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Retailers weigh rewards, risks in marketing to American Muslims

Leafing through a Best Buy flier over the holiday season, Celena Khatib spotted a small greeting near the bottom of the page: "Happy Eid al-Adha."

The good wishes for the important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims seemed a milestone in U.S. marketing. "I finally felt that they are recognizing Muslims like we are a part of this community," said Khatib, 31, a suburban Detroit mother of two. "We live here, we spend our money here."

But on Best Buy's Web site, people around the country posted contrasting views. "You insult all of the heroes and innocent who died 9/11 by celebrating a holiday of the religion that said to destroy them!" wrote one. Many others said they would no longer shop at Best Buy.

The controversy underscores the continuing obstacles that retailers and other companies face in marketing to a U.S. Muslim population estimated at more than 2.3 million by the Pew Research Center.

Even an advertising-industry study three years ago that urged companies to cash in on what was then the community's estimated $170 billion purchasing power got little traction.

Best Buy is believed to be the first major retailer to market to Muslims nationwide, and only a few are even dipping their toes into direct ethnic local advertising.

Rather than pave the way for more national advertising, the Best Buy ad seems to have reinforced the pariah status that Muslims have in mainstream marketing and to serve as an example of why "Happy Eid" won't join "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Hanukkah" as a mainstay in holiday advertising any time soon.

"Obviously the Muslim market has some unique sets of challenges. … That's not something to be glossed over," said Rafiuddin Shikoh, founder of DinarStandard, a consulting firm specializing in the Muslim market.

Other immigrant and minority groups have faced similar treatment from advertisers, but the U.S. Muslim community carries heavier baggage.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and with more recent incidents, such as the Fort Hood shooting and attempted Christmas Day plane bombing, the word "Muslim" for some Americans is synonymous with terrorism. And that's an image that corporations don't want attached to their brand names.

A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 35 percent of Americans have a negative view of Muslims and 45 percent believe Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence.

Even those championing marketing to Muslim consumers — like Shikoh — advise Western companies not to do what Best Buy did. Instead, in a move that seems both practical and defeatist, they recommend directing advertising in ethnic and religious media and away from the mainstream.

"At this point, I don't know if there's a real need for a national campaign," Shikoh said. "They are curious to see if there is a way to tap into this market without risking their reputation or it backfiring in any way."

Best Buy has refused to discuss its holiday advertising, though a brief statement on its Web site indicates it stands by its Eid greetings: "Best Buy's customers and employees around the world represent a variety of faiths and denominations. We respect that diversity and choose to greet our customers and employees in ways that reflect their traditions."

Other companies have recently come under some fire for marketing to groups that some considered out of the mainstream.

A Gap ad during the holiday season angered a conservative Christian group for being too inclusive by referring to Christian, Jewish, secular and pagan holidays with the line "Go Christmas, Go Hanukkah, Go Kwanzaa, Go solstice." Gap didn't directly address whether it had considered mentioning Eid al-Adha, which was celebrated two weeks after the ad first appeared.

"We've been down this road before with other groups," said Jerome Williams, a professor of advertising and black studies at the University of Texas.

In the 1960s, studies looked at whether advertising that featured blacks would scare away white customers. Companies don't rush into new and unfamiliar markets, he said, but rather tiptoe into them. And what will ultimately sway advertisers is money.

"They're not in the business of social justice," he said. "An advertiser does not want to do anything that will have negative impacts on sales. … At the end of the day, they have to see if they've gained more than they've lost."

Mohammed Abdullah, event coordinator for the first American Muslim Consumer Conference, believes the Best Buy ad campaign will spur more outreach. The chain's 13 percent revenue increase in December over the previous December, he believes, is a sign that the retailer wasn't affected by any backlash.

"The growth strategy being employed by Best Buy will be copied, and few will look at the Eid al-Adha holiday ad as a negative or a misstep now," said Abdullah, an assistant vice president at Deutsche Bank.

Some companies have begun to test heavily Muslim markets. Crescent Foods in Chicago, for instance, started selling its halal chicken products at six Walmart superstores in Michigan and at ShopRite, a regional chain in the Northeast.

During Ramadan, Western Union launched a travel sweepstakes that would give customers who send money to the Middle East, Pakistan and Bangladesh the opportunity to fly home or undertake the annual Islamic hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The sweepstakes lasted through the Eid al-Adha holiday in November and awarded an $1,800 ticket voucher to each of 14 winners.

"We know this is a very special holiday for our Muslim customers," said Maher Kayali, marketing manager for U.S. to the Middle East and Pakistan region. "So we gave them that opportunity so they can go to Mecca."

To promote the sweepstakes, Western Union representatives visited mosques and held Ramadan dinners in Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey and Detroit.

"If it's Ramadan-specific and Eid-specific, it's directed to the ethnic media," Kayali said, adding that such marketing isn't due to fear of fallout from the mainstream.

But promotions beyond the small Islamic community face roadblocks. About six years ago, Syed Rasheeduddin Ahmed, president of Canadian food certification firm Muslim Consumer Group, added his halal symbol to the packaging of bread loaves, with his company name written out.

Soon the company was getting complaints. Ahmed changed the symbol to include just the initials MCG for loaves sent to the United States. Those shipped to the Middle East retain his original symbol.

Despite their large buying power, U.S. Muslims remain a small percentage of the consumer market. And for now, it appears advertising and products targeted toward them will remain in small markets and niche media and publications.

Retailers weigh rewards, risks in marketing to American Muslims 01/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 10:04pm]
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