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Intercultural understanding with a lucrative bottom line

by Kiran Ansari
18 February 2013

Chicago – A Paris-based designer recently partnered with a Chicago Muslim woman to create a new line of modest swimwear called Couture Swim N’ Sport. Similarly, in the last year, 77 Walmart stores started to carry Crescent Halal chicken and the Ritz Carlton in Dallas, Texas now offers prayer rugs in its rooms and Arabic channels for its guests.

While these developments may not affect the spending behaviour of every consumer, it is folding Muslim culture into the Western mainstream, and showing that there are a myriad of opportunities for joint partnerships between businesses run by people from different faith and cultural backgrounds. This can lead simultaneously to better understanding and a more lucrative bottom line.

Even though some companies have made strides in offering more culturally-inclusive product lines, there are still some untapped areas of the market. The holidays, for instance, are a time when Muslims may wish to see Ramadan and Eid gift wrap or decorations alongside Christmas trees and menorahs. Some online stores have Muslim holiday cards available, but for the most part, major corporations have not fully tapped into this market. So far, it is mostly Muslim businesses that are catering to the demand.

Every company has expansion on the agenda. This means that if businesses want a share of this market, they need to adapt. And that’s exactly what some companies are doing.

With fashion, food, finance and travel the four main sectors where mainstream companies can target the Muslim consumer, home décor, cosmetics and other sectors are not far behind. Many Muslims follow a halal dietary code that is devoid of pork and alcohol and requires meat to be processed in a certain way. Similarly, while Muslims, women in particular, are not limited to dressing in just one way, many prefer loose clothing with more coverage for modesty.

While tapping the Muslim market has clear financial advantages for companies, there is also an added benefit. By catering to the market demands of Muslims, businesses may be creating spaces for intercultural exchange and inclusion.

“I used to have to mix and match different articles of clothing to be able to enjoy water parks and beaches with my family,” said Asmah Ahmed, the Chicago Muslim who launched Couture Swim N’ Sport. “Now, I have partnered with Vanessa Lourenco, a designer in Paris, to design something fashionable and flattering instead.”

Lourenco has no regrets. “I always get compliments about this business idea and I’m very happy with what I can offer the Muslim market as there is a demand in practically every country.”

While the explosion of online shopping has made it easier to fulfil orders from across the globe, the need to be culturally aware isn’t limited to brick and mortar retailers. The new “www” means “wherever, whenever and whoever” wants to buy; businesses have to be ready with the right product.

In most instances, the Muslim market is not an exclusive club. You do not need to be Muslim to enjoy farm-raised Crescent chickens that are fed a vegetarian diet. And you do not have to belong to any particular faith group if you want to avoid exposure to the sun or don modest swimwear.

As these products are placed on the market, non-Muslims are seeing the benefit too. Fifteen-twenty per cent of the orders for modest swimsuits come from non-Muslims, including celebrities like British food diva, Nigella Lawson. Perhaps that is why the Crescent halal chicken isn’t tucked away in some ethnic grocery aisle, but sits next to other brands of poultry.

In a world where technology and travel erase geographical boundaries, every smart marketer knows that the one-size-fits-all mantra is not going to work. By expanding product lines to cater to people from all ethnicities, there are options for all consumers, even those that hardly had any to begin with. By adapting to an inclusive market we are in turn giving our children a mini trip around the world right at the grocery store and proving that businesses can build bridges too.

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* Kiran Ansari is a writer for publications including the Chicago Tribune, Daily Herald, Halal Consumer and Azizah Magazine. She lives with her husband and two children in the suburbs of Chicago. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).