RELIGION, CULTURE AND BRANDING:
THE IMPORTANCE OF UNDERSTANDING AND THE CHALLENGES OF ENGAGING A GLOBAL MULTICULTURAL WORLD
I am delighted to be back in Oxford and to be invited to participate at this inaugural forum on global Islamic branding and marketing. I have many fond memories of my undergraduate years here, and I am glad to see that while some things have changed, others, such the high standards of academic research and teaching have remained very much the same.
- I welcome this opportunity to share my thoughts on an intriguing topic, namely, religion, culture and branding. Religion has long been considered taboo in mass marketing. Today, however, it is front and centre in an apparent fundamental rethinking of the subject as a result of the religious megatrends in non-western countries. In this regard, three questions have been posed by the organisers of this forum. First, how can we promote multiculturalism? Second, what role should Muslim businesses play in fostering harmony in non-Muslim societies? Third, how can Muslim brands be made acceptable to western consumers?
- Let me first take up the question of multiculturalism. Thinking and studying deeply about multiculturalism is precisely what is needed at this critical juncture in world history. I do not believe we will ever achieve the goal of human security until we are able to come to terms with our feelings of hatred and fear of our differences. If we were to spend but a tiny fraction of the resources poured into waging wars on promoting and appreciating how our differences work in our favour, rather than against it, the world would be an infinitely safer and more prosperous place.
- At the global level, the benefits of actively promoting multicultural societies through movements of people across borders seem pretty straightforward. Standard economic theory would seem to support the presumption that international migration expands global output and increases global welfare. Moving labour from low-productivity to high-productivity countries improves efficiency in the world economy.
- But this, of course, is not the whole story. In host countries, public debate about immigration drives national politics. Immigrants are often blamed for disrupting civil society, draining public coffers and lowering wages. To the extent that immigrants pay taxes and have the right to benefit from public services, they change the net tax burden on native residents. Once they become citizens, immigrants generally obtain the right to vote, altering domestic politics. The presence of large numbers of transnational migrants raise fears in some quarters about the impending demise of the host societies’ religious and cultural identity. Many Europeans, faced with growing Muslim minority communities, insist that European identity is inseparable from a secular national ethos and Judeo-Christian culture. In the United States, Christianity is regarded by many as integral to national identity, values and culture.
- The idea behind multiculturalism is that people of different cultural backgrounds should be allowed to live a free life without being forced to do things they don’t want to do. In the context of a democratic society, it is the individual who decides the extent to which he or she wishes to be engaged in society. At the same time, the need to forge a community of people with shared core values and a sense of common identity remains paramount in attempts at creating and nurturing cohesive societies.
- For policymakers, therefore, an enduring tension lies at the heart of the debate about multiculturalism: how do we devise and promote measures to achieve the proper balance between the right of the individual to live the life he or she desires, on the one hand, and the imperative to secure the desired allegiance and adherence to the core values of the welcoming societies, on the other. I mention this with the full knowledge that there is already a long and rich discourse on this issue. I will therefore limit myself to a few salient points.
- Allow me to begin by sharing my country’s experience with multiculturalism. Malaysia remains one of the few fortunate countries that have been able to manage its religious and ethnic diversity relatively well. The challenges at independence in 1957 were enormous, and many observers at the time thought that Malaya, and later Malaysia, was destined for the dustbin of history. Ethnic and religious cleavages, recently arrived immigrant communities with uncertain loyalties, poverty, insurgency and external threats combined to make the environment for nation building forbidding.
- How we got to where we are is a story we could share. Political wisdom, sound economic policy, effective security strategy and good public governance, and certainly a large dose of luck, all combined to produce a successful development model that at the same time helped secure the foundations of a viable nation. The story of Malaysia, however, is the story of its people. Their rich and varied culture, strong work ethic and willingness to engage and compromise animated the spirit and substance of nation building. They provided the critical emotional and psychological glue that helped bond the nation.
- Malaysia’s policy of welcoming and celebrating religious diversity instead of suppressing any religious group has contributed greatly to its success. It also explains the absence of faith-based insurgencies or insurgencies defined by religion in the country. Malaysia’s experience is that embracing religious diversity enriches rather than inhibits national unity in multicultural societies.
- Respect for religions and the freedom given to religious practices manifests itself in the many hundreds and thousands of mosques, churches and temples that dot the urban landscape and are scattered throughout the country. It also manifests itself in the fact that every major religious and cultural festival is a public holiday for all Malaysians irrespective of faith and culture.
- Despite the considerable progress made, however, Malaysia continues to have to contend with various stresses and strains. Religious consciousness has increased amongst all communities in recent decades in common with similar developments elsewhere in the world. Its commingling with other issues affecting ethnicity and economic inequalities has occasionally complicated inter-religious harmony. The high media publicity given to the admittedly rare instances of conversion by a spouse without the knowledge of family members has caused problems involving cases of burial, child custody and inheritance of property. Legal disputes concerning the jurisdiction of sharia law and common law have also affected sentiment among Muslim and non-Muslim communities when they occur.
- A society in which religious, ethnic and economic fault lines often reinforce each other has made nation building in multicultural Malaysia a major and continuing challenge. Nation building and national unity based on integration and not assimilation has been the preferred policy choice. Nation building is still a work in progress in Malaysia as in most other post colonial states. Our experience is that religious diversity and national unity are not incompatible. Indeed, they nourish and enrich each other.
- At least one third of the total population of Muslims in the world today live as religious minorities in multicultural societies. That’s about 500 million people in 149 countries, according to the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs.
- Since 9/11, attention has inevitable focussed on the Muslim diasporas in Europe and the US. Muslims represent the second- and third-largest religious group in Europe and the United States respectively. More so than other transnational groups, integration into society in Europe has proved particularly difficult for first- and even second- generation Muslims. Many continue to struggle intensely with their identity. They face the challenge of retaining their faith while attempting to integrate into sometimes hostile societies. They are led to question whether they are Muslims who happen to live in America or American Muslims, whether they are Muslims who happen to live in Europe or European Muslims. Often, the younger generation become alienated both from the values of their adopted country and the religious identity of their parents.
- Living as a minority in a dominant culture that is often ignorant of or hostile to Islam has prompted some Muslim leaders to discourage integration, and to advocate withdrawing from mainstream society by creating separate religious/cultural communities within western societies. This, in my opinion, would be a tragic mistake. Left unchecked, these countries end up having significant enclaves of isolated and alienated communities that are not bound by common ties or interests with mainstream society. Rioting in French ghetto areas inhabited by North African Arabs in 2005 serves as a reminder of what can happen if a country allows its immigrant communities to drift in the fringes of society without meaningful integration.
- I believe it would be a tragic omission if we fail to fully galvanise the potential that is in religion to serve the cause of peace and human development. Religious leaders have great moral authority in their communities. If leaders of every faith in every society could be mobilised to strengthen the fabric of peace and the conditions for development, they would be a powerful force for the making of a better world.
- While we would expect religious leaders to preach understanding and tolerance, we are all too aware that some have chosen to speak in judgement of other communities and civilizations and instigate intolerance of other faiths. Misguided religious leaders have sometimes not only been enemies and obstacles to peace; they also have been impediments to human development. It is regrettable that tradition is often confused with religion, and tradition is clothed as religion to justify intolerance, discrimination and denial of rights. Religious leaders in communities still trapped in the past often interpret religion to suit and reinforce cultural traditions. In so doing they condemn their communities to continued underdevelopment. For too long have enlightened religious leaders remained in the background of national and global affairs. It is time for them to come to the fore, for their voices to be heard, and for their influence to be felt.
- In short, Muslims must regain the confidence to practice their faith in ways that are in harmony with the societies around them. Muslim scholars must go back to basics to reclaim the original Quranic message of multiculturalism and pluralism as stated, for example in Verse 49: 11-13: “O you Believers! Do not let one community deride another. They may very well be better!…O humankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes so that you may know one another. The noblest of you, in the sight of God is the most pious.”
Muslim brands and western consumers
- In the time remaining, allow me to make some brief comments on the second and third topics under discussion. What role can Muslim business play in fostering harmony in non-Muslim societies? and, Can Muslim brands be accepted by western consumers?
- The reason why these questions are – indeed why this forum is – important is because Muslims are becoming an economic force to be reckoned with. As Muslim consumers acquire more education, secure better jobs and attain higher incomes, the demand for sharia-compliant products, which is already large, will grow even more. According to the recent and much discussed Ogilvy & Mather survey, the market for such products is US$ 2.1 trillion annually and growing rapidly. The Muslim diaspora is now transferring needs and demands of Muslims to societies that were not traditionally exposed to them. Furthermore, Muslim women are playing an increasing role in businesses and are moving to the fore as an important consumer segment.
- The rising numbers and growing purchasing power of Muslim consumers open up tremendous business opportunities for both Muslims and non-Muslims. At the same time, they also present opportunities to build, through commercial engagement, the confidence and trust that will ultimately help to weld Muslims and non-Muslims into a common humanity. Here, however, we need to temper optimism with realism. It is a sad fact that many in the West are fearful, untrusting and resentful of Muslims and their religion. According to one survey, in 2006, 63 per cent of British, 87 per cent of French and 88 per cent of Dutch believe Islam to be the religion that was most prone to violence.
- These negative sentiments of Islam and Muslims have, if anything increased since then. Controversies over the banning of minarets in Switzerland, the prohibition against the wearing of the burqa in France and the proposed banning of Muslim immigration into the Netherlands by Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders are the most recent manifestations of a raging Islamophobia.
- These negative images inevitably spill over into Muslim brands, making it extremely difficult for Islamic products to penetrate western markets. The challenges of marketing Islamic brands to, and being accepted by, non-Muslim consumers, therefore, remain considerable.
- Muslim businesses, particularly those that are located in western markets, can help mitigate these false perceptions by acting as responsible corporate citizens in their local community. And as I shall argue, Muslim businesses, precisely because of their ethical underpinnings, are uniquely placed to play such a role.
- In an influential article published in the Harvard Business Review, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, suggest there are four motivations for a company to embrace corporate social responsibility (CSR). They are:
- Reputation; that is, CSR initiatives are in place to improve the company’s image, strengthen its brand, and even raise the value of its stock;
- Licence-to-operate; that is, a company adopts the appropriate CSR programmes that will ensure the approval of governments, local communities and stakeholders for its continued operation;
- Moral obligation; that is, the company pursues commercial success in ways that honour ethical values and respect people, communities and the environment, and
- Sustainability; that is, the company strives to meet the needs of the present without compromising in any way the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
- Some may ask, as long as good work is being done, does the motivation behind it matter. I believe it does. The first two motivations─ reputation and licence-to-operate ─ focus on painting a picture of oneself to satisfy external audiences. In controversial industries such as tobacco, chemicals and energy, CSR initiatives may be pursued as forms of insurance against public criticism.
- Such acts of CSR tend to limit initiatives to a few acts of philanthropy that are usually nothing more than public relations-driven exercises. Because they lie on the periphery of the main business, they are likely to be the first things to go when times are tough. Take Enron, which gave millions to local charities and won many awards for philanthropy. Once it was revealed that the company had orchestrated a massive fraud, all its CSR work was reduced to a mockery.
- I believe the third and fourth motivations ─ moral obligation and sustainability ─ are more tenable in the long run. Moral obligation prompts a company to reconcile profit-making with the greater good of society. Sustainability aims to secure long-term financial performance by avoiding short-term behaviour that is socially detrimental or environmental wasteful. When these two motivations drive corporate behaviour, CSR is not a one-off initiative nor is it used as a cloaking device. When a well-run business applies its resources, expertise and talent to problems it understands, feels strongly about and have a stake in, it can have a greater impact than any other organisation. Muslim businesses, if they remain true to their calling, are uniquely placed to play this role. It will earn them respect and credibility in the marketplace; it will enhance their brand; it will increase customer loyalty; and it will improve their relationship with the local community.
- The development of Islamic finance provides an illustrative case study of the potential for growth as well as the limitations of bringing an Islamic product to market in non-Muslim communities. This industry has been growing at the rate of 15 to 20 % annually in recent years, fuelled in large part by surging demand for sharia-compliant financial products and services from the Middle East and other Muslim countries, but also by investors around the world. Today, there are some 300 Islamic banks and investment firms operating in more than 75 countries.
- Obviously for the non-Muslim customer, the theology underpinning Islamic financial products is of little, or no, interest. Indeed we have often observed how overt Islamic labelling can be highly counter-productive. When the Dubai Port Authority acquired British Petroleum and Oriental Steam Navigation which managed a number of US ports, some in the US pointed to the $3.5 billion Islamic bond that had financed the deal as proof of a threat to US security.
- The strategy for successfully marketing Islamic brands to western customers will lie much less in the overt use of religious jargon and symbols than in ensuring product quality. For example, Islamic financiers can justifiably claim that the Islamic strictures against excessive risk-taking steered them away from that risky ventures that have been the primary cause in precipitating the global financial crisis. Making the argument that Islamic finance is sound finance will make it more attractive to investors going forward.
- Good products speak for themselves. Persian carpets, for example, do not only appeal to Muslims for their outstanding quality and artistic design. They are also highly prized by everyone and have been exported to the west at least since the 16th century. Likewise Egyptian cotton, famous for the long fibres that allows for a thinner but stronger yarn. Yet neither Persian carpets nor Egyptian cotton are marketed as Muslim products, although they are universally known to be from the Middle East. We have observed how an overkill of Islamic branding can have undesirable unintended consequences, as shown in the recent rise in France of “halal phobia”.
- Which should perhaps give us pause. Muslims are justifiably proud of the proliferation of Islamic brands in global markets, spanning a wide range of industries from finance to food and beverage, cosmetics, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, tourism and fashion. As we rush to market our products, the question we may want to ask ourselves is: How far down the road do we want to go in segmenting markets along religious lines? Pushing Islamic brands too aggressively may affect the marketability of the product in non-Muslim communities, and will almost inevitably invite reactions from other religious groups. Recently, Stoxx Europe launched a Christian stock index presumably in response to the many Islamic ones that already exist. Soon we may see a Buddhist stock index and a Hindu stock index. There is something to be said for ethics in finance, especially in light of the global financial crisis. We should, however, not be blind to the potential dangers inherent in the widespread use of faith-based brands ─ a development that could easily feed into Huntington’s polarizing “clash of civilizations” thesis.
- Islam’s premier theologian, Imam al-Ghazali, who lived in the twelfth century, had a somewhat critical approach to what we today might label as the branding exercise. He cautioned against any unnecessary branding that is identity-laden, especially if this obfuscates identity and knowledge. On this, he memorably quipped: “There is no need to quibble over brands, once the point is understood!“ Perhaps this “less-is-more” approach towards Islamic branding and marketing is worth reflecting on.
- I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your patience. And I thank the Said Business School for giving me the opportunity to participate in this forum.
- Ogilvy & Mather, Brands, Islam & the New Muslim Consumer, May 2010 ↑
- John Esposito, The Future of Islam (Oxford University Press: New York, 2010), p. 12. ↑
- Porter, M.E. and Kramer, M.R. (2006), Strategy & Society – The Link Between Competitive Advantage and Corporate Social Responsibility in “Harvard Business Review”, December 2006 ↑
- Ibrahim Agah Cubukcu and Huseyin Atay, eds., Al-Ghazali, al-Iqtisad fi al-i’tiqad, (Ankara: Nur Batbaasi, 1962), p. 92. ↑