Weighing Untapped Market Against Terror Fears

Rachel Zoll, MSNBC, December 26, 2010

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{snip} While corporations have long catered to Muslim communities in Europe, businesses have only tentatively started to follow suit in the U.S.–and they are doing so at a time of intensified anti-Muslim feeling that companies worry could hurt them, too. American Muslims seeking more acknowledgment in the marketplace argue that businesses have more to gain than lose by reaching out to the community.

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The worldwide market for Islamically permitted goods, called halal, has grown to more than half a billion dollars annually. Ritually slaughtered meat is a mainstay, but the halal industry is much broader, including foods and seasoning that omit alcohol, pork products and other forbidden ingredients, along with cosmetics, finance and clothing.

Corporations have been courting immigrant Muslim communities in Europe for several years. Nestle, for example, has about 20 factories in Europe with halal-certified production lines and advertises to Western Muslims through its marketing campaign called “Taste of Home.” Nestle plans to increase its ethnic and halal offerings in Europe in coming years.

In the United States, iconic American companies such as McDonald’s (which already has a popular halal menu overseas) and Wal-Mart have entered the halal arena. In August, the natural grocery giant Whole Foods began selling its first nationally distributed halal food product–frozen Indian entrees called Saffron Road.

Along with new customers, however, the companies draw critics and can become targets in the ideological battle over Islam and terrorism.

Abdalhamid Evans, project director with the World Halal Forum Europe, which works with the global halal industry, said a recent backlash has prompted some mainstream businesses in Europe to keep a lower profile about their halal products or scale back their offerings.

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Last year, Best Buy Inc. was inundated with calls, e-mails and letters complaining that the company was anti-American after acknowledging a Muslim holiday–“Eid al-Adha,” or the Feast of the Sacrifice–for the first time in a national advertisement. That year, Eid al-Adha fell around Thanksgiving, so the ad, a small bubble at the bottom of the page, appeared in the company’s Thanksgiving flier. Critics seized on the timing in their complaints.

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“It’s a very viable customer segment,” said Zainab Ali, senior marketing manager with the money transfer company MoneyGram, which ran a special Ramadan promotion this year for Muslims in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. “You just need to get over some of the fear and look at them as just another consumer.”

The potential for profit is drawing more companies to the idea.

This year, Ogilvy & Mather, the global advertising firm, started an international Islamic branding consultancy called Ogilvy Noor that includes an emphasis on U.S. Muslims. (“Noor” means “light” in Arabic.) {snip} Studies have found that a significant percentage of Muslims are better educated and wealthier than other Americans.

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“Mainstream is coming to halal,” Tahir [Joohi Tahir, vice president of marketing and sales for Crescent Foods, the halal chicken] said.

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For Muslims, the issue is not just a matter of convenience. Recognition by major companies is an important sign of acceptance as they struggle to establish themselves in the U.S. {snip}

Despite the sometimes unfriendly climate for Muslims, Evans [Abdalhamid Evans], of the World Halal Forum, said it is inevitable that a large number of businesses will reach out Muslim consumers, given the wealth and size of the Muslim population–more than a billion people worldwide–and their presence in the West.

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