By Robin Mather
While you weren’t looking, Walmart made a shrewd marketing move. There’s a lesson there for all of us.
Nearly a third of the population of Dearborn, Michigan, is Arab-American, according to the 2000 federal census. They’re the descendants of immigrants who came to work in the auto industry in the early 20th century. Walmart has recognized the strength of that potential market and has taken steps to court it.
In 2008, Walmart designed its Dearborn store to attract Muslim shoppers. The effort included reorganizing parts of the store to resemble an open-air market and hiring 35 Muslim clerks, whose name tags also note that they speak Arabic. Walmart also hired a Dearborn Arab-American to conduct cultural sensitivity training.
“It’s like a farmer’s market,” said Bill Bartell, the Store Manager, in an Associated Press story. The report described more than 20 produce tables featuring the squash, beans and cucumbers that Bartell’s Middle Eastern customers want for their recipes. The section also captivated Bartell’s black and Hispanic customers, he said, as quoted in that story. “Because we did all this due diligence prior to moving into this area, we came to realize our clients really kind of liked this atmosphere, and they liked the variety that we can give them.”
Walmart realized early that one out of five of the average Muslim households has a member with a medical degree or a Ph.D. Gallup has said that the second-most highly educated woman in America is a Muslim. Because the Muslim population tends to be highly educated, disposable income is about 30 percent higher than that of the average American household.
Canny retailers and food manufacturers are out to capture some of the $20 billion in food dollars that Muslim demographic has to spend in restaurants and supermarkets, says Adnan Derrani of Saffron Road, which produces snacks and frozen meals for observant Muslims and others who follow halal practices. (More about halal and what it means in a moment.)
“Nielsen is saying that the halal market is expected to rise from 11 or 12 percent this year, up from 7 percent last year,” Derrani said. “Compare that to organic, which is projected to grow by 9 or 10 percent this year. This is a category that retailers need to pay attention to, when it’s growing faster than organic foods.”
A 2016 Pew Research Center study estimated that some 3.3 million Muslims live in the United States, with the potential for as many as 6.6 million by 2050. The average Muslim household has 4.9 members, with a wide age range in the house.
Of course not all Muslims are Arab-Americans; many are second- or third-generation Americans with roots in other Muslim countries, and some are immigrants from around the globe. Pew reported in that study that the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are the majority in 49 countries. Indonesia is home to the largest population, while India has the second-largest population. Indeed, said the Pew report, a ban on Muslim immigration from the seven countries named in President Donald Trump’s executive order would affect just 12 percent of the world’s Muslims.
“As the United States becomes more diverse, there is an increasing opportunity for food producers to differentiate their products and gain price premiums,” said a Penn State Extension report on how producers can market to Muslims. “However, as with any market segment, the marketer must get to know the customer. The Muslim audience has particular religious beliefs that constrain their diets. By providing foods that fit Muslims’ prescribed diets, producers may be able to diversify their markets and increase their profitability.”
Muslims follow dietary rules on what is “halal,” or acceptable, and what is “haram,” or forbidden. In Islam, eating is as much a form of worship as prayer, and observant Muslims are careful to follow the rules.
Halal begins with how animals are fed and raised, and follows through to slaughter, when the animals must be quickly killed by hand, and their blood drained. Animal byproducts such as blood, gelatin and processed dairy products made with enzymes or additional proteins from animals are prohibited. Alcohol is also strictly forbidden, and that includes flavoring extracts made with alcohol, as is pork.
The Muslim customer at Starbucks, for example, will find her choices severely limited because of the alcohol in vanilla extract, which is used in many drinks and almost all baked goods. She would know that before she went into Starbucks, however, if she looked at MuslimConsumerGroup.com, which maintains lists of halal and haram foods, personal care items and more.
Colgate understood halal/haram early, and most of its toothpastes, including one flavored to taste like the traditional miswak twigs used as toothbrushes, are halal because they contain no alcohol or carrageenan (which may have been processed with alcohol).
“There are many levels of halal, just like there are many levels of kosher,” says Saffron Road’s Durrani. “Ideas of halal are currently going through an evolution, just as kosher did during the 1940s.”
Muslim or not, many customers appreciate the standards that halal labeling can offer. For Millennials particularly, ethical consumerism ― the idea that a shopper effectively votes with her dollar by buying food with production practices she supports ― is just par for the course. “Most of the people (buying our products) are not Muslim, but they just love the values that we espouse around halal,” Durrani said. “Transparency is very important to them, and we try to be very transparent with consumers about everything that we do.”
In Saffron Road’s case, he said, that includes following the strictest certifications for animal welfare. “We have met the standards of the highest levels of humane welfare in the world, and that’s what I consider halal,” Durrani said. That certification comes from Certified Humane, which follows slaughter guidelines written by Dr. Temple Grandin, the world-renowned authority on animal behavior.
“For us, it’s clean ingredients, making sure that the livestock is family farmed and 100 percent vegetarian fed, with the livestock actively socialized and raised in a stress-free environment that promotes healthy behavior for the animal,” said Durrani. “It’s the sacredness of our food system, whether that’s the livestock, the plants they eat or the farmland they graze on. We look at the whole life of the animal, not just at its slaughter.”
The halal market offers rapid growth to savvy retailers, experts say. “This is an incredible opportunity,” Durrani said. “It’s a consumer group that has been so beaten down because of xenophobia that if you go toward them one inch, they come running to you. It’s a disenfranchised community. The impact of marketing to this disenfranchised community has a significant upside with very little risk, and the upside so outweighs the little amount of risk.”
Embracing inclusiveness is a “ubiquitous value that a lot of Americans aspire to. There’s a celebration of diversity in America,” Durrani said. “Don’t push anyone away ― create a bigger tent and invite everyone to come into the tent.”
Istizada is a Jordanian marketing agency that specializes in the Arab world and counts Microsoft as one of its clients. Its name is the Arabic word for “a striving for more; pursuit of an increase, expansion or extension; or a desire or request for more.”
The company notes that Ramadan, which ended on June 24 this year, presents big marketing opportunities ― as many retailers, such as Burger King, have observed. The month-long observance of daylight fasting and evening feasting will begin in 2018 on May 15 and end June 14.
“Without having experienced Ramadan, one would assume food consumption would be down during the month … since it is a month of fasting. This is not the case, though,” Istizada wrote in a blog post. “Food consumption surges during the month as families feast in the evenings after many hours of not eating. Ramadan is also a time to spend more on delicacies and meat. It is common to shortages of certain types of food during the season, and in some countries, some consumers start stockpiling before the holiday.”
Durrani agrees that Ramadan is a huge opportunity. “It’s like 30 Thanksgivings in a row,” he said. Consumers “buy a lot of groceries to load up before the fast, which is a wonderful community engagement. It’s like a potluck in which (the observant) bring food to celebrate the sundown end of the fast. During that month, we see our sales spike 200 to 600 percent, just in that one month.”
For retailers, attracting Ramadan shoppers is easy, he said. “To reset an aisle for Ramadan, they can simply set up a sign that says ‘ Get your Ramadan food here.’ “
There are other Muslim holidays as well that present opportunities for retailers, said Istizada. Note that these dates change annually, and the dates here are for 2017. These include:
Eid al-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of Ramadan (June 25-28 this year, June 14-17 in 2018).
Hajj, a five-day pilgrimage that begins on the eighth day of the final month in the Islamic calendar. (Aug. 30-Sept. 4)
Eid al-Adha is the second most important Muslim holiday and marks the end of Hajj. As with Eid al-Fitr, Muslims are required to share food and money on this holiday, and spend money on gifts for family and friends. (Sept 1-5)
Islamic New Year falls on the first day of the first month of the new year. (Sept. 21-22)
Prophet Mohammad’s Birthday is a contested holiday and some conservative Muslims reject its celebration. Consult local experts to make sure it’s appropriate to promote in your area. (Nov. 30-Dec. 1)
The Muslim market is big and getting bigger. “Twenty-five years ago, the Hispanic market was identified as huge. Today, the Latino and Hispanic market is about $1 trillion. Halal will be the next bigger market,” said Durrani. “The halal movement has a lot of wind at its back, and I think it’s going to be that way for a while.”
Indeed, wrote Hussein Elasrag in a 2016 paper titled “Halal Industry: Key Challenges and Opportunities,” “For brands that find ways to embrace and engage the Muslim consumer, the rewards are rich. And smart, compelling communications will play a critical role in targeting a consumer market that already represents nearly a quarter of humanity.”