Ummah and the importance brand identity

Just a couple of weeks ago Ummah was a term only known within the Islamic community but now, in the UK at least, Ummah has become a buzzword. As a result of the Birmingham Trojan Horse story, people who’d never heard of Ummah are beginning to grasp the idea of a ‘guided community’. Sadly it’s largely for the wrong reasons.

Ummah, the sense of a group of people guided by the things they do and the way they do them, has no real non-Muslim equivalent. While it’s bedrock to Shariah law, and pretty well unquestioned as part of Muslim identity, it’s still a shadowy concept to most Western marketers. But the results of marketing based on Islamic values are evident in two major areas: halal food and Islamic finance, both of which have exceeded even the most optimistic growth forecasts over the past three years.

One of the most perplexing things about Islamic marketing, for outsiders, is that differentiation and segmentation are rarely applicable. Appealing to people’s desire to stand out from the crowd rarely works. Generational difference is almost insignificant when it comes to purchasing decisions (once you take out mobile phones, which still demonstrate some generational sales bias with younger Muslims being more likely to own phones and tablets and to use them for devotional purposes despite fatwahs declared by certain scholars against this practice). So why bother to create a brand identity that works with Ummah if classic marketing activity won’t support it?

Easy to answer. Ummah, as a concept, relates not only to Muslims. An Ummah, as originally defined, means any area which is under the sway of Shariah law and Sharia Ummah makes special provision for non-Muslims living within the Ummah. While this may sound like a lesson in theology, it’s actually a solid example of non-segmented marketing with concrete examples. Here are two:

  • First, as any brand consultant can tell you, a brand must be aspirational. The growth of halal food and cosmetics has shown that the ‘Islamic’ businesses that have demonstrated high adherence to halal have managed to grow market share into non-Muslim markets because the appeal of halal, with its connotations of purity and integrity, runs across all segmentation and addresses a universal human desire to know that ‘things are done properly’.
  • Second, Islamic finance. The meltdown of western banking institutions from Iceland to the UK, the failure of international banks, the buy-outs, mismanagement and bonus scandals of recent years have led to a resurgence of interest in Islamic banking. Not only are international Islamic banks growing in every area of the globe, the concepts behind lending and borrowing based on the principle of the Ummah and common welfare through growth have become attractive to small investors, pension funds and individuals alike.

Finally though, the Ummah itself is changing. Back to our mobile phone example. The Ummah is a single, lawful, nation, under Allah, based on the words of the prophet Muhammed. For centuries Ummah was defined as a place but increasingly it is now defined as a space - and digital technology is making the Ummah universal. From Sudanese sailors who have apps to help them pray at the right time wherever they are in the world, to scholars who answer religious questions online, to Muslimahs, Muslim women who run their online businesses from home to adhere to the prophet’s statements about the role of women, the Ummah has become international, interpersonal and intimate.

Standing outside the Ummah will become an increasingly high risk strategy for brands, whilst working alongside or inside it will require brand consultants who can harmonise brand marketing across many platforms and to different constituencies. Islamic business is different, but the differences are likely to prove positive to any organisation that develops a mindful and values-driven marketing strategy supported by consultants who understand the role of brand identity in the Ummah, whether the business is Islamic or not.