USA: Halal of a Controversy

Last year, some bloggers gave Whole Foods flak for marketing to Muslims. Now other brands are hoping for same 

By Christopher Heine Ad Week

If bloggers want to blast Whole Foods Market again for promoting Quran-approved food during Ramadan, there’s a few niche CPG brands that might plea: “Could you mention us? Pretty please, with halal-certified sugar on top?”

Last year Whole Foods [1] absorbed anti-Muslim [2] ire from a handful of bloggers after launching a groundbreaking digital initiative with two-year-old Saffron Road. The partners had turned to the Web to pitch frozen halal entrees during the Muslim observance of Ramadan.

Not long after stirring up the blogosphere, the marketing brouhaha caught fire on Facebook, Twitter and other social sites, culminating with Saffron Road [3] chief executive Adnan Durrani on CNN, decrying anti-Muslim sentiment while at the same time providing his brand invaluable exposure. Saffron Road enjoyed a 300 percent lift in sales during the 30-day Ramadan period compared to previous months. Since then, Whole Foods has gone from carrying four Saffron Road products to 30.

As a result, the companies have embarked on another online-offline marketing partnership for Ramadan 2012, which ends Aug. 18. And other retail chains such as Costco, Publix and Kroger also have given shelf space to Saffron Road for the holiday.

It’s not exactly how he envisioned putting Saffron Road on the map, but Durrani can thank the torches-and-pitchforks bloggers and other influencers for driving awareness of the specialty food’s product line.

“There are bloggers who make a living out of [bigoted] writing,” he said. “But this time, they got squashed by the other side…It’s like jiujitsu. Use the weight of the opponent to your advantage.”

Fouad Kallamni, co-founder of Mina Harissa, a startup that offers a halal-certified line of spicy sauces, said, “I wished it would have been us. What it did was throw a lot of gasoline on a little flame.”

Indeed, Kallamni and other halal purveyors hope to emulate Saffron Road’s success in this burgeoning sector.

According to the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, the halal food market is growing by up to 15 percent annually and will exceed $20 billion by 2015. With that kind of money in play, brands are aiming to tap the Ramadan season—often by targeting niche content sites.

Retailer Midamar Halal is running display ads via My Halal Kitchen while paying to appear in emails going to IslamiCity’s list of 139,000 recipients. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based company forecasts a 30 percent sales lift during Ramadan. “Digital is a good way to engage our consumers and to reach 15-to-25-year-olds who may be thinking of eating halal in the future,” explained Sara Sayed, Midamar Halal’s marketing director.