USA: Whole Foods’ Ramadan Marketing Headaches

By Neal Ungerleider, Fast Company

Whole Foods is encountering a not entirely unforeseen headache during their first Ramadan marketing campaign: Pressure from anti-Muslim bloggers and internal dissent at their company.

A pioneering Ramadan marketing campaign at Whole Foods has turned into a headache thanks to a handful of vocal anti-Muslim bloggers. The Houston Press leaked an internal company email claiming “it would be best” if Whole Foods did not observe Ramadan in-store, leading to widespread blowback from angry customers who supported the promotion.

Several weeks ago, Whole Foods became the first major American supermarket chain to launch a Ramadan campaign, with a pilot, online-only marketing project conducted in collaboration with frozen food brand Saffron Road. The campaign is still taking place and has not been canceled, according to Liz Burkhart of Whole Foods. Burkhart added that it was “business as usual” for the promotion and that the company is excited about the promotion. Lisa Mabe, a spokesperson for Saffron Road, also confirms the campaign is still on.

However, some people in the chain were not excited about the promotion… at least in the right way. The leaked email, published in the Houston Press by Katharine Shilcutt, has been confirmed as originating in Whole Foods’ regional office for Texas. Here is an excerpt

“It is probably best that we don’t specifically call out or ‘promote’ Ramadan,” reads a portion of that email. “We should not highlight Ramadan in signage in our stores as that could be considered ‘Celebrating or promoting’ Ramadan. […] We recently introduced a line of frozen products in Grocery that are Halal certified (meet Muslim dietary laws) called Saffron Road,” continues the email. “With the introduction of this line company wide, and the beginning of Ramadan last week, we posted a product giveaway on the Whole Story blog (on July 31) to generate awareness and interest in the products. Some people have misinterpreted the blog post to mean we are celebrating or promoting Ramadan in our stores. The misinterpretation has generated some negative feedback from a small segment of vocal and angry consumers and bloggers.”

Shilcutt told Fast Company that despite the email originating from a regional office, it also contained a company-wide section stating that Whole Foods is specifically “not promoting Ramadan.”

The Whole Foods Ramadan marketing campaign, aimed at upper-middle-class Muslim-Americans, was vocally criticized by vehemently anti-Muslim bloggers such as Debbie Schlussel and on right-wing online forums such as Free Republic.

This has caused Whole Foods an understandable headache that makes it easier to understand why they opted for an online-only Ramadan campaign that lacked in-store displays or print advertising of any sort. Despite the Muslim-American consumer dollar, courting that demographic means corporations are stuck between the Scylla of angry anti-Muslim activists and the Charybdis of uncharted marketing territory.

Mainstream companies have been trying to target the Muslim-American niche market for years due to special buying needs that show parallels with the purchasing habits of Jewish-Americans and Mormons. The headaches of the Whole Foods campaign constitute a setback. Ibrahim Hooper, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent Muslim-American advocacy group, tells Fast Company that “it is unfortunate anything to do with Muslims or Islam will come under attack from a cottage industry” of anti-Islamic bloggers and activists.