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Meet Generation M

shelina-janmohamedShelina Janmohamed, author of a new book on young Muslim consumers, says faith and consumerism can work in harmony if marketers drop the stereotypes

Welcome to Generation M: the young Muslims who are changing our world.

The numbers are big. Huge, in fact. Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO and founder of the WPP group, says this is “one of the 21st century’s most important economic forces.”

Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, explains they are “rapidly representing 25 per cent of the global population” and “deserve all attention and respect”.

They’re right. There’s a segment within a global population of 1.6 billion whose characteristics involve being young, living in some of the fastest growing economies, being increasingly middle class and being very brand conscious.

Brands need to pay attention to Generation M.

Generation M believe faith and modernity go hand in hand and that they deserve the best of both. Consumption in line with their faith principles is a badge of their identity. They are inspired by their faith to live a fully engaged life with the world around them. They believe today’s world can and should make their own faith stronger and better. They are proud of their faith and see it as a force for positive good in their societies and the world around them.

They refuse to accept the stereotypes about them. They also refuse to accept the constraints placed upon them in the name of their religion. They are inspired by their faith to address wider challenges in the world, and they do this in many ways: through religious devotion, through charitable works, through the development of arts and culture, through business and enterprise.

Their youth should be particularly attractive to businesses: about a third are under 15, and nearly two thirds are under 30. For Western brands in particular, seeking growth against the backdrop of ageing populations and slow global economic growth, the Muslim consumer opportunity offers a fresh space. More than that, Generation M’s influence will reach beyond just Muslims to wider communities.

This is a huge cultural and social shift at an epic global level, underpinned by politics and economics. The statistics are certainly eye opening – and that’s why it’s such a crucial business story that must be addressed right now.

But for anyone in the creative industries looking to get to the heart of the shifts, it is about more than numbers; it’s the human stories we seek, in order to build brands and to connect. And what a story Generation M is telling us. There’s a whole new culture in front of our eyes.

Too often, this rising culture and consumer group was thought to have been served by putting a halal label on meat products or sending out an Eid greeting.

That’s not even close. Communicating with this group effectively is not as simple as pasting on a halal label, photoshopping a bowl of dates and a pretty lantern onto Ramadan adverts or adorning a poster with crescent moons to celebrate Eid.
If only.

These young Muslims are actively incensed by both the stereotypes perpetuated in advertising and the lack of sophistication and understanding of a whole new Muslim lifestyle. There’s more. Generation M consumers want engagement all year round, not just during Ramadan.

Their faith affects everything. In earlier research we found that more than 90 per cent of Muslims said that their faith affects their consumption in some way. It’s not about religiosity or theology, but there is something here that means this lifestyle is holistic across categories. It’s what I call the four F’s: food and drink, finance, pharmaceuticals and health, and fun. Estimated at more than $2.6 trillion globally, with an additional $2.6 trillion for Islamic finance, the question for brands is: why are they being so slow to respond?

In Muslim minority countries brands are only just beginning to realise the opportunity, but it’s early days. In the UK, L’Oreal this month featured a Muslim woman as part of a campaign. In the US, the iconic New York City street carts The Halal Guys have been taken up for franchising across the country. One of Apple’s adverts opens with a shot of a woman in hijab running wearing her Apple headphones. Android, Jeep and Coca-Cola have all showcased Muslim women in their adverts.

Turn your attention to South Asia, and Indonesia has one of the most vibrant markets aiming at Generation M Muslims. Wardah Cosmetics is a leading name in Indonesia in halal beauty. Halal beer, renamed ‘malt’, is a thing. And Generation M women like Malaysia’s Yuna, Indonesia’s hijab-wearing X-Factor winner Fatin Shidqia and fashion designer Dian Pelangi, who showcased in London and has 4 million Instagram followers, are paving the way for young Muslim women to put their case in public for a change in their terms of engagement.

Even in the Middle East, where it can be easy to slip into assumptions that the Muslim audience is generic and homogenous, we can see businesses responding. From high fashion to halal internet dating, from eco-mosques to crowdfunding and social enterprises, this segment is alive. Most notably, the Dubai government has announced its intention to become the global capital of the Islamic economy and is nurturing small businesses to offer this innovation and sophistication.

Yet despite such examples of growing success, some brands initially find it hard to wrap their heads around marketing to Generation M Muslims in Muslim majority countries.

Unwilling to wait or be treated as second best, these consumers are setting up their own new businesses, to growing success. They understand the target consumer and are developing products and communications to suit their needs. That’s because not all Muslims are Generation M, and because marketing to Generation M requires that deep knowledge and execution. And this is particularly true for Western brands where subtlety and sophistication are particularly required to show to Generation M that this is about becoming a brand ally and not about exploitation.

The digital space is their home, offering anything from high fashion to internet dating to organic cosmetics. The internet has given them access to wide audiences and the economics of online has allowed their businesses to flourish. And, equally, having access in cyberspace to a vast array of products and services specifically tailored to their hope to live a full Muslim lifestyle has allowed Generation M to purchase these products and reinforce their shared Muslim identity.

Generation M is creating a whole new visual look. A new soundtrack. A new language. They are playful and humorous and aren’t afraid to poke fun at themselves. This is the case particularly among women.

In fact, if we were going to pick one face of our global future, she would be a woman, urban and digitally connected, and she would be Muslim. She is determining her own life and is busy setting her own agenda. Brands need to start reflecting a shift in her lifestyle in both products and communications.

There are some incredibly interesting tensions within Generation M that brands can usefully engage with, supporting these new heroes and ensuring they act as a friend and support in living their chosen lifestyle.

How should they balance the question of enjoying the good things in life through consumption, while avoiding the pitfalls of consumerism? How should they set up businesses, or seek responses from brands while holding back from commercialisation and exploitation? How do you drive purchase and premium products while avoiding extravagance? Or, thinking specifically about fashion, how do you assert the right to self-expression without veering into ostentatiousness or immodesty?

These questions become increasingly important when we look at their convergence – and often leadership of – global trends. Consumers more generally are seeking greater accountability and transparency from brands. They are looking for products more specifically tailored to their preferences. And they are thinking holistically about the supply chain – from whether workers have been paid fairly to whether communications are ethical to how products are recycled. This crossover appeal is built on the language of values to cut across differences.

What brands need to do next is to escalate the Muslim consumer opportunity up their list of priorities – but only if they can commit to understanding Generation M and offering a sophisticated response. The payback will be a segment of consumers that is increasingly affluent, young and – most importantly of all – is waiting for brands to whom they can offer their loyalty.

Shelina Janmohamed is vice-president of Ogilvy Noor