The month of Ramadan is a very important time for Muslims and like all important festivals and events, brands view it as a great business opportunity.
However, branding companies and consumer experience design consultancies advise companies to balance between the business opportunity and the spirituality of this season and strive to become closer to the consumers during this intensely emotional experience to emerge winners in the long run.
Talking about the business opportunities that big occasions bring Aneesh Sharma, Brand Strategist, Landor Associates told Emirates Business: "Today, brands from far and near come to set up shop in the Gulf and the Middle East to take advantage of the lucrative opportunities here.
The month of fasting has a special place in the hearts and minds of Muslims. Just as the Christmas season is celebrated by most people in the West regardless of race or religion, Ramadan is a special time in the UAE for all. Special times call for special communication, whether religious or cultural.
Speaking to your audience during Ramadan is an important part of marketing departments' communication calendars."
Olivier Auroy, Managing Director, gsFITCH Dubai, explained: "Since the beginning of the 1970s, religious calendars have defined the promotion agenda throughout the world. Just like Christmas for Christians, Ramadan is a special time for Muslims. It is a time for praying and a time for celebrating. Ramadan symbolises values such as brotherhood, generosity, wisdom and care. Some of these values can be embodied by the brands."
The branding companies think that Ramadan is an excellent time for the businesses to get closer to their consumers through well-thought out branding activities.
Aneesh Sharma said: "If companies are going to claim to be global, they have to make sure that their communication is appropriate for the local market, and considers the unique needs and lifestyles of their diverse consumer base. Marketing during Ramadan can manifest itself in many ways from sending out personalised Ramadan greetings and gifts to select clients to putting brand awareness "Ramadan Kareem" ads in the paper.
"Ramadan-specific communication has a few benefits such as generating goodwill in the minds of consumers; helping local consumers identify with the brand, (especially with foreign brands); creating opportunities to augment sales in a typically slow period."
Regardless of what activities you choose, they have to be planned and incorporated into your annual marketing plan."
Auroy remarked: "Breaking the fast has strong spiritual connotations. Brands can become the privileged believer's partner during the holy month. Let's remember that Ramadan must remind us how good simple things of life can be and how grateful we should be to enjoy those simple things: the purest form of happiness.
"That's what brands always strive for: becoming the consumer's obvious choice, the reflex, a lifetime best friend. Ramadan can help build that relationship."
Joe Moufarrej, Client Director, The Brand Union, said: "Brands should use Ramadan as an opportunity to give back and spread faith. Brands should ask the question: What is Ramadan all about and what can their role be in truly becoming part of this holy month and help consumers experience Ramadan. Ramadan is a sensitive, spiritual time and brands must know how to balance between the authentic nature of Ramadan and the business opportunity.
"Rather than seeing Ramadan as a business opportunity, brands must see it as time to be able to create a relationship with the consumer on a different level," he said.
"We recently helped Al Hilal Bank, the Abu Dhabi-based Islamic bank, encourage their customers to reconnect with the true message of Ramadan, by engaging closely with its customers and providing a more personal experience to banking. This in turn brought about the 'Embrace Ramadan' initiative that chose a more low-key approach to put across its message rather than a big campaign," said Moufarrej.
"The big idea involved creating distinctive gift boxes for its customers and employees, consisting of everything needed to help them truly live Ramadan and what it represents. Inside the box, could be found a beautifully produced Holy Quran, a unique Imsakiya with all the prayer times clearly marked and specially created colouring cards for children.
"Also, as a reminder of the importance of being charitable at this time, we created a bag and envelope in which to donate any unwanted clothes and money to those who desperately need help. These would be distributed to the poor and needy through Al Hilal's partnership with the charity organisation, The Red Crescent. This is a great example of what brands should do in order to help their consumers live and commit to the whole experience of Ramadan."
Local versus global brands
When it comes to local brands having an edge over the international ones in Ramadan branding, the firms differ in their views on this.
Landor said: "Contrary to what we might expect, local companies do not necessarily have an advantage over international ones when it comes to Ramadan messaging. Consumers have come to expect Ramadan-specific messaging by all companies, regardless of their place of origin."
Auroy of gsFITCH, said: "Local brands are better placed to be the favourite brands during Ramadan time. Aswaaq, Union Co-op, Jumeirah, Rotana or Adnoc will be credible in the eyes of the consumers. They know what they are talking about because they are born in the region.
"They understand the way consumers think and what they need. UAE supermarkets can customise their promotions. Restaurants and hotels can adapt their services to Ramadan time and show how caring and flexible they can be. Petroleum stations can become a desired oasis when the sun goes down. Ramadan is one of the best times of the year to become the brand of choice.
"For global brands, Ramadan is an opportunity to show their understanding of local consumers. To achieve that they must transform their look and feel [design, advertising, in-store environment] and sponsor relevant events during the holy month."
Moufarrej of Brand Union said: "Local brands have an advantage over other brands because they truly understand their market. They have a better understanding of local cultures. They also produce more tailored and relevant brands for their local target audience.
"It is important for brands to get a good understanding of their market and their consumers. Research is essential for brands trying to connect with their consumers especially when it comes to embracing religious and special occasions. There's no space for mistakes in this case, any mistake can result in offending the consumer and hence loosing their trust. By relating to them and what matters to them, it is possible for brands to connect with their consumers and for the brand to be part of their life. It's all about creating a relationship with the consumer. If brands are able to connect with the consumer and provide them with the total brand experience, then they are more likely to form a sincere relationship with the consumer.
"However, as mentioned earlier, local brands do have a better understanding of the local market and therefore will be able to relate to the consumer more and gain edge over global brands."
Deliver on promises
Branding firms warn whatever brands do to connect with their customers during Ramadan, first and foremost they need to ensure that it always matches their brand values and promise.
Moufarrej said: "International brands need to be careful not to overdo it. They must show understanding, but not go overboard because it's less credible and less sincere. Brands must make sure that they don't take advantage of religious or special occasions.
"Brands should not use Ramadan to sell something, but as an opportunity to celebrate faith and religion with their consumers. However, it's important for brands at all times to ensure that whatever they do, it should always match the brand values and promise."
Auroy said: "Brands must be credible doing so. For example, family brands are well positioned to tighten their bonds with consumers during Ramadan. As a matter of facts, a majority of commercials show happy scenes of sharing during iftar. Big brands must be at the centre of the table when consumers break the fast.
"A burger can be tasty. But a burger will be even tastier after a long and exhausting day. Fasting will push consumers to buy more. When hungry, we tend to fill up the trolley. There are two things happening. One, consumers buy more when they are hungry during the day. Two, the women also buy higher quality products to look good during iftar with friends and relatives.
"For brands, there are two big opportunities: more quantity [increase volumes of sales] and premium products to promote [higher pricing]," said Auroy.
Sharma said: "Just make sure it's on-brand. It might be very tempting to host a traditional Bedouin-style hospitality tent for iftar, but ask yourself, is this style really my brand? Consumers have a specific expectation of your brand in terms of expression and style.
Imagine if Armani hosted an iftar tent—I'm sure you picture it to look a certain way, in keeping with the Armani look and feel.
Use Ramadan as an opportunity to reinforce your brand idea, not to confuse your audience about your brand," said Sharma.
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