The path from a brand to a consumer has effectively broadened and shortened, thanks to social media.
The explosion of digital connectivity in recent years has given way to multitude of mediums, that have morphed into playgrounds of connectivity, engagement, and often, influence. The 'consumer engagement' rule book has changed, too.
For corporates, the social media phenomenon has cut both ways. While it has enabled tens of thousands of potential consumers to be drawn in, it has also empowered the same people to exercise their voices and, by extension, their consumer power, aligned with their values and leanings.
Social media's uptake has rightfully resulted into more than just brand building. Take the Gaza conflict, for example. Consumer brands that took to social media to lent support to Israel found themselves in a spot of bother among a vast group of users, and perhaps strugge to weather the storm unscathed.
The McDonald’s saga is a case in itself. When the Israeli franchise announced on Instagram that it was offering free meals to soldiers, Middle Eastern franchises were voicing their support for Gaza, trying to distance themselves from their Israeli peer. McDonald’s UAE took to social media on more than one occasion to clarify that ‘McDonald’s Corporation is not funding or supporting any governments involved in this conflict’. The Pakistani franchise recently slashed product prices, and though no reason was attributed to price adjustments, it is widely assumed that the strategy was to win back customers amid calls to wield economic pressure and shun the brand.
“By nature, social media enables the creation of communities. These communities can leverage their combined purchasing power and strength of voice in advocacy to influence change in social, environmental and political arenas. Even if these desired changes don't occur immediately, the pressure from advocacy groups on social media can lead to significant changes in how organisations are perceived in the long run,” explains Amena Khan, a UK-based social media influencer.
British retailer Marks & Spencer posted an Instagram photo of paper party hats - resembling colours of the Palestinian flag - burning in a fireplace as part of its Christmas Clothing and Home advert. The post shared in the middle of the conflict, bore considerable criticism, prompting the firm to pull it down.
The retail giant, which also has a Middle Eastern presence, later attempted to disarm its followers by stating the advert was shot in August. It would be interesting to see how the move will undo the brand’s reputational dent, if any.
Starbucks and the union that represents its workers, sued each other over a social media post on the Gaza conflict. The CEO of Mercedes-Benz announced (on LinkedIn) the company’s pledge to donate one million euros for assistance to Israeli EMS (emergency medical services) organization, United Hatzalah, and the German Red Cross, potentially disengaging Muslim consumers.
“In the perspective of companies, they need to carefully manage their public relations, whether they operate locally or internationally. The commitment to civil rights and peace will generate a positive public image. Another thing to consider is that conflicts can also create huge attention on social media and other digital activism, where the power of netizen can exert pressure on companies or brands to stand position or change their behaviour,” Dr Fertiana Santy, MPPM, CM - policy & political analyst - ministry of religious affairs, Republic of Indonesia tells Salaam Gateway.
On the flipside, companies harbouring pro-Palestinian postures into the teeth of the gale, have backed themselves with strong undertakings. UK’s The Farmhouse decommissioned the sale of PepsiCo and Coca-Cola products due to ‘their association with the current genocide’, the restaurant wrote on Instagram. The standout feature in the post was the brand’s call to action, encouraging others to join the cause on humanitarian grounds, making it bigger than a religious stand-off.
Huda Kattan, beauty mogul and founder of cosmetics brand Huda Beauty, has not only lent her voice to the plight of the Palestinians but also dug into her pockets, announcing a $1 million contribution to Gaza relief efforts.
It is understandable why social media’s star is in the ascendant. Its playground is big, and increasingly growing.
As of January, 4.76 billion people - 59.4% of the world’s 8.01 billion people - were active social media users, according to We are Social’s Digital 2023 Global Overview report.
Muslim-majority countries, including the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Lebanon, and Oman, held the highest rate of social media usage vis-à-vis their population during the same month. Slightly more than a quarter (27.3%) of the respondents found inspiration for things to purchase as their top reason to use social media, while 25.9% to find products to buy, according to the study. Meanwhile, 22.7% people use social media to view content from their favourite brands.
Its profitable, too. According to LinkedIn, 78% of social sellers outsell peers who don’t deploy social media, while social selling leaders are 51% more likely to meet their sales quota.
If global brands are to deploy social media for corporate messaging and market capture that cuts through nationalities and ethnicities, it has to be responsible, timely and cognizant. Seemingly prioritising a cohort of consumers over another set is not just myopic but largely against the broader spirit of consumerism.
Halal brands to enter the arena
Halal brands must strategize beyond the realm of religion to appeal to a wider consumer berth. This would help build on their Muslim consumer base, as well as expand beyond it to beckon non-Muslim customers that feel strongly on elements of health, social justice, and peace.
“Western brands may face consumer backlash when the customers perceive that the government where the brand originally comes from is acting arbitrarily and unfairly or supports insulting respected religious figures. Muslim consumers may start to switch their consumptions from Western fashion brands or non-halal cosmetics to modest fashion and halal cosmetics which have same excellence,” adds Dr Santy.
Brands and corporations have used social media for mass appeal and greater visibility, and consumers, for lending credence to their dollars and their voices. The power in knowing that opinions hold currency and can be converted into something tangible, has turned social media into a potent tool in more ways than one. Halal products companies must use it to their advantage.
"Social media campaigns for halal industry brands can resonate globally by tapping into the pain points often faced by consumers wishing to purchase halal products but find that they have to compromise or skip out on certain products and services. These campaigns should also be culturally sensitive and take into account diverse backgrounds of consumers within the halal market, perhaps even aligning with suitable influencers to act as ambassadors for the product or service being offered," explains Khan.
"As with any excellent social campaign, it's important to create engaging visual content, authentic storytelling, and inclusive language to build a relatable and trustworthy brand image. Educational content about halal practices and certifications demystifies misconceptions and builds global trust."