Ramadan Marketing, Anyone?

Across South Asia and Middle East, Ramadan and Eid account for millions of dollars of advertising and promotional spending.  Are you missing out on this opportunity?

Amidst the bustling downtown core of Toronto sits an unassuming building that comes to life every night just before sundown. Its mid-June and the mercury almost hit 30. For over three weeks now, the men and women passing through the doors of this downtown building have been fasting. That means no food or water for over 17 hours a day; ritual that’s repeated every day for a full lunar cycle.

It is Ramadan, ninth and one of the holiest months in Muslim calendar. The community is gathering at the downtown mosque – much like other mosques around GTA and across Canada – for “Iftar” or breaking the fast. For many others, iftar is at home. Regardless, this is a time for family, friends and community to come together after a long day of fasting.

Ramadan may be culturally diverse across the world, yet there is one central theme everywhere – food! From Samosas, Pakoras, Biryani and curries in Pakistan and India; Mahshi (zucchini stuffed with flavoured rice) and Harees (coarsely-ground wheat buried underground with chicken or meat) in the Middle East; Apam Balik (type of griddle pancake) in Malaysia to grilled meat and Persian Abgoosht (tomato-based lamb stew), Ramadan has a flavour of its own wherever it’s practiced. And in most Muslim homes in Canada, Iftar is time for a somewhat elaborate dinner with the family.

The month long Ramadan is followed by one of the biggest Muslim festivals – Eid-al-Fitr. This is a day of thanksgiving and celebration with family and friends. It usually begins with early morning ritual prayers at mosques where people also meet and greet each other. Later, families get together for feasty lunch or dinner. In some communities (mostly South Asian), it is common for men, women and children to wear traditional dresses and for women to wear bangles and apply “henna” – dye prepared from a flowering plant – on their hands and feet.

Across South Asia and Middle East, Ramadan and Eid account for millions of dollars of advertising and promotional spending. A 2014 Nielsen study, conducted in the UAE, reported a 9% spike in overall food consumption during Ramadan. During the same period grocery stores saw a 7% increase in overall sales volume. Advertising spend in Pakistan, for instance, is nearly 25% higher in Ramadan compared to rest of the year (BBC).

With over 1 million Muslim Canadians, a number that has doubled for the third-consecutive decade (National Post; Statistics Canada), the significance of these consumers is gaining ground. Much like elsewhere around the world, many Canadian Muslim households spend higher on grocery, especially foods and beverages during Ramadan and Eid-al-Fitr every year. That explains why big box banners such as Walmart and No Frills usually run special offers on items such as Halal meat, rice, bread, juices and a range of South Asian foods.

While Ramadan presents marketers with many opportunities for engaging Muslim consumers, it is important that companies and brands are conscious of the religious sensitivities as well cultural nuances that dictate how the ethnically diverse Muslim communities celebrate these events. Last year during Ramadan, Tesco supermarket in the UK was accused of cultural insensitivity when one of its stores was found offering bacon flavoured Pringles as part of Ramadan promotion (Telegraph.co.uk). Even though the product does not contain actual pork, consumption of which is forbidden in Islam, the promotion ended up receiving significant backlash from community and social media. Nevertheless, for years now, global brands like Pepsi, Coke, Cadbury, Nestle and Lipton have run special Ramadan and Eid campaigns across South Asian and Middle East markets with their seasonal sales climbing every year.

On the flip side, a common misconception stems from stereotyping – that Ramadan marketing is only for products that are typically associated with Muslims. Hence many big box retail flyers are splashed with offers on products like Halal meat and dates (Walmart.ca). While many Canadian Muslims are immigrants, there is significant number of 2nd Generation as well as those who practically grew up in Canada. These younger Canadian Muslims are open to lot more than traditional foods.

Aside from staples such as rice, flour, sugar, lentils, there are canned fruits, juices, ready-to-eat food, desserts, cakes, ice-creams and chocolates. Then there are kitchen and homecare products that fit in well with Ramadan cooking and Eid cleaning themes. Since fasts last for over 17 hours and Iftar dinners usually run until after 9pm during summers, there is opportunity for over-the-counter health products such as vitamins, antacids and digestion relief products. Much of the Eid festival that follows Ramadan is about cleaning the home, wearing new clothes, grooming and gifting.

In the end, it all boils down to the feasibility of reaching out to this demographic. A pilot campaign during Ramadan can give brands that are good fit, a flavor of what they’ve been missing out on. If it does well, there is no reason why the segment cannot be engaged long-term. There are other lesser known, yet important Muslim festivals and celebrations that can be leveraged for high impact, tailored communication. Reaching out to this niche through social media and groups with content that resonates is another great way to stay connected.

Interestingly, some brands and banners may find little or no need for accommodation in their operations, products or processes to be able to effectively market to this community. A good starting point though, would be to have better understanding of the diversity of Muslim culture, or find a multicultural marketing partner who already does.

This article also appeared on StrategyOnline.ca

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