As public opinion regarding Muslims continues to be challenged by recent news events, there are some in the West who are looking past all that and are instead considering how to best cater to their needs. But it’s not necessarily a new found socio-political sympathy. Just as oil revenues have kept certain Muslim states economically linked to the West, the growing purchasing power of Muslims in Western countries has created a group too seductive to be reviled completely.
Until recently, companies that merely listened to a potential Muslim clientele invited accusations of “dhimmitude”, consorting with the enemy, or caving in to religion in an agnostic (or at least Judeo-Christian) marketplace. Yet, in spite of this, more companies are noticing the estimated $170 billion annually that Muslim consumers spend in the US alone (and these Muslim Americans, many of whom immigrated as highly-educated professionals, consistently rank as one of the highest per-capita income groups in the country). Similarly, Muslims in the US and UK are attracting the attention of marketing professionals because they are a younger, more attractive demographic than their non-Muslim peers. As a result, Muslim economic (i.e., halal) needs area slowly being supplied in greater numbers by non-Muslims.
While companies have targeted ethnic groups for some time now, there have been few examples of target demographics based on religion. Some publishing companies have had luck with targeting Christian households with appropriately-themed materials, but those markets are also served by well-established niche companies. Muslims, on the other hand, have a purchasing power that overwhelms the still-small collection of businesses that caters exclusively to them (mainly Mom-and-Pop restaurants, stores, and markets). And since nothing attracts the corporate world like the smell of unharvested profits, businesses from Citibank to IKEA are wondering just how much Muslim marketing they can produce without alienating their other customers, and initial forays are meeting with some success.
For example, when two McDonald’s restaurants in Melbourne, Australia switched to halal sources for their meat, sales doubled despite some protests by non-Muslims (select McDonald’s restaurants in the UK followed suit this week). The Nando’s restaurant chain has profited immensely by offering halal offerings of its Portuguese chicken in 25% of its stores in the UK. One entrepreneur is even seeking to export prepackaged organic halal pizzas from Canada to Muslim populations throughout North America and Europe. “There are a lot of Muslims who would eat this up,” says Angelo Alof , founder of Organic Halal International Foods (and master of puns, evidently).
As for mainstream foods, another businessman has helped introduce and distribute in the UK halal sweets (including Gummi Bears) by Haribos, one of Europe’s biggest sweet manufacturers. Nestle has become the biggest multi-national food manufacturer for Muslims, producing halal food in 75 of its 481 factories and earning over $3 billion in annual sales. And for those Muslim entrepreneurs, such as restaurant owners, who are looking for Islamically-compatible business-to-business services, Lloyd’s TSB Bank has begun offering Islamic business accounts in Britain.
Next month, two conferences on the halal industry, the World Halal Forum and MIHAS, will take place in Malaysia, a country that aims to be a “halal hub” for the world halal food industry. But among the attendees will be representatives of many non-Muslim countries, such as New Zealand, South Africa, and India, which are aiming to be the leading suppliers of halal meat to Muslims, both domestic and international. These countries are starting to take notice of changing tastes among Muslims around the world, as the spending patterns of younger generations more closely mirror their non-Muslim peers rather than their Muslim parents.
For Muslims, all this attention is a double-edged sword. Becoming an official (and lucrative) demographic in the eyes of the corporate world ensures a base level of respect and protection by the larger society. After all, nobody likes to slaughter a cash cow. But in the process, the Muslim community stands to lose a great deal of control over its own economic potential. What chance does the local Halal butcher have, for example, when Muslims can pick up shrink-wrapped halal meats at the local Safeway while they do their everyday shopping? The irony is that the Muslim consumer market is maturing faster than Muslim food and halal service providers. But the good news is everybody might start to love us.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.