The past year has been marked by economic instability, populist politicians, and a refugee wave which is changing the face of politics in Europe. The migrant crisis in particular is exacerbating xenophobia and 'a clash of values' between Europe's secular, liberal laws and culture, and the patriarchal and religiously conservative worldviews that some refugees bring with them. Questions are being raised about how these countries plan to assimilate migrants, particularly Muslims, amid rising concerns about organised crime, the threat of radicalisation and terrorism.
Here are five lessons on what marketers can do better
1. Amid rising polarisation in society, brands need to promote tolerance
Increasingly, views and attitudes towards Muslim minorities are politically charged. In India, Hindu nationalist factions have fuelled tensions between communities on issues of inter-marriage, consumption of beef, and fertility rates.
The mood of our times is such that brands can't stay removed from what's going on in society, but they do need to play a constructive role in it. Last year, Shazé, a lifestyle and accessories brand in India that stands for bold self-expression took a stand against rising intolerance. At a time when most brands would rather self-censor or gloss over for fear of being singled out, Shaze made a political statement against those that fanned the flames of hatred with quickly pronounced harsh judgments. Implicit in Shaze's message was that everyone has the right to express themselves freely, to have different moral values, and to respect one another's differences without constraining their choices.
The need for positive imagery and role models
It's easy to vilify and label a community when their behaviours, values, and attitudes are different from yours. History has shown us the perils of that approach. More than ever, Muslims need role models they can identify with - from sports, music, and entertainment to the arts, business, politics, and government.
Bollywood, within its secular framework, has been able to throw up some figures -- actor Aamir Khan is the sensitive voice for the marginalised. Azim Premji is probably India's richest Muslim, but once again, his success is defined in business, not religious terms. In cricket, there are the Pathan brothers. In music, there is A R Rahman, and in sports, there's Sania Mirza. They are people who are in equal parts proud Muslim, proud Indian, and proud professional. They stand counter to the stereotype of the fanatic that many believe represent the average Muslim.
Role models need to set an example to others -- that it's possible to achieve success with hard work, drive, and passion. They need to use their privileged position to reinforce universal values. In choosing appropriate role models, brands could show that it's possible to be both Indian or European, and Muslim, without there being a contradiction between the two.
Tap into the angst minorities feel - practise affirmative action
In India, Muslims still face the kind of deep-rooted discrimination and prejudice that keeps them from getting jobs, starting businesses, admitting their toddlers to schools of their choice, and finding homes. They endure lower levels of education, income, political representation, and government jobs than Hindus.
All the more reason for brands to practise affirmative action, be more inclusive and accessible. Schools, universities, and the workplace need to foster greater diversity. Companies shouldn't discriminate on the basis of religion in their hiring decisions, they could play a proactive role in skilling them. Content needs to show greater diversity with more nuanced storylines for Muslims. It shouldn't typecast Muslims as terrorists, gangsters, backward, or regressive. Residential brands could address the issue of discrimination faced by Muslims to buy or rent apartments.
Empower Muslim women
Muslim women are not just marginalised within their community, but also in the wider gender debate. Even when brands have taken on gender empowerment issues, including some of the most celebrated brands, they have inadvertently failed to represent Muslim women.
In 2015, Procter & Gamble won a Cannes Glass Lion for gender-equality category for its 'Touch the Pickle' campaign for sanitary protection brand Whisper. Yet, neither Whisper, nor any other sanitary protection brand has addressed the discrimination that temples and mosques routinely practise when women are menstruating.
For instance, the Sabarimala temple in Kerala says, since it is impossible to know whether a woman is menstruating, it has banned all women aged between 10 and 50. The famous Muslim shrine of Haji Ali in south Mumbai has banned women from entering the inner chambers of the mosque when they are menstruating. It's important for brands more than ever to include Muslim women in conversations on gender. They need to empower Muslim women to fight for equal rights, freedom of movement, and opportunity.
Respect people's religious sensitivities
Free speech is often contested in India. Violence ignited by the written word, videos, movies, images, or songs deemed "blasphemous" or "insulting" by orthodox factions has long been a reality. While limits shouldn't be placed on freedom of speech, brands do need to be respectful of people's religious sensitivities and not incite them to violence. More importantly, brands need to encourage a respect for ideas and rational inquiry. Of course, people are free to air their grievances, but they must do so peacefully.
In her essay, 'How Great Companies Think Differently', Rosabeth Moss Kanter argues that the value that a brand creates should be measured not just in terms of short-term profits, but also in terms of how it sustains the conditions that allow it to flourish over time. That is why it is crucial that brands play a role in managing and integrating Muslims into society.
Brands command enormous resources that influence the world for better or worse. They are an intrinsic part of society just like family, government, and religion. Great brands work to make money and sell products, of course, but in their choices of how to do so, they invest in the future while being aware of the need to build people and society.
(Sonya Misquitta is AVP, Planning, GREY group. This is the abridged version of an article that recently won WPP's Atticus Award.)