Do brands really care about Muslim customers?
During our event, The Recharge, we hosted a pass-the-mic showcase sharing insight on critical yet overlooked aspects in ED&I. Below is the full speech from Amani Saeed discussing how brands engage with Muslim communities.
Hello everyone, my name is Amani and I’m an inclusion consultant at The Unmistakables. And I’ve got a confession: as a Muslim, I’m deeply torn about how I feel when I see companies catering to Muslim consumers. Let me tell you why.
This is the second job I’ve had in the past five years that directly draws on my lived experience as a Muslim. The first was a disheartening experience in my time as a civil servant, where my work had involved challenging the harmful stereotypes that directly affected Muslim communities. I joined precisely because I didn’t agree with the state of things, including government policy. I wanted, desperately, to make change from the inside. And while I was there, I did get to influence a little. But not at the scale I wanted. And I burned out fast.
So I left, disheartened, and a few years later, I joined the Unmistakables. Narratives had shifted from the constant focus on the so-called Islamic State, but appeared in other guises, from the French ban on hijabs and abayas, to the spreading stereotype of Pakistani men as groomers. So it was a real surprise, a delight, even, when a few months into the role, we got a brief asking how we might co-create an out of home advert for Tesco that showcased Ramadan. And another the next year to create a TV ad for Eid. And to start seeing Ramadan and Eid decorations pop up in John Lewis, and a Ramadan food aisle in Waitrose laden with Elephant atta and East End spices.
At The Unmistakables, we coached these companies through their ‘right to play’ in this space - or what their rationale was for wanting to reach out to Muslim consumers, and how they might do that in a way that is genuine and authentic. We did this by working with Muslims directly on the campaigns, from creative directors to photographers. And by surveying Muslim colleagues internally, to get their insight and lived expertise in a way that harnesses our inside out inclusion model. And by offering step by step consultancy on set design, from the direction of the crescent moon, to how to fold a samosa.
Behind the scenes, it’s been fascinating to see how this has been landing with consumers. Some were thankful for being represented at all, and that Tesco is raising awareness of Ramadan and Eid. There were some Muslims some who questioned the details shown, saying it wasn’t how their family did it. And sadly, but unsurprisingly, there was some Islamophobic feedback, wondering why these kinds of adverts were needed at all.
At home, my family also debated about the adverts we were seeing. What stuck with me were the words of my uncle: ‘they only care about us when they want us to open our wallets.’ The facts don’t lie: there are nearly 2 billion Muslims around the world, and 3.9 million of us in the UK. So yeah, companies are starting to see the business case in that we have a significant amount of spending power. They’re also starting to realise that factoring us into business considerations is probably also the right thing to do in terms of a moral case. So it’s no wonder they’re beginning to try and speak to us.
On the flip side, I think it’s important for companies to understand the cognitive dissonance of what it feels like to have companies who didn’t notice you - ever - suddenly begin to think of you to sell you stuff. This can really affect the way Muslim consumers’ react to activations. If done poorly, it can feel disingenuous. My brother, who last week got called a racial epithet when he was on his way home from evening prayers in his long thobe and Nikes, saw the banners and decorations at John Lewis in the lead up to Eid. His reaction was, ‘people only care about us for one month of the year - it’s all going to be gone next month.’ Which is a similar sentiment when it comes to how companies engage with Pride, or Black History month, and how subsequently LGBTQIA+ and Black consumers perceive that legitimacy, that genuineness, or lack thereof.
So there’s something to consider around the ways in which we engage with Muslims. Ramadan and Eid are great starts, but Muslims in many societies are still perceived as oppressed women and oppressive men, queer Muslims are made invisible (even when there are two on this stage!). So companies may wish to consider what more they can do, both to educate non-Muslims, and also to make Muslims feel not just seen, but respected, and welcomed. Because right now, even if you invite us to the party, we’re still deciding whether it’s the kind of function we want to turn up at. And frankly, I’m still torn about attending. So my challenge to companies as Muslim consumer is this: convince me that you care about my custom for the right reasons. The ball’s in your court.
Amani Saeed is an Inclusion Consultant at The Unmistakables. For the full recap of The Recharge including takeaways and other speeches, click here. If you are interested in attending our next Recharge event register your interest here.