By Laila Alawa
February 10, 2014
Growing up, I was always hard-pressed to find my name in the rows of souvenir key chains on sale at the many museums my family frequented. There were Jennifers, Sarahs, and Amys, but no Laila. I never stopped looking for my name, though, hoping that one day I'd see it.
With the recent news about the strength of the Muslim American dollar, I think that time will be coming very soon. Companies are beginning to take notice of a market that has, for the most part, remained untapped.
As Mariam Sobh reports, a 2010 study by marketing firm Ogilvy Noor showed that the Muslim American consumer market was worth $170 billion—a number that reflects a population of Muslim Americans near eight million.
With that comes a great deal of purchasing power, says Lisa Mabe, of Hewar Social Communications, quoted in Sobh's piece for WBEZ Chicago: “There are millions of consumers just waiting to see which brands will be smart enough to engage with them, and those who do will see first-hand not only their spending power but their brand loyalty and brand advocacy.” Missing the Muslim market today, she says, would be like missing the Latino market in the 1990’s.
In the meantime, though, the Muslim market is being pursued by entrepreneurs working from within.
With the heightened sense of identity and pride that followed the backlash of post-9/11, Muslim Americans were actively looking to promote a more positive face to Islam. Prior to 2000, items were for the most part imported from abroad, remnants of the homelands immigrants at the time identified more with. With the changing face of the Muslim American community, however, new needs and desires were reflected in the market. A report written by the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project revealed that two thirds of the Muslim American community is immigrants, but that has shifted over the years given the new generations of children that are born and raised American.
The shift, and accompanying attitude change, is reflected in the businesses that have arisen around the new demand. Suddenly, Halal food and fashion industries are flourishing, and it is no longer a struggle to find the perfect Hijab or some Halal-prepared beef.
Granted, many fashion businesses are still operating online, but the subculture emerging from the advent of Muslim fashion has been a community of fashionistas and designers that have only served to be the new role models and style icons for youth growing up in America—Muslim or not. Whiffs of Muslim fashion could even be found in the mainstream fashion trends this past year, with long, flowing skirts and colorful turbans—a spinoff of the more traditional Hijab that Muslim fashionistas have been developing for some years now—found amongst many mainstream designers.
As a Muslim American woman, I have begun shifting away from more mainstream styles and begun finding that options that appeal to me more, both in uniqueness and style, are options created and sold by Muslim American designers. What is the need, then, for me to turn to styles like Zara or Forever 21 when there are brands like Simply Zeena or Haute Hijab?
Although it remains to be seen whether American companies will latch onto this underutilized demographic, Muslim American communities have begun realizing—and proving—that they don't need a pity-party campaign launched by an American company. Instead, they are simply going after their community needs and filling what needs to be serviced. Is it possible, then, that when the time comes that more American companies begin to pay attention to this consumer market, that the community will already have moved on?
Even among American companies, only very few have begun paying attention to the value available in the Muslim American community.
Although it can be argued that Muslim Americans need and use the same products that all Americans do, the need for catering to our community is deeper rooted. Representation of Muslims in the media, particularly in product advertisements, have been for the most part reliant on stereotypes and geared towards the general American community—which can lead to ignorance rather than acceptance.
Furthermore, lazy depictions—or a general absence of depictions—means that a potential Muslim American consumer might feel dissuaded from handing over her dollar. With the growing Muslim American market, I have noticed a trend in which consumers are more picky in the companies they choose to support.
However, it appears the tide is beginning to turn, particularly among frontrunner companies like Coca Cola and Best Buy. Although there was an advertisement late last year featuring a Niqab-clad woman and her American soldier husband for a Snore Stop mattress campaign, less stereotypical portrayals are emerging. In the controversial Coca Cola Super Bowl ad, we saw a Hijab-clad woman and her friends among the diverse cast. In a very deliberate way, the ad told Muslim Americans that they were now a part of the day to day diversity roster. The resulting backlash came not from Muslim Americans—who celebrated the few seconds she graced the screen —but from Islamophobes upset over the fact that Muslims were portrayed as a normal part of American society.
In another, much less high-profile advertisement, Best Buy featured an Arab individual by the name of Mustafa. Implied amongst the message for a high screen television was his normalcy—and the potential market of Muslim Americans.
Perhaps a future awaits us in which headscarves are sold amongst other clothing in mainstream stores, where it is okay to be featured in an advertisement without backlash, and where Muslim American kids can proudly sport souvenir key chains with their names on them.
Laila Alawa is a graduate of Wellesley College, where she majored in psychology and education studies. She conducted a study on Muslim American perceptions of belonging during her work at Princeton University, and currently works for Unity Productions Foundation. She is the founder and editor of Coming of Faith, and her writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Guardian, AltMuslim, and Illume Media. She lives and works in Washington, DC.