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Ramadan marketing requires more than simply pushing product

Brands need to get their houses in order and operations up to speed

Guests prior to eating iftar at Ramadan Iftar Restaurant at Ritz Carlton Hotel in Manama, Bahrain. Reuters
As well as gathering for iftar, many Muslims spend more during Ramadan

We are in the month of Ramadan. That simple sentence cannot do justice to what is not just the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, but a period of time that transforms the lives of billions of people. 

Over a four-week period, adult Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours. The aim is to focus on spirituality and prayers, especially during the last 10 days of the month.

As anyone with family in the Gulf and wider region will know, Ramadan is also a time for community, with the first 10 days spent visiting parents, aunts, uncles, siblings and anyone who can cook a good sambusa.

Ramadan is also known for its spending.

Consumers spend more before, during and in the holidays after Ramadan. That is borne out by the data.

According to research released last year by YouGov, 53 percent of shoppers in the UAE said they spend more during the holy month – especially online.

Any marketer is going to want to capitalise on this and roll out impactful campaigns that engage consumers.

Those who make this case for this also point to screen time habits during the holy month: post-Iftar television shows, and the accompanying ad breaks, are watched by tens of millions around the Middle East.

Today, there is the additional allure of the screens in our hands, and the multiple social media sites we access from our smartphones.

The notion of advertising throughout Ramadan has become so commonplace that it is, in effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The best period to buy a car is now Ramadan, thanks to all of the discount campaigns launched by dealers and their brands.

Likewise, it is a given that food brands see a spike in sales. The daytime may be about abstinence from food, but that does not stop consumers stocking up their fridges and larders.

But the picture is not always rosy for those engaged in Ramadan marketing.

Research last year by DataEQ on trends in Saudi Arabia did show that engagement between brands and consumers peaked during the Ramadan period.

But this was not only a result of brand campaigns, competitions and discounted product offerings, but also, more negatively, due to consumers venting their frustrations at operational issues at, say, a lack of response from customer service.

It may then be the case that brands need to get their houses in order and operations up to speed before going the extra mile and engaging consumers throughout Ramadan. 

And if they are hoping to connect, they may need to look beyond product advertising to delivering a more spiritual message.

For a number of years, Kuwait’s largest telecommunications provider, Zain, has used Ramadan as a time to release brand messaging that touches on bigger ideals.

While Zain’s adverts have been criticised for exploiting sensitive issues – one year they focused on refugees, another on countering extremism – they have also been successful, garnering a mass of clicks and views.

Maybe the question that should be asked is not if Ramadan is the best month for marketing. Instead, it should be how to stay relevant to consumer tastes, culture and religious themes without being controversial.

Whoever can answer that question will be worth their weight in gold to any brand.

Alex Malouf is a marketing communications executive who has spent the past 18 years in the Middle East