'Cos you gotta have faith goes the old George Michael song. Sure. But the rise of religion-based identity is a vexing issue - as recent events in both France and Australia have shown.
Should we nullify differences, or acknowledge and celebrate them? That is the big question.
The French government's controversial ‘no headscarves’ rule in public schools is a reflection of the 'nullify' school of thought. But people will believe what they have to believe, is what any smart businessman knows. So let's acknowledge that and create products to cater to their unfulfilled needs!
Faith based products
In September this year, Paris saw the launch of a Muslim-themed fast-
food restaurant - Buerger King ('buer' being the French slang for second generation Muslim immigrants from North Africa). The menu is standard but the waitresses wear head-scarves and all the meat served is 'halal'.
Then there's ‘Mecca Cola’. Launched in 2003 by French entrepreneur Tawfik Mathlouthi with a shoestring budget of €22 000, the soft drink cleverly capitalised on anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world.
Additionally, Mecca Cola tom-toms its commitment to donate 20% of its profits to charity - 10% to Palestinian children and10% to local organisations, wherever it sells.
Mecca Cola has spawned me-toos like Qibla cola in the UK and a 7-up alternative - Muslim UP.
What’s faith got to do with choice of cellphone? Well, with a little imagination it well might. The Ilkone i800 is the world’s first- ever 'Islamic' mobile phone.
The handset includes features such as establishing Qibla direction (towards the Ka'bah at Mecca, which Muslims face to pray) from anywhere in the world and automatic precise prayer timing with inbuilt Azaan (call to prayers). Additionally, the Ilkone i800 contains the full text of the Holy Qur'an with English translations -approved by the scholars of Al-Azhar in Egypt.
The phone was the brainchild of Saqer. Tellawi, a Palestinian telecommunication professional, who led a 2 ½ year R&D effort to develop the phone with the best technology, and highest quality 'Muslim' features. The product has been available in the Middle East since last year but was launched only in October 2005 in key
markets such as Malaysia. The company also targetted the 12-16 million strong Muslim population in Europe with a pre-Ramzan rollout in the Netherlands.
Other 'culturally compliant' products introduced by local entrepreneurs include 'Razanne' (a doll with a hijab) and Shukr Online (a store specialising in 'modest clothing'.
Does faith sell?
But are these ventures small niche opportunities which make for interesting headlines, or do they signify an important trend marketers need to take note of?
Ilkone has sold just 100,000 units in the past year, although it is hoping that number will soon swell to a million handsets. The lack of key features such as camera and MP3 player is likely to put off trendy young Muslims. As for Mecca Cola, although it did get off to a promising start, the brand has under 1% of the market share in its biggest territory - France.
However, the slow progress being made by faith-based products could have more to do with the limitations of the start-ups selling them, than inherent lack of market potential. But it’s unlikely that large corporations will actually use religion to sell products. And if they do, it will be cloaked under the garb of ‘cultural sensitivity’.
The Ikea store in north London recently asked TheHijabShop.com to design a ‘hijab’ with the brand logo sewed on - for employees who wished to wear one as part of the company uniform. A symbolic
we-accept-you-are-different gesture which well might attract more Muslim customers to the shop.
Corporations like McDonald’s have always taken cognisance of local dietary preferences - religious restrictions included. So, in India, Mac sensibly deleted pork and beef from its menu. Conforming to local custom, it’s ‘halal’ burgers in the Middle East and similarly, there’s a ‘kosher’ outlet in Jersualem to satisfy Orthodox Jews.
The new trend however is that based on demand from the local population, individual McDonalds and KFCs offer 'halal' items - in cities like Sydney and Detroit. A response to rising immigrant populations who, instead of assimilating into what ‘is available’, influence the availability itself.
Helping to 'keep the faith'
A recent report in IHT noted that “Global financial institutions, led by HSBC, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas, are now setting up either Islamic divisions or separate banks.”
HSBC’s ‘Amanah Islamic Banking Solutions’ are currently offered in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, USA, UK, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Brunei and Singapore. The ‘Amanah’ products and services conform to the requirements of Islamic ‘shariah’ law.
Muslims, with their very distinct religion-based preferences, form the largest and most attractive market for faith-based products. But ‘Born Again Christians’ are being targeted similarly, in the US. The entertainment industry, in particular, is looking at churches as a serious alternative marketing ‘channel’ to reach out to family audiences.
‘The Passion of the Christ’, which raked in more than $400 million at the box office alone was marketed intensively at churches. But then, the subject matter was such that the strategy made perfect sense.
But the recent Walt Disney film ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’ has nothing to do with Jesus – it’s about golf. Yet Disney held sneak previews at influential churches, promoting it as a film with “very secular, but potentially Christian virtues”.
Disney has also hired Motive Entertainment, which handled "The Passion of the Christ" church-marketing campaign, to sell the fantasy film "Narnia" to Christian audiences. Incidentally, many view the tale as a "Christian allegory."
20th Century Fox has gone a step further and launched a website called foxfaith.com which sells ‘family-friendly’ home videos to the Christian audience . A ‘church resources’ link offers downloads of Bible verses that are relevant to scenes in particular films.
It’s all a numbers game – greeting cards giant Hallmark classifies 72 million Americans as ‘Born Again’ and 14 million as ‘Evangelical’. Recognising the need to cater to this giant market, in 1999 Hallmark acquired ‘Dayspring’, a company specialized in the production of Christian greeting cards.
A CNN/Money report titled “The Financial Power of Faith” reported that religious-themed books now represent the No. 3 publishing category by market share, after popular fiction and cooking. That’s $1 billion in book sales – excluding Bibles. While in music, Contemporary Christian music (CCM) recordings now outsell classical and jazz music combined. 43 million Christian ‘rock’ albums flew off the shelves last year.
Even gaming developers are eyeing this lucrative market. Companies like ‘Digital Praise’ aim to provide wholesome alternatives to the gory games currently in the market with titles such as ‘Bible Games’ for the Xbox, PS2 and Gameboy.
The India story
Given the political incorrectness of the idea, overtly faith-based marketing does not really find favour. So, for example, instead of labelling themselves as ‘Hindu’, channels like Aastha sell on a ‘spiritual’ platform.
Of course, in the late 80s, Godrej Soaps did try to market ‘Ganga’ bath soap – hoping that its ‘Gangajal’ content would attract the devout. It didn’t work. Even though around the same time Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan was a monster hit on television.
Now the Sagars may have another winning idea on their hands. Shiv Sagar, son of Ramanand Sagar, has plans to build ‘Gangadham’ a 25 acre Hindu ‘theme park’ at Hardwar. Dubbed ‘Disneyland on the Ganges’ by the BBC, the park aims to recreate great moments in Hindu mythology through hi-tech rides, an animated mythological museum, a "temple city", food courts and a sound and light show. Expected completion date: 2007.
Last but not the least, there's ‘tele-shopping’ on late night television. Now, in addition to miracle knives and magical stain removers, religion-based products are being hawked.
Kader Khan is peddling ‘Allah ke darwaaze ka aks’ while Smriti Irani extols the virtues of ‘ShreeYantra’, invoking Ram, Sita and a host of other Hindu gods. Health, peace and happiness for just Rs 1999 (posting and handling extra).
All major credit cards accepted.
As you might note from the rather formal tone of this piece, it was not written as a blogpost. Was felt to be potentially controversial for MSM, hence sees light of day here instead!
P.S. I am not for or against faith-based products - simply a keen observer of trends.