindness, transparency, community, purity, etc. As said earlier, today’s consumers are demanding these values from brands.
Research has identified ‘New Age Muslims’, or ‘Futurists’, as an influential consumer group, as they are young, progressive and, more importantly, value ethics in their brands. They are individualistic and seek to align their lifestyle with Islam. Hence, they use global brands but seek ethical alternatives rooted in their own religion.
I find it interesting that values which Shari’ah encourages are emblematic of mainstream CSR-friendly themes, such as organic, fair-trade and going green. This takes us back to the point I made in the beginning about Halal being manifested in key trends such as localism, provenance and eco-ethical. This all begs the big question: Can Halal break into the mainstream?
The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. I strongly believe this is what the third wave of Halal will be all about. And this presents itself as one of the biggest marketing opportunities of the near future.
There is already evidence of this taking place in some sectors. HSBC Amanah is one example. Amanah is HSBC’s sub-brand to make itself relevant to Muslim consumers. What’s interesting is that a large portion of its customer base in Malaysia (a country with a Muslim majority) is Chinese, a nationality that seems attracted to the distinctive ‘halal’ offering and not so much to the Islamic element.
Islamic banking, by nature, is co-operative and propagates profit-sharing, as opposed to interest. It’s the ethical values and set of beliefs that Halal is rooted in that makes its proposition universal. In that sense, Islamic banking is no different from mainstream banking.
Banking is perhaps an easier sell, but what about ‘closer to home’ Halal food brands, which have quintessentially targeted Muslim consumers.
Here I cite the example of Chicken Cottage – a Halal fast food chain from the UK. Now this may seem like a KFC me-too for Muslims but, in reality, Chicken Cottage has become hugely popular among non-Muslims. The key reason behind its success is that the brand has positioned itself as ‘local’ and toned down on its ‘Halal’ lineage in its communications. Non-Muslims tend to believe Halal is not relevant to them and this stems from their ignorance of the concept. The strategy seems to have worked and the brand has expanded to seven countries, including Saudi Arabia.
A parallel universe
For marketers who are keen to build their brands around the ‘Halal’ values, there’s a lot of inspiration available in our related worlds.
There are some great global case studies of brands that have built themselves around a single-minded belief system.
My favourite is Waitrose – the UK retailer that has redefined itself around the ethical paradigm. Waitrose has a long-term holistic approach to ethical sourcing. It has been a pioneer of organic and fair-trade offerings; there are as many as 3,000 lines instore ranging from fruit to chocolates. The latest is the world’s first fair trade cola, Ubuntu Cola, sourced from Malawi, where 15 per cent of the profits go to Ubuntu (South African for humanity and kindness) Africa programme. Not content with that, Waitrose has also launched the Waitrose Foundation to improve the lives of the farm workers, wherein a percentage of profit is given back to the community.
The fair-trade ethos is also carried through at a corporate level. All Waitrose employees are assigned the title of partner, co-owner of the business, and entitled to a share of the profit – à la Halal.
Much of this will sound familiar to brand-builders of today in the context of Halal. It’s evident that the values Waitrose stands for are similar to what ‘Halalism’ embodies. Embracing these universal values and gaining a holistic understanding of the Muslim consumer will help brands herald the third wave of Halal – its mainstreaming. Only then will it unleash its true potential.
Reaching that stage, however, demands a cultural shift from corporations involving continuous learning and adapting over time. Only a handful of big companies have trodden this path successfully. Nestlé is one example and a role model for doing this with utmost conviction. It was a pioneer in Halal marketing, having caught the wave in the 1980s when there was little commercial awareness of the issue. We are now in 2011, so prepare for the second, and much bigger, wave of Islamic branding.
First published in GMR