Shelina Janmohamed is a senior strategist at Ogilvy Noor, the world’s first bespoke Islamic branding practice, offering expert practical advice on how to build brands that appeal to Muslim consumers globally. She is also an award winning blogger and author, and was named by The Times newspaper as one of the UK’s 100 most influential Muslim women.
Education is an important step when establishing an Islamic Bank in an area that is not familiar with Islamic finance. How would you spread awareness of Islamic finance within an area like this?
In all cases of establishing new brands, the key is to engage in a conversation with the consumer. In order to do this Islamic banking brands must understand the key drivers for the Muslim consumer, the values they are searching for, and the communications that best meet their needs.
The consumer is on a journey to find the product and brand that best suits their needs. First we need to understand, what are their internal starting points? What beliefs do they start their journey with which will provide the backdrop to their choices?
Then we need to ask, what influences them externally? What are all the outside influences that affect their perceptions of brands and products on the path to purchase and then comes the moment of truth, the time for the consumer to make their decision.
If you wish to establish Islamic banking, these stages in the consumer’s journey need to be mapped, understood and built into awareness building strategies.
Islamic banking as an industry has faced some challenges when it comes to persuading Muslim consumers to embrace its products. Its two greatest challenges are in educating the consumer about what Islamic banking is, and then persuading them through the products, customer touch points and communications that it is inherently Shariah-compliant. These are the consumer’s internal starting points on the journey towards Islamic banking.
Their external influences are likely to be their peers, materials they read from existing banks as well as experts and any wider networks they have to areas where Islamic banking does exist. This is the area where new Islamic banks can make a real difference through education and the appropriate education techniques. Partnering with credible authorities and influencers can be effective methods.
It is important that brands keep with the changing consumer. How do you keep up to date with your target audience?
As the world’s first bespoke consultancy focusing on Muslim consumers, our first job was to really understand as much as we could about them: their drivers, their attitudes, the role that religion plays in their lives, the brand strategies that are most effective for them and how brands can best deliver. Therefore we commissioned an extensive piece of research across four majority Muslim markets that we felt best represented the various stages of Muslim consumption in the wider world: Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Egypt. We conducted an extensive literature review, and commissioned primary qualitative and quantitative research speaking to practicing Muslims in both urban and rural areas in all four markets. The qualitative research included focus groups, consumer safaris and expert interviews.
Such conversations allow brands to hear what consumers are saying and respond to their needs. They need to be ongoing conversations. They also need to be responsive. It’s no good to say you are listening but to do nothing. The response must be both verbal acknowledgement as well as demonstrable action. When brands respond in this way, consumers grow to love them and see them as a trusted friend.
Brands are fortunate today to have multiple channels to create such a dialogue. Social media is very powerful, but must be used with caution and wisdom. Research can garner useful and tailored insights into burgeoning trends. And employees who come into contact with staff are an excellent resource for interacting with and understanding the cutting edge of consumer desire amongst the target audience.
How do you respect the cultures and diversity within different countries?
Muslims make up almost 1.8 billion of the world population and this brings with it a myriad of traditions and different schools of thought. Muslims come from vastly diverse nationalities and ethnic and tribal groups who speak many languages and practice unique customs. Religiously, politically, culturally and economically, Muslims all over the world find themselves practicing Islam in very different realities. Marketers should not be fearful of this, but rather embrace it, as it offers the opportunity to tailor offerings and communications in a way that touches their Muslims consumers at their very core, in terms of religion and culture.
At Ogilvy Noor we believe that Islam binds Muslims together across their diversity, and this is because their consumption habits are affected by their faith. We therefore believe that respect for the heterogeneity of Muslims should take the form of being at the very basic level empathetic to Shariah values moving up towards Shariah-compliance, whilst using communications strategies that speak to local cultures.
The first step for marketers, when it comes to Islamic banking, is therefore to identify the Shariah values that align most closely with the Muslim consumer. In our extensive research, and the Noor Brand Index which we produced to look at the top 100 brands that Muslim consumers see as Islamic, we found that the core values that are consistently wanted are still not being delivered to consumers. They aspire to purity in the financial process, not wanting their money to suffer the contamination of interest-based banking, for example. They also aspire to be convinced of banking as inherently Shariah-friendly.
Once marketers have integrated such core values into their marketing, they can use strategies which our research has found speak most powerfully to the Muslim consumer. These might include using external endorsements, or religious influencers. This is where local knowledge and cultural variation has a role to play, because local celebrities, scholars and leaders will have the most powerful impact.
The key is to remember that whilst Muslims around the world share common values, the conversations that brands engage in with them must be through the language and sensitivities of their local cultures and contexts.