On the halal bandwagon

Published August 21, 2016

Pursuing the elusive Muslim consumer

How businesses worldwide are tapping into the halal market

by Maria Kari

By 2050 the global population of Muslims will increase from the current 1.8 billion to 2.8 billion. Undoubtedly, the Muslim world is in flux. With an ever-expanding middle-class (around 80 million Muslims are added annually), and with 62 per cent of the population under the age of 25, alongside the rise in numbers has come a rise in the population’s purchasing power.

Today, Muslim consumerism is valued at an astounding $2.1 trillion. And as the population skyrockets this number can only be expected to grow. What does this mean for capitalism? Mostly good things: since more than half of the Islamic world is under the age of 25, a younger demographic means a consumer with longevity in whom corporations can instil long-term brand loyalty. Simply put, businesses cannot afford to ignore the burgeoning wants and needs of 23 per cent of the world population.

Nestlé was the first multinational to pursue the Muslim consumer. With 86 of its 456 factories certified halal and currently generating $3 billion in sales, Nestlé is no longer the exception but the rule when it comes to courting the Muslim consumer.

“It’s like in the 80s when there was an influx of Latinos in US. Initially, they were largely ignored by American companies. But with a simple change — adding Spanish to food-packaging labels — consumer engagement with American corporations absolutely exploded,” explained Abdelaziz Aouragh, founder of the sharia-compliant, sensual products e-business El Asira.

But unlike Latinos — or say, Indians or even the Chinese (all of which at some point have been hotly-targeted consumer groups) — the Muslim world is not easily pigeonholed and isolatable. Even the term ‘Muslim world’ and ‘Muslim consumer’ are misleading classifications. Firstly, there is no Muslim world due to its inhabitants spanning the whole of the planet with most living in Asia followed closely by the Middle East and then the West. Secondly, the Muslim consumer comes from a myriad of races, ethnicities, and cultures, which makes marketing and brand engagement all the more important.

Despite lacking a settled definition of who or what a Muslim is, the concept of halal, although always different in the eye of the beholder, is something most Muslims continue to use as their lifestyle’s guiding compass. Images on Sunday interviewed a group of Muslim entrepreneurs currently trailblazing their way through the increasingly influential and robust halal market. The conclusion? Halal is no longer just a stamp of approval by a certifying authority. Today’s halal consumer wants the promise of a product that not only adheres to Islamic principles but also partakes in the trend of cruelty-free, ethical and sustainable consumption.

Clean, organic living

Over 10 years ago consumers globally became increasingly concerned over the usage of pesticides, antibiotics, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food products. This led to the evolution of ‘clean eating’, ‘clean living’ and ‘organic’ consumption. Today, ‘clean’ and ‘organic’ are not just buzzwords. They are an absolute, widely available rule — something which the consumer does not have to search very hard for and has come to expect from its local grocer to global corporate giants.

The surge of interest in the halal market indicates that halal as a brand may very well be on its way to becoming the next ‘go organic and live clean’ lifestyle. The label halal is versatile. It can and is applied to everything from food, beverages (like halal beer), fashion (like the burkini), nutritional supplements, beauty and hygiene products (think halal nail polish), financial transactions and even sensual products, like halal lubricant, and sex toys (the jury is still out on this one, however).

And looking at the success of businesses predicated on selling halal-centric products indicates that Muslim consumers, although largely influenced by a Western lifestyle, still care to make choices that reassert their identity as Muslims; especially when halal is made easily accessible to them.

The Muslim Consumer

David Horne, co-founder of Alchemiya, believes that the Muslim consumer wants the same things all consumers want: to be cool, to have a sense of community and belonging, and a future that is full of hope and possibilities. But, according to Horne, in so many ways the mainstream has failed to provide this.

His solution to the problem? Alchemiya, a subscription-based online portal featuring Islamic video content, also known as the Muslim Netflix.

Alchemiya is the lock, stock and barrel of Muslim programming. From films and TV shows to travel programmes that transport the viewer to Muslim-influenced Granada, to documentaries that let the viewer revel in the experience of Hajj in the 1940s, Alchemiya has it all. Currently one of its most viewed productions is a documentary called I Heart Quran that features a Quran verse read in English by a Shakespearean theatre-trained actor. Four Muslim Londoners then go on to discuss that verse’s importance to their personal lives.

“Our policy was to rise above the divisions [of Sunni-Shia, Sufi-Wahhabi] and show the best of Islam not just [to] a Muslim audience but for anyone interested in learning about the history, culture and contributions of Islam and Muslims to the world that we all live in,” explained Horne.

Today Alchemiya has subscribers from over 40 countries. A survey done in the early days of its launch indicates that at least 10 per cent of its subscribers are non-Muslim.

The rise of technology and the average Muslim consumer’s willingness to embrace this technology is the golden ticket enabling Muslim entrepreneurs to e-launch themselves into the lucrative halal stratosphere.

The key to success for Aouragh’s El Asira was successfully blending Islamic ethics and values with capitalistic business practices. After extensive consultations with prominent scholars coupled with rigorous standards to ensure halal compliance the result was a portfolio of 20 sensual well-being products that are now expanding from e-commerce to brick and mortar locations from European airports all the way to the Middle East.

“I had a concept for body care and sensual wellness and saw a market without a brand that fits the Muslim lifestyle,” said Aouragh who stresses El Asira is “absolutely not a halal sex shop”.

Across the pond, New York-based Arshiya Kherani also saw a need for which she could find no suitable halal options. So she created her own.

“Despite having worn hijab for a number of years, I always had trouble finding one I could wear comfortably while working out,” explained Kherani who at the time of publication was wrapping up a successful Kickstarter launch for her upcoming modest gym wear line Sukoon Active.

“It was not my initial intention to start a business of my own. In fact, when I first started to work on Sukoon, I was trying to solve a problem for myself.”

Similarly, Pakistan’s Masarrat Misbah a pioneer of the local beauty and skincare industry and the recent visionary behind MM Makeup, saw a landscape that lacked trustworthy makeup with trustworthy ingredients that were in compliance with Islamic rules.

“Once I became aware of the kind of ingredients that go into cosmetics I realised women deserve the chance to know what is being applied to their skin,” said Misbah.

Although halal makeup has been around for some time what sets Misbah’s line apart is the focus on not only making it lawful for Muslims to use but also its focus on ethical production and consumption.

MM Makeup, which at the time of Misbah’s interview had almost completely sold out because of its smartly-priced Eid bundles, targets not only the female shopper in search for halal but the female buyer who is consciously searching for healthy ingredients in her makeup. Instead, for the average MM Makeup consumer, halal may be important but she also wants her products to be free of insect-derived or pig by-products and free of the parabens and lead so frequently found in many well-known makeup brands.

According to Misbah, “Makeup makes you feel powerful. It makes you feel empowered and it gives you confidence. A conscious and mindful buyer appreciates when special details are taken care of to ensure a healthy product. A Muslim buyer will relate her value system no matter where she lives because there she has a sense of pride in it.”

She adds: “We have clients from all over the world using MM Makeup because they care about the harmful chemicals found in cosmetics these days. Along with Islamic principles, we create awareness around the animal testing, negative impact on the environment and the unethical practices that tend to go into makeup production.”

The Halal Logo: a New Age Philosopher’s Stone

For the rising Muslim entrepreneurs who spoke exclusively with Images on Sunday, the halal stamp is their eponymous philosopher’s stone that, if packaged and marketed right, will sell pretty much anything quickly and lucratively.

“When the Muslim consumer learns that a product is part of a Muslim-owned business they become very supportive. When we were starting out we had people offer to volunteer their time and it really became a community effort, which has been one of several benefits of serving the Muslim market,” explained Javed Younis of MAYA Cosmetics.

“Plus, the product just sells itself,” added business partner Bilal Saeed. That much seems to be true given the success in sales MAYA Cosmetics has seen despite being a relative newcomer in a saturated halal beauty market.

Although halal nail polish has been around for some time now (European makeup company Inglot was the first to introduce a breathable nail polish that was approved as wuzu-friendly), according to Younis and Saeed, the nail polish they’ve so meticulously crafted is an industry one of a kind.

“Inglot is considered outdated because breathable technology has improved so much, which is very important to the Muslim consumer. And Inglot does not market itself as halal. It’s for everyone whereas we are adapted for the Muslim consumer,” explained Younis.

The two longtime friends turned business partners put in a lot of time ensuring a quality product on which they then ran cross tests against other competing nail polish brands as well as conducting live demonstrations in front of both chemists and Islamic scholars to ensure halal compliance.

“In a way it turned out to be a form of dawah because we have non-Muslims ask what we mean by halal which turns into a discussion on ablution and purifying yourself which leads to why Muslims pray five times a day, etc.”

But the boys behind MAYA Cosmetics don’t want to just focus on selling a halal nail polish.

“Definitely our niche market is the Muslim consumer. But the health benefits of our product make it relevant for non-Muslims as well,” said Younis. That’s why the company employs a dual marketing approach. One eBay page caters to the non-Muslim, mainstream market by focusing on the health benefits of a breathable, permeable nail polish. The other eBay page targets the average Muslim woman looking for a reprieve in which her prayers are accepted without worrying about having to remove her nail polish.

This desire to sell halal as a lifestyle brand to not just Muslims is echoed by almost all interviewed by Images on Sunday.

For instance, Eman Idil, founder of a modest wear women’s fashion line of the same name, the concept of halal has never just been confined to Islamic permissibility. For Idil the mission behind her fashion line is much larger; it was a way of standing up to the poorly-regulated and atrocious practices of sweatshop-manufactured mass fashion. It just also happens to pique the Muslim female consumer’s attention because her creations are both stylish and modest.

“How many people, Muslim or otherwise, refuse to buy anything made in a sweatshop? I can tell you that it’s not many. For me, as a Muslim and as a human being, it made no sense to wear garments that were made by exploited human beings. When we think halal fashion we think hijab and modesty and all that jazz which is great ... but how many of us are reading the labels to make sure it’s not a six-year old in India who made our favourite T-shirt?” said Idil.

“If anyone asks what made me pursue ethical fashion, the answer is simple: Islamic teachings,” she points out. Yet, despite running a modest wear line predicated on halal as a brand, most of Idil’s current clients continue to be the non-Muslim crowd and that’s why for Idil great care goes into marketing herself as not just an Islam-friendly brand but a brand that is welcoming and inclusionary for the masses.

“I’m very careful to not be yet another Middle Eastern-ish clothing line. I don’t claim the abaya as my own, and so when I design clothing, I try and make garments that I can wear as a reporter, or as a yoga teacher, but most importantly as a girl…”

For some design houses, however, visibly branding itself as an openly Islamic brand infused with the ethos and essentials of Islam is top priority. Pakistan’s major fashion house, Junaid Jamshed, is one such brand.

Taking pride in selling clothing without human faces or animal faces, the company strives to be Sharia-compliant in all aspects of its business from advertising to its designs and cuts. The company refuses to use female models in their campaigns and will be backing away from showing the faces of male models in its future campaigns. For its products, the company takes the road less travelled by other Pakistani fashion labels by refusing to sell clothes with sheer fabrics, sleeveless tops, short trousers or pants.

According to Haider Khan, Junaid Jamshed’s group brand manager, the ideology is a very basic one. “We only stock those items which our mothers and sisters can wear.”

Trust Issues

The business of halal is predicated on trust. Earlier this year Japan, which is actively seeking to become a top five global exporter of halal products by 2020, got a lot of flack due to its lack of state oversight of the halal industry. With the presence of over 200 halal certification authorities — some of which have been accused of issuing halal certificates without properly auditing the food producing outlets and their products — the country came under heavy fire for its failure to regulate the halal export and import industry.

Pakistan has also not been immune to allegations of a severely inadequate state accreditation system. Although it is generally accepted that Pakistan has all the right ingredients to capture a large share of the billion-dollar global halal food industry, the ability to become a top exporter is currently a pipe dream due to concerns of Pakistan’s inability to engage in proper production, quality control and compliance with Islamic principles (see Where’s the (Halal) Beef?).

One of the limiting factors has been the lack of a centralised halal accreditation authority. A simple Google search on the halal accreditation process in Pakistan yields the names of dozens of committees in the business of halal certification. The decentralised and poorly supervised nature of our halal businesses is the anathema preventing Pakistan’s entry into the lucrative and massive global halal industry.

But change may be on its way.

Earlier this year the Senate Standing Committee on Science and Technology approved the Pakistan Halal Authority Bill, 2015. Currently awaiting Senate approval, the bill has been on the books since 2011 and aims to not only increase export of Pakistan’s halal products but to also regulate the presence of products with haram ingredients on store shelves.

The issue of haram products on grocery store shelves across Pakistan has been a big one.

In 2009 Pakistan’s most popular chips brand, Lays Potato Chips, faced a massive setback to its image and sales across the country when reports surfaced that a pork-based product was used in the chips as a flavour enhancer.

Almost instantaneously the company Frito-Lay went into PR-overdrive. Taking what proved to be a most tactical step to dilute the controversy and win back the hearts of its quickly diminishing consumer base, the company hitched its ride to Pakistan’s most prominent Islamic persona, Junaid Jamshed.

Speaking to Images on Sunday about his one-time affiliation with Frito-Lay in the aftermath of the 2009 scandal, Junaid Jamshed said, “What had happened was that there was an ingredient being made in Europe [which is] now being made in Malaysia,” said Jamshed regarding the controversy.

Jamshed maintains that it was his longstanding relationship with Pepsi Co. (owned by Frito-Lay) that led to his decision to use his powerful brand image to save the then sinking ship of Frito-Lay Pakistan.

But, first he needed to make sure he was not being blindsided by the company like the people of Pakistan had been.

“I told them [the Lays Chips reps] there are halal certifications in South Africa and Saudi Arabia and various other countries and that I would like them to show me these certifications [regarding the ingredients used in their chips] and they did show them to me.”

Today Frito-Lay manufactures its flavour enhancers in the predominantly Muslim country of Malaysia but Pakistan continues to be plagued by allegations of haram ingredients being sold to the unsuspecting, trusting masses.

Last year a stunning report was released by the Ministry of Science and Technology containing a list of 19 products sold in stores across Pakistan with blatantly haram products and no warnings on the labels.

The products (which read like a processed foodie’s dream ranging from Knorr Chicken Soup to Pop Tarts and Jell-O) were removed from shelves immediately.

Yet the need to strengthen state oversight continues to remain alarmingly obvious.

Going Forward

As the secular world awakens to the reality that neither Islam nor Muslims are a monolith, the presence of a select few prominent anti-Islam politicians and opinion-makers continue to reduce Islam to a narrow, misguided way of life — a stagnant, archaic and prone-to-fanaticism religion. The error in this view is that it leaves unexamined and unimagined the collective experiences of Muslim peoples.

It is now 2016, a time when identity isn’t finite and brands have to compete to stay relevant and interesting. It is a time when Muslims looking to go on a ‘leisure holiday with morals’ can book a vacation with a Muslim travel agency that will send them off to hotels with high-walled villas and gender-segregated swimming pools, venues with no alcohol and a halal menu, and information on the nearest mosques and halal restaurants.

But despite the billions of dollars of progress being made by the halal industry, not all Muslim entrepreneurs are comfortable openly selling to non-Muslim consumers a halal, sharia-compliant enterprise.

The way in which halal is interpreted, negotiated and experienced in the daily lives of Muslims is complex and dynamic; although religion is a key force shaping the contemporary world, at some point a controversial, hot-button topic like Islam and politics will clash.

The question then is: what effect will Islamophobia have in the construction of a Muslim market?

“The mainstream media has done irreparable harm to basic tenets of Islam and we hope efforts like ours will be one small step in reversing that,” said Younis of MAYA Cosmetics which aims to address the mainstream market by working in conjunction with mainstream beauty chain stores like Sephora, Ulta and Sally’s.

For El Asira’s Auoragh, who frequently speaks to Western brands on how to target the Muslim consumer, selling on the basis of religion alone is a big no.

“I would avoid selling your product as your religion. No one likes that kind of dawah. For instance, Christianity has missions that offer money or a safe haven in order to draw people to the religion. That shouldn’t be the strategy when marketing a halal product. Your reach does not need to be only for Muslims. Share with your non-Muslim target group and you will see you have more tools than you think,” said Auoragh.

“On one side you are building bridges and on the other side are the economic benefits,” he added.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 21st, 2016



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