KUALA LUMPUR — Thick waves of hair cascade over a woman’s shoulder. She gives a flirtatious flick of her locks and tells viewers that they too can get such a luxurious mane — if they buy the shampoo she is holding up to the camera. That is the script for your standard shampoo commercial.
Cut to the television spot for Sunsilk’s Lively Clean & Fresh shampoo. Another young, smiling woman is the star, but there is not a strand of hair in sight. Her tresses are completely covered by a tudung, the head scarf worn by many Muslim women in Malaysia.
The pitch? Lively Clean & Fresh helps remove excess oil from the scalp and hair — a common problem among wearers of tudungs, according to Unilever, the manufacturer. The company says the product is the first shampoo to speak directly to the “lifestyle of a tudung wearer.”
For decades, many Western company failed to appreciate the unique needs of Muslim consumers, marketing experts say. Worse, some companies offended potential customers by not understanding religious sensitivities. But as the Islamic population has grown in size and affluence — there are now 1.57 billion Muslims worldwide — more multinationals are seeking to tap into the market.
Instead of simply importing products and advertising from the West, companies are increasingly developing marketing campaigns — and formulating products themselves — with Muslims firmly in sight.
“Islamic marketing,” some experts say, is the next wave in branding, and now, as the holy month of Ramadan begins, activity is surging.
“For the last few years, it’s been China and India,” said Paul Temporal, an associate fellow at the Said Business School at the University of Oxford. “The next big market is the Muslim market. There’s this huge group of people who have been relatively untapped in terms of what they want and need, and they represent a tremendous opportunity.”
John Goodman, Ogilvy & Mather’s regional director for South and Southeast Asia, is more blunt: “It’s like being in 1990 and telling people that China doesn’t matter. Twenty years ago you might have said that, but now you’re being foolish.”
With Muslim-majority countries spread from Southeast Asia to Africa, and Muslims speaking numerous languages and adhering to varying standards of dress and other customs, approaching the group as consumers can be complex. But as with all marketing exercises, experts say, rule No.1 is to avoid causing offense.
Nike committed a legendary error when it released a pair of athletic shoes in 1996 with a logo on the sole that some Muslims believed resembled the Arabic lettering for Allah. Given that Muslims consider the feet unclean, “producing shoes with the name of God on the soles of the feet is not a good idea,” said Mr. Goodman, who converted to Islam in 1999. “They recalled 800,000 pairs of shoes globally.”
Describing the Nike episode as a “wake-up call” for companies, Mr. Goodman said it had also been a turning point for Muslim advocates, who realized that “if they make a noise, companies would listen and change, that they had economic and social influence.”
Unilever says the Sunsilk Lively Clean & Fresh shampoo, which is sold in Malaysia and Singapore, was created for people who suffer from oily scalps after wearing any head covering, be it a baseball hat or head scarf. After company research showed that many women who wear the tudung complained of oily scalps, it introduced the television commercial aimed at them.
The ad begins with a young woman saying that now she can do what she wants because she no longer has to worry about itchiness, before she goes on to kick a goal in a coed soccer game.
Other companies are taking steps to reassure consumers that all of their products — not just food — are halal, or permissible under Islam, by having them officially certified.
Colgate-Palmolive, for instance, claims to be the first international company to have obtained halal certification in Malaysia for toothpaste and mouthwash products. Some mouthwashes may contain alcohol, which would be forbidden under halal guidelines.
Colgate’s products now bear the halal logo, which also is featured in the company’s television commercials.
The mobile phone industry has also started focusing on Muslim consumers, with the introduction of a number of applications, including religious calendars and Koran downloads.
Nokia made a concerted effort to appeal to Muslims starting in 2007, when it introduced a phone for the Middle East and North Africa markets that came loaded with a number of applications, including an Islamic Organizer with alarms for the five daily prayers, two Islamic e-books and an e-card application that lets people send SMS greeting cards for Ramadan. Starting this year, the company has been giving customers the choice of which applications they want, rather than loading them all on the phone.
Mr. Goodman, whose company recently completed a study of Muslim consumers in Malaysia, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and released an index benchmarking the appeal of certain brands to Muslims, said Nokia was rated favorably by Muslims. One Egyptian respondent said Nokia had “Islamic values” and offered products to suit the Egyptian consumer.
“Nokia is seen as being a very good corporate citizen and very sensitive to the local market,” Mr. Goodman said.
Muslim consumers are increasingly becoming a focus of research for the marketing industry and academics.
An international conference at Oxford in July on Islamic branding and marketing, which organizers said had been the first of its kind, attracted 200 people from Western and Muslim countries, as well as academics.
Mr. Temporal is leading a major research project on the topic at the business school, which has started offering courses for companies wanting to expand in the market.
Ogilvy & Mather recently established a new arm, Ogilvy Noor, which the company describes as “the world’s first bespoke Islamic branding practice.” Ogilvy Noor is led by employees in Muslim markets in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. (Noor means “light” in Arabic.)
The company has also introduced the Noor index, which rates the appeal of brands to Muslim consumers. The index was formulated on the basis of how consumers ranked more than 30 well-known brands for compliance with Shariah, or Islamic law.
Lipton tea, owned by Unilever, topped the list, followed by Nestlé.
Nestlé was one of the first multinationals to pursue the global halal market, worth an estimated $2.1 trillion annually. Eighty-five of the company’s 456 factories worldwide have been certified halal, said Peter Vogt, Nestlé’s managing director for Malaysia.
Surprisingly, respondents to the Ogilvy poll ranked Emirates — the upscale airline based in Dubai and considered one of the most successful brands to have come out of the Middle East — near the bottom of the list, 27th among 35.
Mr. Goodman attributed Emirates’ low standing in the ranking to the fact that the company had tried to position itself as a global, secular brand, through characteristics like a multiethnic work force.
“It also serves alcohol, which almost all airlines do, but this is not seen as being Shariah-compliant,” he said. “It’s a fantastic brand in many ways, but for Muslim consumers, it’s not seen as a particularly Muslim brand.”
Meanwhile, brands that originate in Muslim countries are beginning to use sophisticated marketing to challenge Western multinationals. Some of these home-grown brands are savvy about using religious images in their advertising. Olpers, a Pakistani milk brand introduced in 2006, has been seeking to compete with Nestlé. Its television commercials for Ramadan in 2008 and 2009, developed with JWT, mention the beverage only briefly at the start and end.
Most of the commercials’ time is devoted to showing Muslims in prayer at mosques; Muslims at work in countries including Turkey, Pakistan and Morocco; and Muslims doing good deeds like helping the elderly.
Ogilvy says the commercial aimed to “situate the modern Muslim in the context of the Ummah, or the global Muslim community, reminding them of their larger interconnectedness and giving them an enormous sense of belonging.” The commercial also emphasizes the ideas that “all are equal in the eyes of God” and “brotherhood is a crucial component of success” by equating the work of, say, a craftsman in Brunei and a scientist in Egypt.
The 2009 spot navigates between tradition and modernity by featuring Atif Aslam, a Pakistani pop singer, and Dawud Wharnsby, a Canadian songsmith who converted to Islam. “We have a message of peace for the earth,” they sing.
Such choices reflect research by Ogilvy showing that young Muslim consumers are different from their Western “Generation Y” counterparts in that they believe that by staying true to the core values of their religion, they are more likely to achieve success in the modern world.
Experts say multinational companies will increasingly need such insights as they expand in Muslim countries. With the market growing rapidly and consumers becoming more astute, Mr. Temporal and others say time is of the essence.
“The first-mover advantage is always there,” he said.