PISCATAWAY, NEW JERSEY // Getting corporate America to recognise the purchasing power of Muslims, rather than running scared because of stereotypes, was difficult but not impossible, said Michael Hastings-Black, the co-founder of the Desedo Advertising Agency, which specialises in minority markets. Addressing more than 200 delegates at the American Muslim Consumer Conference recently, he recounted a tale illustrating the high passions generated by a television advert last year by Dunkin' Donuts, which did not even specifically address Muslims.
The commercial was pulled after viewers complained about an item of clothing that the non-Muslim celebrity chef, Rachel Ray, happened to wear - the keffiyah. In the eyes of the complainers, the headscarf was a terrorist symbol. The controversy "caused big brands to pause" already meagre attempts to include or address Muslims in any marketing campaigns, Mr Hastings-Black said. But, he said, large corporations as well as niche Muslim companies now have new opportunities to tap into the estimated US$170 billion (Dh624bn) American Muslim market through social media. Such websites as Facebook and YouTube, plus blogs and instant messaging provided valuable means of communicating directly with the large and diverse US Muslim community, which also had the chance to create and define its own identity, he said.
"To shop is to be American," he said. But marketing campaigns along with Hollywood movies often perpetuate stereotypes. "New media allows a more accurate depiction of minorities. Dialogue is supplanting monologue." The American Muslim Consumer Conference, held at a conference hall at Rutgers University in New Jersey, was billed as the first of its kind by its volunteer organisers, a group of US Muslim professionals. Their aim was to educate non-Muslim businesses about the demand for Islamic products and encourage Muslims to exert their market power.
"Muslims want to be acknowledged in mainstream media. You don't need to change your product or show Muslims in your ads," said Mohammed Abdullah, the conference's director. "Instead, consider advertising in a Muslim media outlet. Say 'Eid Mubarak' or 'Ramadan Kareem' during the holidays. The Muslim community will respond. When we see an ad we like, we send it to our friends and share it with each other."
Mr Mohammed is a 28-year-old assistant vice president at Deutsche Bank and was born in India. A couple of years ago, he was going home by train to New Jersey from an Arabic class when a passenger noticed his books and said "Salam Alaikum". He soon developed a friendship with the passenger, Faisal Masood, founder of MuslimLink.org, a social media platform that connects Muslim professionals, businesses and organisations.
The men joined forces with several others to organise the consumer conference, which they hope will be annual. Mr Abdullah said he was gratified by the positive response to the conference, which was attended by company executives, entrepreneurs, analysts and journalists, of whom 75 per cent were Muslim. The potential for growth within the halal and Islamic finance sectors were discussed at length as was analysis of the US Muslim consumer market and strategies to reach it.
Mr Hastings-Black pointed out that many purchasing decisions made by Muslims have nothing to do with religion, such as buying a television. There was also no single profile of a US Muslim as evidenced by conference attendees, who included all races and ethnicities. "You can even be Muslim and a skateboarder," he said. But the lack of accurate data about the size of the community continued to deter many companies and advertisers. Numbers range between two million and seven million. Polling companies underestimate the total because they are dependent on telephone surveys, and community and mosque leaders often exaggerate their figures to win influence. Several speakers said they preferred to use a mid-range figure of around three million to four million Muslims in the United States.
One speaker was Monem Salam, the president of Saturna Brokerage Services, which manages mutual funds aimed at US-based Islamic investors. He did not see any big impediments to the growth of Islamic finance in the country, shrugging off a lawsuit filed last year by a Christian group that challenged the government's bailout of the American International Group because the insurer offered Sharia-compliant financial products. "We're seeing a change in the psyche of the American Muslim consumer," he said. "When there were no products out there in the 1970s, scholars said to use regular products. My parents had a conventional mortgage. That's changing and the second generation is demanding more."
Syed Rasheeduddin Ahmed is the founder of the Muslim Consumer Group, which provides listings of food products according to whether they are halal (allowed), haram (forbidden) or mushbooh (questionable). He said educating US food companies was a slow process because many equate halal with kosher though the regimes have differences; for example, alcohol is not banned under Jewish law. "Companies don't want to pay extra for the [Islamic] certification."
He urged consumers to call companies to request information and new products without pork or alcohol, for example. About 30 per cent of kosher food in the United States is bought by Muslims and the kosher industry was held up as an important model because it encompassed dietary laws with high-quality and socially conscious products that appealed to people of all faiths. The conference was further proof of greater unity within the US Muslim community, said Tayyibah Taylor, the founder and publisher of Azizah magazine, which is aimed at Muslim women but is read by women of all faiths who dislike the values promulgated by mainstream women's publications.
Ms Taylor, who is African-American, said Muslims drew closer to each other in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. "Those Muslims flying under the cultural radar and who thought they were 'white' woke up to the African-American experience," she said. Mr Abdullah said some British attendees told him they hoped to replicate the conference in the UK. firstname.lastname@example.org