In 2002, a Tunisian-French businessman named Tawfik Mathlouthi launched Mecca-Cola as an alternative to Coca-Cola and other “western” cola brands.
He did this against the backdrop of 9/11 and at a time of widespread prejudice towards Muslims in the West. The stated intention was to provide Muslim consumers with an alternative product. It was also a time when young and increasingly affluent Muslims were realising their consumer power, and Mr Mathlouthi’s idea resonated with many of them.
Muslim consumers also demonstrated their consumer power in 2005, following the publication of the controversial Prophet Mohammed cartoons in Denmark. The subsequent boycott of many Danish brands in the Middle East adversely affected these companies’ sales.
In recent weeks, the Israel-Gaza war has stirred millions of consumers around the world into wielding their purchasing power – boycotting products or brands that they believe are fuelling the conflict.
We live in an era of consumerism where brands have become intrinsic to identities. The choice of brand says something about its consumer. For youngsters in particular, affinity with a brand isn’t limited to just its quality but increasingly also to the causes and behaviours with which it aligns itself, and the role it plays in them. The consumer response to the current conflict, however, has put several brands in paradoxical situations that seem increasingly complex for them to navigate.
In recent years, there has been a greater push for more diverse workforces, and for staff members to be authentic and to bring their “full selves” to work. This has meant being open about what might be affecting them, creating “safe spaces” and allowing open discussion. This approach was cemented in many companies after the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, when businesses internally and brands externally made statements and commitments largely in support of Ukraine. The situation in Palestine-Israel is not the same, but a precedent has been set.
For businesses, taking a position is riven with risk. Workplace tensions are to be expected, particularly in diverse settings, but saying nothing exposes companies to misunderstandings. Employees now increasingly expect their organisational leaders to take a stand.
The conflict has also led to some truly Kafkaesque turns of events.
For instance, Starbucks and the union that represents many of its workers sued each other last month in a standoff sparked by a social media post about the Israel-Gaza war. This happened even as the company’s position was said to be alienating Muslim consumers around the world.
This is, perhaps, not as mind-boggling as the situation that McDonald’s finds itself in. A franchise in Israel said it would offer free meals to Israeli soldiers, while another franchise in Oman issued a statement about being Muslim-owned and that it was sending aid to Gaza.
Brands too easily forget the social context that they insert themselves into, something that British retailer Marks and Spencer recently found out the hard way.
This week, the release of the big brand Christmas advertisements takes place in the UK. Advancing the idea that people should maintain only the Christmas traditions they love and get rid of the ones that put them under pressure, an M&S ad showed an image of paper party hats being burnt on a real fire. The problem? They were coloured green, white and red – the colours of the Palestinian flag.
More than 13,000 complaints later – unsurprising, given that it was released during the ongoing bombardment of Gaza – the ad was withdrawn. M&S sought to explain the controversy away by saying that the promotional film was shot in August.
But to have no mechanism to judge a social media post in the current context is at best sadly incompetent, extremely poor timing and demonstrates a failure of being alert to the context in which an ad is delivered. Brands often forget that consumers are generally not hanging on to their every campaign and are, instead, preoccupied with the world.
But worse is that, rightly or wrongly, the M&S case has now left many people with a lasting sense that the company supports Palestinians being killed. Not my words, but this is what consumers feel, and that is hard for brands to undo.
Such mistakes are often rooted in ignorance, but in some of their subtler forms there are unfortunate traces of Islamophobia and a sense that the democratic consumer experience of Muslims doesn’t matter. There is also a sense that, by serving them, the company might alienate other shoppers who should be prioritised, or that Muslim shoppers can be taken for granted.
For example, the American DIY chain Lowe’s pulled its advertising from a reality TV show depicting Muslim-American families for fear of the “backlash” it thought it was facing. The backlash turned out to be a one-man band under the guise of the “Florida Family Association”, which was spamming them. But the company alienated not just many Muslim Americans, of whom there are millions, but a wider cross-section of American society as well.
But greater brand engagement with Muslim consumers is a way of acknowledging their purchasing power and possibly leads to their integration into mainstream culture and commerce.A Christmas ad, for example, by British supermarket chain Tesco that featured a Muslim family prompted joyful social commentary in the UK about how Muslims were part of the national holiday. Seeing them featured in such a high-profile moment cemented Muslims’ place in the national fabric.
Brands should find better ways to engage with customers. They shouldn’t just ward off the commercial and reputational risks of boycotts; Muslim consumers – and their pounds, dollars and dirhams – matter as much as anyone else. Muslim consumers in many countries could stand to matter even more due to changing demographics and their rising affluence.
Brands have a unique opportunity to encourage dialogue. For protesters from a wide cross-section of society, their buying choices are among the few ways for them to feel heard and believe that they can make a difference. Perhaps, in the brands they support or boycott, customers also feel it is one place they can’t be censored.
In 1824, the British activist Elizabeth Heyrick published a pamphlet calling for the boycott of sugar produced by slaves. Fed up with politicians thought to be appeasing wealthy slaveholders, she urged ordinary Britons, including grocers, to instead buy sugar produced by those who were free. This led to a drop in sugar prices and eventually the abolition of slavery. In short, consumer power was a contributing factor to a significant development in Britain’s history.
There is something resonant of Ms Heyrick’s frustration with the slow pace of change and her need to directly interact with retail brands and consumers. Two hundred years later, consumers continue to exercise their power. Brands should take their cue and engage with them.