Are companies set to embrace Islam?

GSK proudly announced that Ribena is Halal, while HSBC plans to offer Islamic insurance. There are signs more companies will follow suit.

While a controversial war in Iraq, fundamentalist terrorism, media demonisation and opportunism by the British National Party have done little to improve relations with the Muslim community, there are signs that some companies are becoming increasingly aware of the potential in marketing to the UK’s 2 million Muslims.

Financial services have been in the vanguard of catering to the community’s specific needs. This month, the Financial Services Authority issued a licence to the Islamic Bank of Britain, which is shortly to open its first branch in London, followed by branches in Birmingham and Leicester, offering banking on Sharia – Koranic – principles (MW last week). To conform to Sharia law, all the bank’s activities will be scrutinised by a committee to ensure that money is only invested in ethical industries and ventures.

While the products are targeted at Muslims, Islamic Bank of Britain head of marketing Alun Williams says others are not excluded, adding that about half the bank’s customer base is, like himself, non-Muslim. Williams is, therefore, against the abbreviation of the bank’s name to initials as it is important for it to be seen as British as well as Islamic. However, the bank’s products have been developed in response to a direct religious need rather than a political preference, says Williams. The bank is also in discussions with MasterCard about launching a “spending card” that is not interest-based.

Many UK financial services companies are now actively considering offering Islamic insurance, says Martin Mankabady, a corporate lawyer specialising in Islamic financial services at City law firm Norton Rose. He says that the Treasury and FSA have bent over backwards to accommodate Islamic requirements in financial services.

As charging interest is prohibited under Koranic law, in Islamic mortgages a house is bought by the bank and leased to the mortgagee who buys it for a nominal sum at the end of the 25-year term. The Treasury last year said that this would not incur Stamp Duty twice.

HSBC admits it is considering offering Islamic insurance. The bank, which positions itself as “the world’s local bank”, already markets a range of Sharia products (mortgage, current account, pension) in the UK under the HSBC Amanah brand of its Dubai operation. It says it has had 10,000 enquiries about its Sharia-compliant products and estimates that the remortgaging market for Muslims wanting to switch to a Sharia product is worth &£8.9bn in the UK.

So far, HSBC has marketed its Islamic products softly, with events in local branches and some limited targeted advertising.

Outside financial services, it is the supermarkets that show the biggest sign of acknowledging Muslims. Halal meat is offered by many of the supermarkets, and the Tahira brand of Halal products is sold in Asda, Iceland, Kwik Save, Safeway, Sainsbury’s and Somerfield. However, its presence has occasionally incurred the ire of animal rights protesters.

Recently GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced a fatwa, or ruling, that its Ribena and Lucozade brands meet Halal requirements. The company approached the UK Muslim Law (Sharia) Council last year after some shopkeepers dumped stocks of the two brands following revelations that they contained alcohol and gelatin. GSK stopped using gelatin and Lucozade’s 0.01 per cent alcohol content was ruled as not falling foul of Islamic rules. While it has decided against labelling the two products as Halal, GSK has run advertising in Muslim media for the past two months to raise awareness of the fatwa.

Ali Mirza, joint managing director of advertising agency Spirit IC, thinks GSK will reap rewards for the way it tackled the issue. But he says: “A lot of brands are missing out on a big opportunity. Like all communities, Muslims want to be acknowledged and treated with courtesy.”

Whether inadvertently or not, companies have offended Muslims. “The Muslim community is disaffected, so care needs to be taken,” warns Anjna Reheja, managing director of specialist media agency Media Moguls. So far, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has upheld just one complaint from the Muslim community – regarding a poster ad for lingerie brand Sloggi, which was deemed unsuitable for placement near a mosque (MW June 10). The ASA is also investigating 14 complaints about posters for pole-dancing club Spearmint Rhino, placed near the East London Mosque.

However, the ASA did not uphold complaints about a Metropolitan Police ad calling for vigilance about terrorism, showing what appeared to be a woman in a veil. It also didn’t uphold complaints from Muslims about advertising around the 2002 World Cup for Gillette showing men with long beards. And last week it decided a La Redoute catalogue showing a T-shirt with the words Allah and Mohammed in Arabic script would not cause widespread offence.

The traditional Islamic injunction against the use of imagery of living beings in any form creates another tension with Western ideas about advertising, heavily based as it is around the display of the body beautiful.

“By advertising’s very nature, a small percentage of Muslims are excluded,” says Mirza, adding that he can think of only very few people who, like himself, were born Muslims and work in marketing or advertising. However, like Reheja, he believes a bigger impediment could be that marketing and advertising are simply not seen as aspirational professions in Muslim communities.

Others suggest there needs to be a new approach to marketing. Jamil Sherif, an adviser to the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) – which provides consultative services for companies wanting help on how to target or avoid offending Muslims – and director of Webstar Data Services, says: “Marketing to Muslims creates new creative opportunities. Rather than using revealing bodies, what are the other ways of conveying a product’s qualities?”

The Islamic Bank of Britain has taken this approach on board. It will use text-based calligraphic content in its advertising, created by McCann Erickson.

US policies in the Middle East have led to a wave of anti-American sentiment and soft drinks brands Mecca Cola and Qibla Cola entered the market on the back of widespread publicity as they capitalised on the general disaffection.

Taufik Mathlouthi, founder and chairman of Dubai-based Mecca Cola, denies he is marketing to Muslims specifically. “Mecca Cola is a universal product, sold to all people. It is a political product, not religious. Nobody asks Coca-Cola about marketing to Jews and Christians.”

He says “Mecca” refers to an ancient American Indian tribe that was wiped out by colonial invaders, rather than the holy city in Saudi Arabia as is usually supposed. Meanwhile, British-based Qibla Cola is now mired in controversy about its marketing, which proclaims that ten per cent of profits will be given to charity

While the religious diversity of modern Britain is increasing, few companies as yet target specific minorities in their communications. But reports earlier this year indicated that the Government was planning a campaign to win the hearts and minds of young British Muslims. However, these were dismissed by COI Communications as “purely speculative”. Nevertheless, there is an increasing number of companies that are taking up the challenge of marketing to Muslims, and others appear set to follow their lead.

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