According to Pew Research, over a quarter of the world’s population will be Muslim by the year 2050. The current Muslim lifestyle spend is at around $2.6 trillion, and the marketplace for halal products is expected to grow by 6 per cent in the next three years. The rise of the young Muslim consumer, nicknamed Generation M, presents a huge opportunity for brands — but many still don’t understand how to interact with this increasingly important demographic.
Shelina Janmohamed is Vice President of Islamic branding consultancy OgilvyNoor, and the author of the memoir ‘Love In A Headscarf’. Her latest book, ‘Generation M: Young Muslims Changing The World,’ explores the explosion of entrepreneurialism and creative self-expression in the emerging Muslim middle class. At a recent OgilvyNoor panel, Shelina sat down with Generation M artists, influencers and entrepreneurs to offer insights and dispel some myths.
1) There is no such thing as a typical Muslim consumer.
The attitudes that Shelina identified as characteristic of Generation M are repeated again and again across the globe; young Muslims want to be the heroes of their own stories, to have their own identities, and to go out into the world and make a change — but they also want to take people with them. That includes family, community, and the wider world outside of their faith.
In a research conducted by OgilvyNoor, over 90% of Muslims said that their religion affects their consumption habits in one way or another. Halal food and beverages are non-negotiable, but these consumers are also becoming increasingly conscientious about other categories, from pharmaceuticals to cosmetics.
“There is no stagnation, there is constant questioning,” says Shelina of this group; Generation M is continually curious about how things can be done better. Their religious devotion is all about being connected to a wider space, and this is reflected in modern Muslim thinking; for example, the ecomosque which aims to reduce environmental impact.
However, while members of Generation M may share certain core qualities, they are not all the same person. There is a common perception of what a Muslim is in Western media, a conflation of “Muslim” and “Arab” which is entirely inaccurate and fails to acknowledge the diversity of Muslim populations around the world, which range from Southeast Asian to African-American. Melvin Goh, founder of Have Halal Will Travel, says the one thing about him which people are constantly surprised by is that he is Muslim and Chinese. The first thing brands need to realise, he says, is that “there are many different kinds of Muslim.”
“It’s important not to pigeonhole this Muslim consumer,” says poet and playwright Nabilah Said. For example; clothing companies shouldn’t assume that she is only interested in modest fashion; “I want to be free to look at everything.”
2) We need to let go of our preconceptions around Muslim women.
Image credit: Tamadher Al Fahal
One of the most popular narratives in Western culture when it comes to Islam is the oppression of women. Shelina’s books defy the common publishing trend, in that they depict a different kind of Muslim woman; one who doesn’t see herself as oppressed or downtrodden, but quite the opposite.
“At first that’s quite the surprise,” says Shelina, “but actually as soon as we talk about the numbers, we know this is where our future lies, and we really need to understand in more depth, what is it that’s driving Muslim women.”
Nura J., founder of Pearlista, a salon for Muslim women, believes that Islam has been misrepresented, especially when it comes to gender. “Generation M women work,” she says, and the fast-growing number of Muslim women becoming entrepreneurs reflects this desire to make a name for oneself. Nura wears the hijab, and is therefore immediately recognised as a Muslim woman, but she also perceives herself as “one of the most fashion-forward people ever,” and the hijab has not ever got in the way of that. Nura set up her business in response to a blindingly obvious fact; Muslim women have hair too, and they like to take care of it, whether they wear the hijab or not.
As Nabilah puts it, being a Muslim woman is not a binary; there is no definitive choice between a religious life or a secular one. In fact, a lot of Muslim women live somewhere in the middle. She didn’t set out to break stereotypes or redefine what it means to be a Muslim woman in her plays; she simply wrote stories about the kind of characters she encountered in real life, who she didn’t see reflected anywhere in the media.
3) Brands should take their cues from Muslim entrepreneurs.
Image credit: Peter Gould
“Global brands have the marketing expertise, but lack the cultural knowledge to penetrate these markets,” says Nura. “This is good for start-ups!”
3 in 5 Muslims interviewed by OgilvyNoor said that brands weren’t reflecting or fulfilling their needs, so it makes sense that a number of them are creating their own solutions. Read more about this in a Ogilvy & Mather’s report that identifies 12 “velocity” markets that will reshape global growth and sheds light on how Muslim futurists will reshape the direction of business growth, brands and social change.
Shelina points out that a sense of humour plays a key part in how members of Generation M interact; they’re not afraid to poke fun at themselves, coining terms like ‘mipster’. “If this is what your audience is saying, and you’re not responding with the same kind of playfulness, it’s not going to hit that deep note,” she advises.
Like all other consumers, young Muslims are very attuned to when brands are authentic, and when they’re faking it. It is important for brands to serve this demographic in a way that isn’t cynical or exploitative, says Shelina; “it’s not enough to simply put a ‘halal’ sticker on something and then jack up the price.” You have to build trust and brand love over time, just as you would with any other consumer, says Nura: “Just because you got my money once, doesn’t mean I’m going to patronise that business again.”
Campaigns featuring women in hijabs are becoming more common, which helps function as a shorthand for Muslim consumers. “Even without fully paying attention, I’m pulled into that story,” says Nabilah. “It’s a signifier for me.”
“That’s a great first step,” adds Shelina, “but it needs to go deeper than that.” A greater representation of the different people within Generation M is required; if in five years’ time a brand is still just showing women wearing hijabs in their ads, they’ve failed to truly understand this demographic or take it seriously.
It would also be foolish to treat Generation M as solely Muslim, rather than as consumers living in a broader cultural landscape, with opportunities for genuine value exchange. Case in point: the latest iteration of the superhero Ms. Marvel is a Pakistani-American teenager named Kamala Khan. It’s not just Muslim readers who are buying these comics; the character’s humour, and the story of a family in a post-9/11 United States, resonate with everyone.
Shelina cites The Halal Guys in New York as a prime example of how a “Muslim interest” business has reached a wider audience; initially set up to serve taxi drivers on night shifts, it has exploded in popularity — to the point that patrons will queue for up to two hours. New locations are now being opened all over the US. But, while the word ‘halal’ is right there in the name, the business is actually marketed as a “taste of authentic New York.”
Ultimately, Muslim consumers want to feel that they are being included, rather than singled out. As Melvin puts it: “At the end of the day, in between praying, I still watch Netflix!”
Shelina Janmohamed was named one of the world’s 500 most influential Muslims, and specifically one of the UK’s 100 most powerful Muslim women. Learn more about her new book “Generation M” here.