When Whole Foods Market partnered with Saffron Road, a premium halal food company based in Stamford, Conn., to promote Ramadan earlier this year, it marked the first time in the U.S. that a grocery retailer has reached out and acknowledged Muslim consumers on a nationwide level.
While this campaign may herald the future of advertising to Muslim Americans, Muslim consumers already are acknowledged in Europe, France, Southeast Asia and Indonesia, the largest population of Muslims on earth.
Saffron Road's sales grew 300 percent across its retail partners during Ramadan, from August 1 to 29, as a result of a price promotion at Whole Foods and other retailers, a partnership with blogger Yvonne Maffei of My Halal Kitchen and savvy social media use to engage Muslim consumers. Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims, is a time for reflection, community and fasting (from dawn to sunset). Muslims still eat two meals a day, breaking the fast with iftar after sunset.
While retail promotions for holidays and seasons are not new, Saffron Road and Whole Foods' nationwide promotion drew some unwanted attention from right-wing, anti-Muslim bloggers. But it wasn't until press incorrectly reported on the situation that consumers became concerned. Media said Whole Foods was pulling the Ramadan promotion, which it wasn't.
"The perception was they [Whole Foods] were allowing themselves to be swayed by right-wing activists," said Jack Acree, executive vice president of Saffron Road. "That's not what happened. Whole Foods said they don't promote any holiday as much as they do create an awareness of it." Saffron Road and Whole Foods followed up with reassurance through their social media channels that the price promotion would last throughout Ramadan.
In addition to raising awareness among Muslim consumers about Saffron Road and Whole Foods' halal products, the campaign also highlighted the tenets of Halal and how they overlap with those of core naturals consumers, Acree said. "Eighty-five percent of our products are certified gluten free, another key call-out in the natural channel," he said, noting that 70 percent of Saffron Road's consumer base is non-Muslim.
What is Halal?
In Arabic, halal means "permitted," so halal foods are those that are permitted for a Muslim diet. Halal not only takes into account the life cycle of an animal—humane treatment, antibiotic-free diets and minimizing pain during slaughter, for example—but also prohibits eating foods that are unnatural, such as those that contain artificial colors and ingredients. Saffron Road's frozen entrees, chicken nuggets and broths are certified Halal by the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, the leading halal-food certification organization in North America.
Why market to American Muslims?
As evinced by Saffron Road's campaign, "it's clear that Muslim consumers are starved for acknowledgement from retailers and brands," said Lisa Mabe, principal of Hewar Social Communications, a consulting firm that works with Saffron Road. "It's a major form of validation when major brands go out of their way to acknowledge [Muslim consumers]."
There are an estimated 8 million American Muslims with $200 billion in disposable spending power. Although this number is dwarfed by that of other multicultural groups, such as Hispanic Americans with $1 trillion in spending power, the religion is the fastest growing in the world, accounting for about 20 percent of the global population, Mabe said. And so far, "in the U.S., it's pretty hard to find halal food options if you're a Muslim consumer trying to adhere to a halal dietary lifestyle," she said.
Research from JWT Intelligence found that Muslims are willing to spend more money for halal products, because they understand the products cost more to produce. They are also persuaded more by brand names than price, so brands that reach out to and connect with consumers as Saffron Road has may gain lifetime customers.
And even though someone may not identify with a particular religion, a lot of nonreligious consumers are looking to kosher and halal foods with the perception that they're higher quality and better products, Mabe said.
Saffron Road debuted its halal products last year, also during the Ramadan timeframe, in Whole Foods. The small company, comprised of six full-time employees, two of whom are Muslim, has grown significantly in one year due in part to targeting the underserved Muslim population. Now, Saffron Road is distributed in Sunflower Farmers Market and Earth Fare and in the natural section of Kroger, Wegmans Food Markets and Central Market, to name a few.