The world’s most diverse annual pilgrimage is about to end in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Last year, numbers for the Islamic hajj reached an epic 2.8 million people from 181 countries.

The hajj is one of the defining events of the global Muslim community. Islam is the only religion where it’s compulsory to undertake a pilgrimage at a specific time, in a specific place, with specific rituals so that it’s in unison with other Muslims.

Any brand hoping to have an impact in the Muslim world needs to understand the power of this occasion in the collective Muslim consciousness along with the values it embodies.

Image by Al Jazeera English via Flickr

Engaging the ummah

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the hajj in Muslim life. When Muslims stand for their five daily prayers they face in the direction of Mecca no matter where they live. Not only does this create a deep-seated yearning to visit the holy site, it’s also one of many factors that bind together the global Muslim nation known as the ummah.

Ummah is a word that is often repeated in the Western media but which can be difficult to grasp in an era of modern nation states and defined borders. Like the hajj, the ummah is about togetherness, a form of global connectivity that disregards geography, culture and language.

The Quran talks repeatedly about how Muslims are “one ummah.” The traditions of the Prophet Muhammad explain that the ummah is like a body: If one part is in pain, the whole body feels it. Acknowledging this sense of collectivity is crucial for marketers.

Investing in the hajj

Devout Muslims will start saving for the hajj as soon as they can afford it. In some nations governments will support hajj savings schemes or set up hajj investment funds.

In 1963 the Malaysian Parliament launched the Malaysian pilgrim’s management fund as a response to unscrupulous operators who were targeting potential pilgrims, especially the poor, who may have saved for decades.

The fund now has 5 million members, and at 23 billion Malaysian ringgit it’s the world’s largest Islamic savings institution. It even bailed out large Malaysian corporations during the financial crisis.

It’s a simple, effective concept, but surprisingly it has not been adopted outside Malaysia, despite the prevalence of dishonest hajj brokers around the world.

This year Islamic banks in the United Arab Emirates have been offering 12-month interest-free loans to prospective pilgrims. The Sharjah Islamic bank says that offering this service “without any profit or fee is part of our commitment to catering to consumer demand for Islamic products” and to “products that serve the social, health, educational and spiritual aspects of society.”

In Indonesia banks have been marketing hajj savings funds as their primary product. Catering to potential pilgrims is a great way for banks – and perhaps other brands – to attract long-term customers while being perceived as community-oriented and Muslim-friendly.

 

Branding the hajj?

As pilgrims leave their hometowns, entire communities will be there to bid them farewell. In Muslim countries high-ranking ministers will often show up at airports and the media will cover various delegations of pilgrims as they depart.

Marketers may have their marketing ears perked at this point. Are you wondering whether pilgrims are handed out company goody bags? Are they given access to special branded lounges at the airport? Are there photo opportunities to have the white-clad pilgrims snapped in front of some corporate logo?

Not so fast. Pilgrims wear white clothing to erase all trace of worldly existence, to become a “simple soul” that focuses only on the spiritual. Any brand plastering itself across a hajj convoy risks a serious backlash.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for marketers, but they must be handled subtly and with pure intentions. Pilgrims will see right through veiled attempts to buy or brand the hajj.

One opportunity is to assist potential pilgrims for whom hajj costs might be prohibitive. This could be done by matching their savings, or even through a corporate scheme to pay for a certain number of hajj pilgrimages.

Another idea might be to ”sponsor” the family that remains behind when a pilgrim heads to Mecca. Wealthy individuals already fund poorer pilgrims. Brands can do the same.

The hajj is a wonderful microcosm of how Muslims feel connected to their wider nation, the ummah. The best way for brands to be welcomed into the ummah’s fold is to show Muslims they are willing to go the distance for them as well.