There are over 4 million Muslims in the UK and, as far as British Muslims Arif Miah and Ala Uddin are concerned, brands aren’t portraying them or communicating with them anywhere near as well as they could be. That’s why they launched mud orange on the eve of Ramadan - a creative agency that aims to redefine and reposition the role Muslims play in the ad industry, as well as the way they’re portrayed by brands.
Arif previously worked as a strategist for Ogilvy and Ala ran a design business. As mud orange the pair will focus on creating campaigns that are deeply rooted in contemporary culture and showcase accurate representations of specific target audiences based on strategic insights.
LBB’s Alex Reeves chatted to them to find out more about why they felt mud orange needed to be born.
LBB> As you see it, where are we at with the representation of Muslims in culture?
Arif & Ala> In the West, we're slowly starting to see positive developments, but more often than not, Muslims are still shown through an orientalist or stereotypical lens. Narratives with Muslims typically connect them with terrorism and oppression, or they're shown in Arabian or subcontinent fantasies. The most significant representation hurdle yet to overcome is the depiction of the 'Muslim' person being 'foreign'. They usually have a foreign accent, dress and customs which completely neglects a true British Muslim identity.
There has been some progression that shows Muslims in more aspirational and authentic roles and stories, but these are few and far between.
LBB> And specifically when it comes to branding and marketing, how are Muslims generally portrayed or addressed?
Arif & Ala> The conversations brands are having with Muslims sound and look like recycled ideas from the 1980s. When brands are speaking to Muslim audiences, their approach is based on outdated assumptions which completely miss the mark. They talk to Muslims as if they're first generation immigrants who are insular in their own imported culture.
In the UK, we have over 4 million Muslims, with over half under the age of 25, and predominantly second and third generation. They strongly identify as British Muslim and expect to be catered to as such. During Ramadan, you'll find all the big supermarkets with Ramadan aisles, promoting every ingredient to make an amazing curry. But from a recent survey, we see that most Muslims want a variety of cuisines in Ramadan, with over 71% ordering take-out meals every week and the top meal being chicken and chips!
It's clear that when brands are talking to Muslims, there is a massive disconnect. They're talking to an outdated idea of Muslims who probably don't even exist anymore.
LBB> How would you compare the way Muslims are marketed to in the UK to in majority Muslim countries?
Arif & Ala> Comparing Muslims in the UK to Muslims in Muslim majority countries is like comparing cucumbers to courgettes. They may look similar, but they have completely different tastes. An obstacle that brands fail to overcome is the one brush approach to all Muslims globally.
In Muslim majority countries, their Muslim identity is inherent in their cultural identity, and so; as a result, the 'Muslim' aspects become a hygiene factor in the overall brand communications.
In the UK – Muslims have ambicultural identities as their Muslim identity both complements and is distinct from their British identity, and they can fluidly transition from both to each, alone. But brands don't appreciate this and will try to import what they see on the surface in Muslim majority countries, execute it poorly, which ends up being ineffective wherever.
A problem that exists in both majority and minority Muslim populated countries is that Muslim specific engagement is outsourced to non-Muslim creative agencies who fail to create strategies based on real insights. So, across the board, there is a lot of work to be done.
LBB> Why does the UK need an agency specifically for Muslims?
Arif & Ala> The UK doesn't need an agency specifically for Muslims, and we don't intend to be.
But there needs to be more specialisms, and specialisms need to be sought after. At mud orange we acknowledge that we have strong strategic and creative capabilities in the ‘Muslim lifestyle economy’ while also being well-acclaimed creatives who have delivered campaigns for some of the biggest brands in the country.
The reason why our Muslim specialism is at the forefront is to bring to the surface the need for brands to pay closer attention to cultural insights to create effective work. In our previous agency roles, the red tape in network structures made it hard to have cultural influence, so we thought: “sod it, we'll do it ourselves”.
The UK creative industry needs to open its mind, build its cultural awareness to facilitate outstanding and mould-breaking creative work.
LBB> What sort of brands are associated specifically with the Muslim community? And how could they be better served by the marketing industry?
Arif & Ala> I actually don't think there are strong associations between brands and Muslims, but rather, there are some strong category associations. These include Halal food, charity and more recently but still premature, modest fashion. However, an issue that continues to persist is the lack of association between Muslims and broader categories, which are lost opportunities that brands don't recognise.
Over the last few years, we've seen that the lack of category engagement has driven Muslims to set up their own brands to serve their own needs. This includes cosmetics, dating, finance, travel, entertainment, sportswear, gaming, health, and the list goes on. Some of these brands in the UK alone have opened stores on the high street and have seen online sales increase 80% YoY.
The chances are, any brand has a role to play in the ‘Muslim lifestyle economy’ – they just need the right insights and creative guidance to get there.
LBB> And how about general brands wanting to speak to Muslims. What are, some dos and don'ts here?
Arif & Ala> Before you start speaking to Muslims, take note of the following:
Be brave and engage: We've seen numerous examples of brands that engage with Muslims and receive an overwhelmingly positive response. The response is positive even when the execution isn't quite right because Muslims are usually so under-engaged that they appreciate the effort. So be brave to build a loyal customer base.
Representation within representation: 'Muslim' is not a colour, ethnicity or culture. It's a religion that's followed by people from all over the world. The easiest trap you can fall into is playing the Arab card, but in the UK the majority of Muslims are British Asians followed by British Africans.
In our launch campaign with MyTenNights, we created five adverts with five characters varying in gender, ethnicity and roles. It's only been a week since the launch of the campaign, and it has been hugely effective since each viewer finds the character they relate to. Acknowledge and appreciate the ethnic diversity and be sensitive to who you're speaking to.
Be timely: Understand what's going on during the Muslim calendar. Ramadan has just started, a month usually full of festivity which this year will be spent in quarantine. If you're a food delivery service, how do you engage Muslims during iftar time (the evening meal)? If you're a fashion brand, how do you cater to the biggest fashion moment of the year, Eid? Understand their calendar and needs, to then be able to engage them properly.
Don't be lazy: Do not import a strategy and creative from another 'Muslim' campaign. Just don't.
Don't go it alone: No matter how much you think you know, you need the right help to grasp the cultural nuances of Muslims in the West. There have been many occasions when brands have been ignorant of sensitivities and have completely messed it up. Get the right team to deliver the right campaign.
LBB> I'm totally behind your assertion that you want to be about contemporary culture. Why is that so important to you?
Arif & Ala> For us, not only are we creatives, but we're also part of the Muslim community. So, part of the reason why it's so important to us is that we're the target audience too. We're tired of being under-catered to and misunderstood, so we want to help brands speak and behave in a relevant and engaging way that actually connects.
LBB> You're launching just before Ramadan kicks off. Was that always your intention or just good timing? Why is it the right time?
Arif & Ala> Timing was just a natural development from our inception. We started mud orange late 2019 and took on our first integrated project with MyTenNights, which had a £500k Ramadan media budget. So, we've been officially operating (and yet to finish our own website) since the end of last year, but we wanted to launch formally in Ramadan, to coincide with the launch of our first campaign with work that we're really proud of.
LBB> I suppose we should also talk about the elephant in the room of Covid-19. How has that affected the agency's launch and has it altered your approach or strategy at all?
Arif & Ala> Fortunately, in terms of projects – we've got steady ships that are keeping us busy. We're also used to working remotely. We have project teams with a total of 12 people, and from the beginning, we intentionally instilled a flexible working ethos which has hugely helped us transition to remote working in lockdown. The only difficulties are when sending massive editing and review files over to each other, which means sometimes we need to keep the machines on overnight to upload the 18GB project folder!