Opinion: Abandoning hurdles in the race for Halal Branding

Abandoning hurdles in the race for Halal Branding

By Jonathan (Bilal) A. J. Wilson, Senior Lecturer, University of Greenwich, London, UK

It’s official – everyone wants a piece of the halal action. If it’s for rewards in the hereafter, or revenue generation in the here and now: achieving halal status is something that many businesses are exploring. Halal, as a means for delivering competitive advantage, is considered to be an x-factor – which can help to expand operations, creating new markets and drawing in more consumers.

In the shadow of the economic downturn, halal has also been able to increase brand value, relieve constraints associated with barriers to entry, and stabilised fluctuating markets. Muslims, like other ethnic segments, such as the Afro-American Market, are seen to exhibit stronger signs of loyalty trans-nationally, which in some cases have acted as a catalyst to draw in wider non-Muslim communities. From this, it can be argued that halal presents an adaptation of existing management and brand thinking. The interesting phenomenon spearheading this now, is that the concept and nature of halal, warrants verification which is supported by overt branding practices.

Traditionally, halal was largely held to be self-evident, through the idea that the majority of things are halal, according to the Qur’an. Where matters necessitated further investigation, conclusions were rarely derived from branding. Instead, an assessment of halal arose from examining ingredients, the environment and the involved individuals. However, with so many products and services on the market, from so many sources, it is inevitable that branding becomes of more significance. Brands are conspicuous – they differentiate, inform and reassure.

Furthermore, whilst it could be argued that Muslim minorities and non-Muslim nations should have a greater need for such labelling and reassurances: in fact, this trend also extends to Muslim nations and Muslim majority populations. Halal fever has gripped the psyche of the Muslim consumer and it could be argued that businesses are also reaping the rewards of Muslim piety and risk aversion. So much so, that halal as a descriptor is being used for more and more commodities, services and activities. Without looking at simply ‘meat and money’, halal is even being used to describe, amongst other things: milk, water, non-prescription medicine, holidays, washing powder, tissues, cosmetics, websites, music – you name it and they’ll brand it!

The key questions now are:

–       How does halal ‘fit’ into the branding world, if at all?

–       What branding approaches work and can be used?

–       How much knowledge and how many practitioners exist, with sufficient cross-functional skills, to champion both the halal and branding?

–       Who sets the agenda?

–       How can halal marketing and branding move forward?

The race has started, but rather than there being a clear finishing line ahead, in many cases it appears that the finishing tape looks more like rows of red tape. This article considers these questions and takes a look at some of challenges currently being faced.

Hurdle No.1: Halal is not a brand!

Many discussions and practices talk of halal as being a brand – it’s not! Also, what is halal branding – does that mean branding in a halal way, or a brand which identifies a product or service as comprising of halal components? Halal is a descriptor and therefore can be termed an Ingredient Brand, but on it’s own it definitely isn’t a brand. Ordinarily, within branding this wouldn’t be so much of a problem, as we can see Fair Trade, Suitable for Vegetarians, Sugar Free, Organic and other ingredient brand labels. However, halal is more than a brand. Its meaning in some ways is being constricted by the constraints of current brand theoretical understandings – which focus on classification, identification and economic drivers. As will be discussed later, brands are far richer and more organic in their essence. A strong argument therefore can be made instead for a classification, which says Suitable for Muslims, as this allows for more emotive traits.

Also, there are already concerns that some products such as sweets, or noodles containing MSG (Monosodium Glutamate – a flavour enhancer) are technically halal, but the idea that they are linked to spiritual purity, health and goodness (which halal professes) poses problems in the minds of some consumers. As an extension of this concept, it would be interesting to see how consumers would respond if luxury goods and high fashion choose to adopt halal labelling for their products. Philosophically, an argument can be made for halal encompassing all of these commodities, but does such conspicuous consumption and consumerism sit well with Islamic ideals, which encourage control and moderation of the nafs (self)?

Hurdle No.2: who certifies what is halal?

If an increasing number of products are being classified as being halal through labelling, by who and how should this process be controlled? Are they specifically a religious, scientific, governmental, societal, or business issue – or more generally, a collective responsibility? If these issues are not addressed, then the knock-on effect is fourfold: (1) Perceptions of what is halal have the potential to be distorted, to the detriment of Islam and Muslims (2) Businesses may be hindered unnecessarily in their ability to market products, (3) Consumer cynicism may lead to the mistrust of certain halal products, without reason, and (4) Perhaps even worse, businesses could set the agenda on defining a core aspect of Islamic beliefs and practices.

Collectively, also current trends are leading to a worrying practice where more halal ingredient brands and certifying bodies are being continually launched. This can already be observed with some products, carrying more than one halal label. One brand of powdered milk, sold in Malaysia, carries two halal labels: one Malaysian and one Thai. It could even be argued, from a religious perspective, whether there is an inherent need for even one halal label?! Marketers and politicians alike would most likely argue in favour of this practice, as it offers, control, financial and strategic gains. However, we return to the same point – halal offers much more to humanity. Why it is argued that this is worrying, is because too many labels raises problems in the same way that too few labels does – distractions from core issues, barriers and restrictive business practices.

Hurdle No.3: Social and Branding Responsibilities

Muslims, whilst wanting to minimise risks in decision-making, through making safe and informed judgements, aren’t afraid to express their views! Single issue politics groups, tactical boycotting, social networking, word of mouth and cultural diversity, all are important elements in the lives of modern Muslim consumers. The challenges posed by this, are that businesses are attempting to market to passionate consumers, who largely seek conformity of consumption, but don’t necessarily consume in the same way, have strong cultural views and don’t like to be told what to do.

In contrast, the best branding at some stage looks to take risks – in order to differentiate a brand from the pack. Therefore, it’s worth considering how Muslim brand professionals are able to take the reigns, offer balance and set the agenda. The market can be grouped largely into two areas: conventional brands that seek halal labelling, and Born Halal brands that have a tendency to copy existing brands, with minor ingredient, cosmetic and name adjustments. To save the face of any existing products, I’ll illustrate my point with a fictitious example: The Namaz chocolate bar, which “helps you work, rest and pray” [think of the Mars bar (which does exist), with the strapline: “A Mars a day, helps you work, rest and play”]. Rather than marketing driving exponential growth of creativity, it’s recycling the same ideas – which will eventually lead to a decline in innovation.

These occurrences often also lead to consumer cognitive dissonance in many instances and are perhaps some of the many reasons why Muslim companies find it difficult to maintain a long-term competitive position. Namely: many brands looking to target Muslims take less risks and restrict creative innovation – maybe through lack of knowledge, or to avoid censure. The pressure becomes further compounded by the fact that adding the term halal now invites consumers to become religious judges and juries. Because, effectively halal labelling doesn’t just mean permissibility, it also says that the product, service and producer are producing something religiously pure. And, because they are branded as such, products or services could be judged and scrutinised to a greater degree, continually.

Hurdle No.4: A good brand is not only your friend, but also human

Brand practitioners and academics will tell you that humans are more emotional than rational. Following this, brands work best when they appeal to our emotional sides. Therefore, good brands are those that are as life-like as you can get them. They not only have identities, but also have complicated personalities, they seek meaningful relationships with us – and these are beyond financial calculations. After all, how easy is it to put a price on a friendship? With this in mind, brands are vulnerable and fallible, just like humans. So a key question is are Islamic or halal brands making a rod for their own back, because they are making claims that are almost impossible to live up to? Perhaps a better model would be for brands to aim to create an existence that profiles them as a Muslim. We all know Muslims make mistakes from time to time and we are ready to accept and forgive. Therefore, brands may achieve further acceptance and authenticity through: not preaching so much, relaying more stories connected with their own purpose and existence, making use of other emotions such as humour and compassion. This is perhaps also why some non-Muslim brands fare well when they decide to target Muslims at a later date, because they have first invested in relaying a wider range of human emotions.

Hurdle No.5: Value brands or value for money?

The halal market appears to centre on attempting the impossible goal of delivering: a valued brand, with the best of values, which is value for money, and for less money. An underlying feeling exists, both from consumers and some Muslim business, which suggests that charging a premium: is wrong and may not be received well by the market. One sales pitch being that born halal brands do not overcharge and exploit consumers. The argument here is that this approach restricts the necessary revenue required to build a brand and its market potential. Furthermore, this may hamper a business when attempting to compete on a level playing field – compared with other conventional marketing models. An example of this can be seen with some Muslim-owned television stations, which rely on charitable donations and are unable to then generate sufficient revenue through advertising. The eventual conclusions being that the product line declines (not due to demand), or cost measures have to be implemented, which reduce the quality of materials and working conditions. To undo such market dynamics and perceptions will take time and education – but ultimately this can be achieved through brand building, marketing communications and customer relationship marketing (which of course require investment and skilled execution).

Hurdle No.6: Halal for life, and halal on a large scale

It is worth considering how brands are able to maintain their halal credentials. For example, if an organisation at a later stage is found to be engaging in practices, which are deemed to be incompatible with halal ideals, beyond ingredients: such as running sweatshops and bad management practices – what happens now? Of course the argument should be that their halal status should be challenged. However, it is questionable whether the mechanisms are in place to regulate these aspects. On the same line, another area worthy of consideration, is at what level of output do manufacture, production and services begin to diminish in achieving halal exemplars of best practice?  It may be possible to certify, then deliver halal products and services in the beginning – but when demand increases, should a limit be proposed, which is dictated by halal ideas, rather than economies of scale?

The Finishing Line: What can be done?

For the reasons stated above and as a core facet of human nature, it is unlikely that all Muslims will ever be able to agree on one approach to Halal Branding. Debates continue to run over matters such as the stunning of animals prior to slaughter, the use of alcohol in fragrances, and even philosophical arguments against labelling alcohol free beers. The position taken here is that these consultation processes and such opinion sharing, should be welcomed – but it should also be assumed that they will carry on indefinitely. Therefore, stakeholders should be encouraged to consider that seeking complete control and consensus are divisive and energy sapping.  So, whilst in theory it is possible to discern what is halal and what is not; when something seeks to carry branding and certification, this becomes more difficult to evaluate.

The following are some suggestions of areas that could be explored in the future:

–       Further discussions surrounding the unification of certification practices and certifiers.

–       The role of country of origin and nation branding in communicating brand value.

–       Think tanks, comprising of religious scholars and brand experts, across schools of thought and market sectors.

–       Formal consumer-led watchdog groups, using social media.

–       Expansion and separation of halal classifications. These could be used to differentiate between products, which are technically halal and those that have additional benefits, associated with health and nutritional values. So for example, some products could achieve halal status, whilst others achieve a label classifying them as being Suitable for Muslims. In addition, scaling systems could be provided which indicate how much consumption is recommended.

–       A labeling system and marketing communications approach, which allow for ease of understanding by non-Muslims. And, beyond this, it has the potential to evoke similar positive traits. After all, Islamic thought would argue that halal resonates with all human spirits, regardless of their current belief systems – as all are created with the potential to understand, by Allah(swt). However, there still appears to be a paucity of understanding by the wider community, as to what halal covers – other than ‘meat and money’.

–       Specific academic courses which focus on Muslim Consumer Behaviour and Islamic Branding.

–       Further research into how brand theories can be used in an Islamic context, allowing for further application of cognitive behavioural psychology, to elicit the more emotional attributes of a brand, without going against the ideals of Islam. Following this, attempts could be made to launch emotive premium high-end luxury brands.

Jonathan Wilson can be contacted at: