In 2020, Muslims around the world experienced a Ramadan like no other. From Mecca to Melbourne, and Montreal to Manila, familiar Ramadan routines were upended as the Coronavirus pandemic compromised social gatherings, congregational prayer, and the increase in spiritual fellowship that the Holy Month traditionally brings.
Breaking fast and praying Tarawih suddenly become solitary experiences for many, while family rhythms were disrupted by home schooling and remote working, and the strain that many people felt on their mental health disrupted the kind of focus, connection and tranquility often associated with the month.
And for many, the loss of employment and income or, worse, the loss of loved ones, compounded the difficulties that curfews, lockdowns and other restrictions had already imposed.
But amid the turmoil, hope sprang eternal. Communities across the world found opportunity in adversity, taking advantage of the unique circumstances to deepen their faith, enhance their experience, and draw closer to their loved ones.
For some, family time took on a new dimension with the introduction of regular game nights, while for others the extra time indoors meant more opportunities to read and study the Qur’an.
With more time on their hands, some people became more mindful in their charity - giving more thought to who they would like to support, and through which platforms or organisations. And it's easy to imagine that creativity reached new heights for many - whether making a beautiful prayer corner in their homes, designing fun and imaginative craft activities for their children, or even working on a new business idea.
Now, with a year’s experience in the bag, we have the opportunity to plan accordingly and prepare a Ramadan that works better for us. Perhaps that means setting up Zoom iftars or study circles, making socially-distanced and responsible charity distribution plans, arranging ‘phone-trees’ to check in with people, or setting daily targets for journaling, learning Arabic, or starting a new craft.
A new marketing challenge
Learning from the experience of last year’s Corona-hit Ramadan isn’t just limited to those practicing the faith. For brands and organisations, the curveball that was 2020 provided many challenges during Ramadan – traditionally one of the biggest marketing seasons for the Middle East and Asia Pacific region especially.
To put the usual Ramadan opportunity into context, in 2018 – long before Coronavirus took hold – research by Google Insights found that consumer spend increased by 53% overall during Ramadan, while Twitter found that 83% of consumers are open to trying new brands and products.
In the UK, despite 62% of Muslims saying they are not served well by brands, some 78% said they would be interested in companies that did stock for Ramadan and Eid, according to Ogilvy’s The Great British Ramadan report. A big green light for brands if ever there was one.
And there is a thick catalogue of other data to reinforce the point.
Naturally, the digital world has played an increasingly big role in this surge, with an estimated 230% increase in e-commerce traffic in 2018, according to Webpals, with an increase in conversions of 30%. In the same year, a study by Facebook showed that usage of the social media platform across the Middle East and North Africa grows by 14.8% during Ramadan, and surges to a 36.9% increase in usage at night. This means an extra 57.6 million hours on Facebook for MENA users.
It is a period during which brands typically strive to tap into these seasonal consumer habits and stand out in a busy and loud marketplace, with digital creativity often winning the day.
Take for example Nestlé Middle East, which launched a bot for Facebook Messenger in 2019 to help people during Ramadan by suggesting recipes, products, and useful information. As well as keeping its brands in people’s daily conversations, Nestlé also achieved a 290% increase in time spent on its website compared to traffic from usual Facebook traffic. It also recorded that 30% of people who interacted with the bot subscribed to its recipe section.
Staying on the Facebook theme, Middle East fashion retailer Splash leveraged the platform to promote its Ramadan 2017 collection, resulting in a 75% increase in sales during the Holy Month, with an 80% increase in conversion rates.
For those who do it right, Ramadan is traditionally a huge boon to visibility, revenue and reputation.
Last year’s vastly different Ramadan experience, however, changed what people both needed and wanted from marketers. Some brands understood and acted upon this, while others failed to appreciate how the virus was affecting Muslim audiences.
One example of a successful marketing campaign was drinks brand Vimto, which was identified by YouGov.com as enjoying the greatest improvement in ad awareness of any brand in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan 2020.
Already popular across the Gulf during Ramadan, the brand’s marketing typically focuses on ‘sharing’ and communal iftars. Taking into consideration last year’s social distancing guidelines, its digital campaign centred on bringing people together virtually, using the hashtag #Vimto_till_we_meet_again. More than 7 million views on Youtube speaks to its success, with YouGov research showing that it contributed to an increase in positive perception for the brand.
In Indonesia, telco Indosat Ooredoo was praised for its Ramadan campaign, Silaturahmi Setiap Hari (Friendship Every Day). Focusing on how smartphones can keep people connected during lockdown, the remotely-shot advert features four singers collaborating on a song filled with messages of hope, and within 50 hours of release it had received more than 3.7 million views on YouTube. Nine months later, it has almost 93 million views, and counting.
Speaking after the launch of the campaign, IM3 Ooredoo’s VP of Brand Marketing, Fahroni Arifin, said: “The key to winning the audience’s hearts in this pandemic era is to be the first that acknowledges the situation, and be the first to take action to help the audiences face these uncertain times.”
Learning the lesson
Almost a year on, brands and marketers have had sufficient time to take on board the learnings of 2020 and apply them in their research, creative thinking, and execution.
And they’ve had a lot to consider. As well as having a mental, emotional and physical load, Covid has forced new social paradigms, altered people’s daily routines and priorities, and changed their spending habits - whether by choice or not.
Research by Choueiri Group found that 69% of people across five key MENA markets were worried about their finances as a result of Covid, with the same percentage of people reporting that their jobs have been directly impacted by the pandemic.
Two-thirds of respondents in Choueiri’s survey said they had cut expenses to better manage their finances, who 90% agreed with the statement ‘I feel it is crucial to prioritise needs vs. wants’, and 89% agreeing with the statement ‘I am only buying essentials nowadays’.
Similarly, a PwC surgery in July 2020 revealed that 62% of consumers in the Middle East had experienced a decrease in household income due to redundancy or loss of jobs, while 49% have experienced an increase in household bills.
Social media consumption has also changed as a result of the pandemic. As well as the emergence and growth of platforms such as Clubhouse, TikTok and Twitch – which are reshaping the social consumer path – the ‘how, why, when and how much’ of social media has also changed significantly.
A survey in North America by Bazaarvoice showed that 72% of people said their social media consumption had increased during the pandemic, with 43% agreeing their positing has also increased.
The same survey found that 82% of respondents indicated that social media is the most common channel from which they get information about a brand and its products, while 29% indicated that most of their new purchases come from social media discoveries.
Video and live content have both become much more prevalent, as well as messaging apps as a commercial avenue. The Brandon Agency found that 20% of people who have shared more on private channels during the pandemic say they now recommend brands and products more often. “These platforms are critical to increasing brand reach,” wrote the US-based advertising agency.
But perhaps most important for brands looking to get to the heart of Muslims’ Ramadan experience was an overall shift from outer to inner. The usual social gatherings and communal activities gave way to spiritual reflection and deeper contemplation - a change that brands need to work hard to understand on a marketing level.
Writing during Ramadan last year, Shelina Janmohamed – vice-president of Islamic marketing at Ogilvy Consulting and the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World – said: “Perhaps the most profound and positive difference this year has been the opportunity for greater self-reflection. It is always a benefit of Ramadan, but more so this year. With commuting and socialising gone from our schedules, there is that much more time to introspect.”
So perhaps it’s not really about marketing any more. Certainly not in traditional terms. Perhaps it’s less about selling something, and more about giving something. People want value, not frivolities, and brands have to offer something meaningful; something that touches them, and brings them value.
Make a difference during Ramadan 2021
With Shelina Janmohamed in mind, the Generation M factor is critical for brands that want to do make a difference this Ramadan. Take the time to really understand the Muslim mindset – especially young Muslims. Take the time to recognise and appreciate their diversity, creativity, intelligence, awareness, and aspirations. And really get to know their needs.
In terms of marketing, Janmohamed herself wrote: “For Ramadan and Eid, this means more than 1950s-style pictures of happy families. And a crescent moon logo in the corner is not going to cut it. Apply the same level of marketing insight and care to your Muslim audiences as you do to any other of your core audiences. Stage one: actually *do* some engagement.”
It might seem obvious that engaging with Muslim audiences should be high on the agenda, but it’s not always the case. Or at least, it’s not always done successfully.
Last year, founder and CEO of The Unmistakables, Asad Dhunna, wrote: “Early data shows that people from BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds are being disproportionately affected by Covid-19. From frontline workers to corner-shop owners, you’d be hard pressed to find a Muslim that wouldn’t welcome positive action from business right now.
“In fact, The Unmistakables Stereotypes Study showed that 56% of Muslims wished brands better targeted them. It’s an open goal if you can move fast.”
So how can brands engage successfully and create something memorable for Ramadan? This first thing is to listen.
Even if you think you know your audience, remember that what your audience thinks, does, wants and needs has changed over the past year. Maybe a lot, maybe a little, but changed nonetheless. So reach out, listen, and learn.
Perhaps Covid has given your audience a very specific challenge or requirement? Imagine your target demographic lives in a region of high diabetes prevalence, such as the Gulf. Not only should you understand how they approach Ramadan, and how fasting affects them, but you should also explore the added impact of Covid to their health. With social distancing in place, do they need more inventive and engaging ways to be active, for example?
Or maybe your target audience is partly made up of people who choose to undergo a digital detox during Ramadan? Despite the huge social media use during the month, it’s not uncommon for individuals or even whole communities to switch off as part of their fast. Have you learned whether your core target market does this? If so, putting all of your eggs into the social marketing basket would not be smart. How else could you reach and support them during this time? Perhaps they could give you some ideas as to how you could be of value to them, and in return they are much more likely to be loyal advocates of your brand.
The next thing you can do to make a difference during Ramadan is to become part of the Muslim community. Regardless of whether you and your teams are Muslim or not, you can be part of the Ramadan journey in various different ways.
You could comfort people, celebrate fortitude and highlight successes, or help Muslims be productive and focused during their fast. What’s important is to be human and be helpful. Be supportive and be genuine when you tell Muslims that we’re all in it together.
Writing last year, Aakriti Goel, strategy and data director at Cheil MEA, offered brands some suggestions to help them be meaningful during Ramadan. Among these recommendations were: Reassure, recreate togetherness, and facilitate giving. All key aspects of being an active part of a community.
“Brands can play a role to reassure and remind us that although we are in confinement, the core values of the holy month are not lost,” she said, adding: “Brands need to think on how they can facilitate togetherness, in a time when people will, most likely, be feeling very apart.
“From facilitating grandparents recording Ramadan stories to share with grandkids, to Tarneeb and Jackaroo games online, to virtual iftar parties. Think about what Netflix has done with Netflix parties.”
On giving, she said: “While brands have always initiated CSR activities during Ramadan, this year it will become important to not just give but facilitate giving remotely in a more meaningful manner.”
Another way of authentically connecting with Muslims during Covid-Ramadan is to give them something to talk about.
The Unmistakables’ Dhunna said: “Brands can also speak to the Muslim community by simply creating content that resonates. Whether it’s tapping into Muslim meme culture … or providing iftar recipes, creating content that gets Muslims talking is easy.”
This leads into a wider point about being present and available digitally. Offering interesting and engaging online content has become increasingly important throughout the year, and especially so for Muslims during Ramadan. The challenge, of course, being that there are so many brands out there competing for people’s attention. The best way to cut through is to be deliver content that genuinely appeals to Muslim audiences.
Writing at the end of last year, Amit Chhangani, head of sales at Google Indonesia, reflected on the first Covid-affected Ramadan: “With the many challenges brought on by COVID-19, the digital space in 2020 became more crowded — and noisier than ever before. At the same time, consumers’ behaviors changed rapidly as they adapted to new priorities and government restrictions.
“To stay ahead, brands had to adapt quickly — tapping into current consumer insights to rethink the way they approach their Ramadan communications.”
Highlighting the way some brands reacted to the impact of Covid, Chhangani pointed out the role of content creators. He gave the example of FMCG company. Wings, which tapped into Indonesia’s 93 million monthly YouTube users by working with Edho Zell (3.83 million YouTube subscribers), Raditya Dika (9,24 million) and Rans Entertainment (19.3 million). With these three content creators using Wings products in natural and Ramadan-relavent ways in their videos, Wings reached a new audience who got to learn how their products could enhance their Ramadan experience.
Whatever you choose to do as a brand during Ramadan, and however you choose to do it, it’s important to remember that the month is much, much more than a marketing opportunity.
Be sensitive to people’s situations, be human in your messaging, and be meaningful in your intent. Instead of steamrolling people, or giving them the hard-sell, be of service. Enter into the spirit of the month, be heart-centered, and give Muslims a reason to respect you. The benefits will last way beyond Ramadan; both for you, and the people you’re engaging with.