I just attended the 2015 Global Islamic Economy Summit, in Dubai and it was a fantastic experience. The hospitality was first class and only surpassed by the energy, passion, sincerity and friendship selflessly handed out to everyone attending.
However, two things that I think need addressing are the understanding, articulation, and execution of two key areas, which were weak in terms of intelligence and insight: Consumer Behaviour and Branding.
Consumer behaviour would take me a while to tackle - but in short:
Can we move away from talking about a target audience of humanity or mankind? If one of my students, for example, wrote this as an answer to an exam question asking them to develop a marketing strategy for a brand of water, they would get a fat zero. Sure, everyone drinks water, but I challenge you to launch a brand of water and hit people with the same message, product, price strategy, and in the same types of retail spaces. It's not even lazy thinking, it's crazy.
Can we stop talking about how many and big we are? 2 billion people - do you reckon you're gonna get them all to eat your halal certified fried chicken wings? And if we are gonna talk about how good halal food is for mankind and animal kind, why are we always giving examples of fast food, packet noodles, soft drinks and processed food? If we are so concerned with how we treat animals and meat, why do we end up honouring these creatures by freakin' processing them after death? Don't get me wrong, I love burgers, soft drinks and instant noodles - but I didn't live off them and score tries on the rugby field, nor can you talk about wanting tayyab (wholesome) food and trust that making it halal makes it holy and wholesome.
Can we stop saying Islam (in a business sense) and Halal are not just for Muslims, but also for non-Muslims? It's such an 'us' and 'them' mindset. Muslims all over the world are carrying their faith, hospitality, trade, commerce and friendship all over the world. That's why the economies are growing and some people choose to convert. Muslims are people and so are non-Muslims too. This is not like classifying animals by biological features - we have souls, likes, dislikes, emotions, minds, cultures, opinions, and free will.
Onto my next rant: Branding
Brands need someone who is in control, responsible and accountable for them. So who is in charge of Brand Islam, or the Islamic Economy, or Halal, or any of these industries? No one! So why are people making such bold brand claims? It's like chasing a mirage.
You can brand a person, product, service, experience, company, city, nation - something with a shape and form, and something that you can own, but not those things that I mentioned earlier. At the time of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) he was that person in control. He and his companions spread the message and they did branding par excellence. But you can see today what happens when Halal certification bodies and nations compete to lead, own, and be number one - people don't follow and play the game. That is because they are trying to own and control a religion and industries. Why not be content with building the things that are in the palms of your hands, and engaging with like-minds and spirits? Give consumers a chance to speak and businesses too.
Why can't nations rotate ownership of the Global Islamic Economy, like with the football World Cup or Olympics? Also remember that in the Qur'an it told the believers to unite with those who honour and respect one God - and in the case of Halal, the food of Jews and Christians is also Halal to Muslims too. Why then are more not invited to contribute in forums like this?
On the issue of what makes something an Islamic brand? This is implicit, explicit, or tacit. Digging deeper, we should consider some other factors (assuming that the entity does not contravene the rules of Islam): Muslim owned business, country of origin, location, Muslim majority consumption, Muslim majority employees, symbolism, messaging, financing, CSR policy, value proposition, mission and so on... Furthermore, some things will inevitably be more Islamic than others, but that should not be see as a problem - as an economy, community and civilization needs diversity, layers and depth.
Moving onto Halal - having established permissibility, how do you view these things and work out the blend of branded messages? Are you putting these Halal things in you, or on you, or around you? Are you transporting them? Are you processing or rendering them? Are they Halal by nature, or do they need verification and iterative checking through certification? Answers to these questions dictate what sort of branding you need to do, what logos you need, and each necessitate a different type of message - beyond, "hey it's Halal". By the way, a brand is not just a logo - it's much more.
Also, just because Muslims are global, it doesn't mean that you have a global brand or a brand that could go global.
Finally, just because there aren't 'Islamic' or 'Halal' brands that appear in global rankings, as has been framed, it doesn't mean that we don't have them. If there is such a thing as a distinctly different Global Islamic Economy, in theory and practice, couldn't we develop a new way to classify and celebrate global Islamic and Halal brands? To say that we don't have them, or they aren't there yet isn't entirely fair.
Here are some examples of excellence that we should explore further: academic institutions; charities; individuals like Yusuf Islam and other athletes, artists, musicians, comedians etc; Al Jazeera Media Network; Google having a Ramadan page; Airlines like Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, and Garuda; tourist destinations; cities and nations; Uniqlo having a hijab and modest fashion range; entrepreneurs... the list grows if you start to think a little deeper.
Anyway, why are we so concerned with being number one according to the usual same old tired ways of judging success? It destroys creativity, (halal) risk-taking, building to last, friendship and collaboration, altruism, and enjoying the moment. If we continue to apply some of the arguments being espoused at the event, then I don't know how we can move forward or get out of what may prove to be a rut.
I mean take Muhammad Ali, if he thought this way he wouldn't risk his career or brand. He would care about taking an anti-war stance and losing his boxing license and passport. He wouldn't talk about Islam and race issues. He wouldn't have gone to Iraq and negotiated the release of 15 hostages from Saddam Hussein. But he is regarded as the greatest sportsman of all time.
Success is what we achieve in our short lives, that leaves fingerprints and footsteps that enrich our fellow people, who will testify that we deserve peace for all eternity.