Why Are There So Few Ramadan Marketing Campaigns?

The month-long holiday ends tonight, meaning many retailers have missed another opportunity to pitch to America's growing Muslim population.
Louafi Larbi/Reuters

With a drought of federal holidays until Labor Day and many workers on vacation, retail sales tend to slow down during this stretch of the summer, when seasonal promotions are rare. In July, retailers might halfheartedly put up too-early back-to-school sales or uninventive mid-summer specials. But thanks to America's changing demographics, they might consider another kind of promotion: a Ramadan sale.

Ramadan, a month-long holiday that ends tonight, is an occasion for a growing population of adherents to purchase gifts and food right in the middle of a month of sleepy retail sales. If there are Christmas doorbusters, why aren’t there promotions for Ramadan?

In the U.S., the growth of the Muslim population is projected to climb from 2.6 million in 2010 to 6.2 million in 2030. By then, the U.S. is projected to have have more Muslims than any European country, except for Russia and France.

One firm currently urging brands to consider Ramadan a sales opportunity is Ogilvy Noor, a division of global marketing giant Ogilvy & Mather. Ogilvy Noor—"Noor" translates to the Arabic word for light—bills itself as the world’s first Islamic marketing consulting agency, offering guidance to brands navigating the growing Muslim world.

Shelina Janmohamed, vice president of Ogilvy Noor, says the challenge is for brands to go beyond selling items stereotypically associated with Muslims. “Some supermarkets simply gather together traditional staples like oil, flour, samosas, and lentils and put a Ramadan promotion banner on top,” Janmohamed said. “A lot of the younger [Muslims] don’t want to eat ‘traditional’ foods from their ‘homelands’ and want to see new products and promotions delivered that speak to their new identity as American Muslims.”

Janmohamed points to England’s Tesco as a trendsetter for Ramadan marketing. In 2013, the supermarket chain ran its second Ramadan promotion after a successful debut in 2012, bringing in £30 million, or $51 million, in revenue from 315 of its more than 6,000 stores. The company even has a marketing team devoted specifically to Muslim consumers, which has recommended extending hours to accommodate devotees who can only eat and shop late at night and making sure shelves are stocked before the nighttime rush with goods advertised in special leaflets for the holiday

Along with Asda, a spinoff of Walmart that boasts special halal meat counters, Tesco is generally considered Muslim-friendly. And that's potentially very lucrative, given that Muslims are projected to account for 8.2 percent of the British population in the coming decades—nearly double the amount it does today.

Despite the success of Ramadan-centric marketing in England, American brands have been hesitant to adopt the practice. That's probably to their detriment: American Muslims are about as well-off as the rest of the U.S., they're the the country's second-most educated religious group, and a large portion of them fall between the ages of 18 and 39, a marketer's sweet spot.

While Ramadan-based promotions are a good starting place for American retailers, it likely would be to many businesses' benefit to pay attention to the Muslim demographic beyond the holy month and throughout the year. For that to happen, though, there needs to be a better understanding of the diversity of Muslim culture, says Sabiha Ansari, co-founder of the American Muslim Consumer Consortium, a U.S.-based Muslim marketing focus group. She points to religious bias as a constant obstacle to marketing toward Muslims. “Slowly, America is waking up to it,” Ansari says, but “brands might be somewhat hesitant in taking an initial leap due to the current climate in the media.”

The American market for products that cater to Muslim sensibilities is about to greatly expand, Ansari predicts. And it’s not just focused on food for iftar, the traditional breaking of the fast each evening: Fashion is slowly beginning to acknowledge Islamic dress codes, and DKNY’s chic Ramadan line is an indicator of how hijabi fashion is changing popular misconception of being simply covered up in baggy clothes. Ansari points to the cosmetics company Inglot, which developed a breathable and water-permeable nail polish that abides by the Muslim protocol preventing women from adorning their hands during prayer.

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Tanya Basu is an editorial fellow with The Atlantic.

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