Ramadan and Eid al Fitr 2012, being smack in the middle of summer, generated a curious lot of anecdotal business news across the media. In Kano, home to Nigeria’s largest Muslim community, roadside traders reported demand for block ice spiking to new heights. In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, traffic in cafes doubled and turnover increased by half due to massive night-time narguileh consumption, according to Arab News. And in Turkey, makers of television soap operas were in commercial heaven due to exploding Arab appetite for their products, while Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport announced a new record in flight traffic on the last day of Ramadan.
It is an absolute no-brainer that the Islamic Holy Month impacts Muslim-majority economies in many ways. A big theme is productivity. Fasting daytimes throughout a full lunar month does much to curb one’s appetite for work. The pressure on human capital management is only one aspect of the Ramadan economy, however. Business opportunities account for the other side of the equation.
Presenting themselves on levels from time-honored to recent to impending, Ramadan-related economic opportunities share two commonalities: they are expanding and they contain vastly under-used strategic business potentials.
The fundamental drivers for business growth in the Holy Month are increased consumption and the gift economy. First and foremost, consumption during Ramadan means food. Family meals and gatherings with friends and relatives during the non-fasting periods from sunset into the night are established cultural priorities. These social factors generate increased food demand, while psychological cravings also polish up appetites for traditional and contemporary delicacies; this increased demand naturally does its part in pulling up prices and is the main feature of food retail during Ramadan.
With high-in-demand items ranging from staples to exclusive foodstuffs, consumer complaints about surging food costs have again this year abounded in many Muslim-majority countries and in Muslim population centers from Cairo to Jakarta. Exceptions applied in some Gulf countries, where authorities have, in recent years, increasingly imposed price controls to stabilize living costs during the Holy Month.
Authorities in the United Arab Emirates told media ahead of the 2012 fasting period that they issued price bindings for 1,600 products, up 50 percent from the number of items monitored in Ramadan 2011. Control measures were highly publicized and large UAE retailers generally put on a good face for the measures, which are flanked by government incentives such as expedited customs procession for compliant traders. In Tunisia, on the other hand, where price controls were also in place, traders complained that they had to sell below cost.
If one looks for a single food item that represents both the culture of Ramadan meals and the regional potential for food exports, the choice has to be dates. Consumption of the wholesome fruit during Ramadan is buoyed by the fact that Prophet Mohammed regularly broke his fast by eating dates. Production of dates is moreover concentrated in Muslim-majority countries, with the top five producing nations situated in the Middle East and North Africa region.
But while the prominent displays of the fruit in every supermarket in the region provide visual evidence for soaring date sales during Ramadan, the fruit appears to have no central lobbying organization and the world seems short on published data on dates, let alone data that would allow the royal date to act as a proxy for the changing food consumption patterns in Muslim communities in the fasting month.
A new white paper on potentials for marketing to Muslims globally, published this July by United States-based Public Relations agency Fleishman-Hillard, cites the halal food market as being worth at least $650 billion globally, without offering an estimate on the Holy Month’s share. However, the period’s moving timeline and diversity of locations and products, plus the absence of research into Ramadan-specific markets and Ramadan-specific demand, prohibit any macro assessment of global demand for Ramadan foodstuffs.
The global market growth potential for Ramadan foods correlates with some obviousness to population growth. The share of Muslims in the world population has grown from 1.1 billion persons in 1990 to about 1.6 billion individuals, or 23.4 percent of global population, in 2010 and will continue to grow at twice the rate of non-Muslims to reach 26.4 percent of projected world population by 2030, according to research by US-based Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
As it was already in the past quarter century, population rise, demographic profiles and socioeconomic developments of Muslim-majority countries will nourish growth of demand for food items associated with the Holy Month in the next 25 years, (which is when Ramadan will next take place in the middle of summer).
From business to CSR and back
Just as germane to Ramadan as family meals, and an established corporate custom in Islamic culture, is charitable giving. For local companies in the Gulf, this tradition of charity has been increasingly affixed with the label of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and it is equally integrated in their corporate citizenship practices; the same goes for foreign companies that have installed major units in Dubai or elsewhere in the Middle East.
Dubai-based Mashreq bank, among the leaders in the retail market, finalized its list of Ramadan CSR activities just before the start of the Holy Month this year. Its CSR lineup included a fund-raising drive among employees, with their total matched by the bank’s management, for a food collection and distribution partnership with a local NGO, the collection of toys for needy children, and the organization of an iftar, or meal to break the fast, for 300 laborers.
To give an example for a large multinational’s adoption of the practice, PepsiCo Asia, Middle East & Africa regionally announced its CSR engagement as including Ramadan meals — iftars and sohours, late evening or pre-dawn meals before the new fasting day — that served, from corporate perspective, a double function. Organized for employees, their family members, business friends and media, the events fulfill a social function of building and strengthening relationships with internal and external stakeholders in the company. Organized as charitable activity for the poor, sponsoring an iftar provides the company with the satisfaction of giving socially, coupled with reputational benefits. Another pillar is the distribution of Ramadan care packets, boxes with goods for daily sustenance to workers living in the many housing projects for manual laborers.
Emirates National Oil Company (ENOC), the state-owned operator of gas stations and fuel distributor, said its 2012 Ramadan campaign was designed to be the company’s biggest ever. ENOC highlighted that it would promote Islamic virtues on posters, provide value-centric lectures to employees, hand out dates-and-water boxes to motorists ahead of iftar time and participate in distributing 5,000 care packages to residents in labor housing projects.
Sharjah Media Corporation (SMC) reported that its CSR lineup for the Holy Month included the sponsoring of Ramadan tents providing daily fast-breaking meals to upward of 3,500 believers in Sharjah. The holding company for the northern emirate’s communications enterprises said some AED 1.15 million ($313,000) in donations for the tents were generated by the listeners to SMC’s Sharjah Radio and Television even before Ramadan started.
Describing the company’s humanitarian efforts as part of its “uncompromising commitment to corporate social responsibility,” the manager of SMC’s Sharjah Radio and TV, Khalid al-Midfa, told Executive, “SMC has been proactively leveraging the power of media to initiate CSR-driven programs that have a concrete impact on the lives of different people in our community. Our partnership with Shrajah Charity International demonstrates the huge potential of the media as a tool for social reforms as we have generated more than AED 1 million ($272,000) for Ramadan tents put up in different locations across the emirate.”
The pattern is also applied with gusto by multinational PepsiCo Asia, Middle East & Africa, which in 2012 organized Ramadan activities in the UAE benefiting more than 5,000 recipients, mainly laborers but also orphans. In Saudi Arabia, a PepsiCo campaign donated SAR 1 million ($267,000) to two charitable organizations caring for orphans.
Omnicom Media Group Middle East and North Africa (OMG Mena) quantified its Ramadan activities as a percentage of its total CSR budget, disclosing that it would be allocating 42 percent of the year’s CSR budget to Ramadan.
Addressing the fasting month’s contribution to the internal cohesion in OMG Mena’s workforce, chief executive Elie Khouri said the company’s engagement is “not about the amount, it is about the message; it is a time of giving and sharing and togetherness which is why we provide things like the iftars and sohours so that we can pass them together with the employees, and it also is very much a time of flexibility that we can provide as we recognize that the employees have obligations with work and family.”
The personal satisfaction of being involved in a CSR activity as part of a corporate effort is great, said Fadle Saad, enterprise sales manager, oil and gas, for the UAE and Oman at information technology giant HP. “We volunteer to prepare packages with food and other things and the company organizes that they are distributed to the laborers in the camps. For me, it is a highlight of Ramadan to participate in this effort.”
As more and more corporate CSR departments around the region integrate the Holy Month in their annual planning, one waits for more strategic and diversified approaches with multi-year planning to be introduced and for the first Ramadan CSR reports to be published in order to assess how the huge corporate citizenship potential of this outstanding religious and cultural occasion can be harnessed to greater socioeconomic significance.
The marketing floodgates
The third modern Ramadan reality is that the period provides an opportunity to open the marketing floodgates for commerce that can be not at all, tenuously, or directly related to the period’s Islamic content.
Durable consumer goods from home furnishings to consumer electronics, cars, clothing, financial products, and telecommunications services offering religious instructions and prayer schedules, are all marketed with great intensity and success during the Holy Month.
Seasonal promotions typically bait consumers with discounts or extras, examples from the automotive business being an offer for car buyers in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi to get a new BMW with a deferred payment schedule, reduced interest, and free registration. Suzuki fans in Muscat could pick up new wheels with insurance, service package, registration and an X-Box thrown in for free.
Based on expected discounts, consumers in Arab countries have moved to defer purchase decisions until they see Ramadan offers, resulting in retail turnover concentrations during the Holy Month that can be 30 and more percent higher than during other months, with unconfirmed reports from some manufacturers and markets putting Ramadan turnover as high as 50 or 60 percent of annual sales for large consumer electronics.
In 2012, Ramadan-specific travel packages to luxury hotels outside of the region were also on the list of seasonal promotions, underscoring that Muslim tourism, worth an estimated $126.1 billion in 2011, “may very well be the largest untapped niche market of the tourism industry,” according to a new study by US-based and Muslim-specialized marketing research firm DinarStandard.
Fasting people’s behavior patterns shift during the period and this reflects on media consumption habits. A study of television viewing patterns in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Ramadan 2011 showed that average viewing time per person increased by 13 percent in Egypt and 6 percent in Saudi Arabia but dropped slightly in the UAE when compared with the average monthly TV consumption. During the month, advertisers concentrate on TV commercials and the medium jumps from 62 to 74 percent share in advertising spending in the GCC and from 66 percent to 92 percent in Egypt. According to the OMG study advertisers allocated between 70 percent (GCC) and 440 percent (Egypt) more funds to airing commercials during the fasting month than in each month directly before and after.
Digital marketing potential is also higher during Ramadan, suggests research into tweet frequencies by The Online Project (TOP), an Amman-Dubai-based social media agency. The agency released a study in July saying it found increases in twitter activity in the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait ranging from 35 percent in the UAE to 395 percent in Kuwait. With the average volume of Ramadan tweets more than double that of comparison periods in three of the four countries and with activity peaking in the evening hours, the agency recommended that companies can use the Holy Month particularly well to engage with their customers via social media.
What all three realms of Ramadan activities with relevance for business have in common is that they are even more under-researched than Muslim markets in general for their growing geo-economic role and implications for new business. As the Fleishman-Hillard paper put in a catchy phrase, “The Muslim market is large, lucrative and under-served.”
OMG noted that “from a marketing perspective, Ramadan is a month of frenzy and hyperbole, leading to concerns about its commercialization.” As such, the period has been compared with the Christmas season, and concerns over balance of mind and body during the Islamic Holy Month are as valid as concerns over consumerism and excessive commercialization of life’s every aspect are at any time.
However, while in the religious context of Christmas any commercialization of believers’ sentiments is often criticized and frequently even abhorred by adherents to the faith, the view of Ramadan as time of blessing, charity to needy, and gift giving and generosity allows for a rather inclusive view on religious tradition and business.
“People should be active during Ramadan whether it is through charitable work or spreading God’s word or through business or by making other people happy. It is the best period in the year for everything,” opined Hamdi Murad, a scholar and university professor of Islamic studies based in Amman.
The caveat, of course, is that the products and services marketed during Ramadan have to be acceptable from a religious perspective; but next to the tantalizing economic outlook provided by the demographics of the world’s Muslims, this bit of religious news may be the most appealing information for marketers who aim for responsible growth.