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Whole Foods Celebrates, Monetizes Ramadan

Thanks to a new social media-centered marketing campaign, Whole Foods will become the first national retail chain to celebrate Ramadan.

Whole Foods has become the first prominent supermarket chain to run a Ramadan marketing campaign—and they're hoping Muslim customers will return the favor as they break fast. Even though Muslims traditionally forego meals during the day, lavish evening Ramadan meals could mean big bucks for the natural foods giant ... as well as brand loyalty from a demographic not traditionally courted by megastore advertising.

Whole Foods is teaming up with Halal frozen entree brand Saffron Road (who sell a variety of Indian-, Thai-, and Moroccan-flavored dinners) to host several promoted blog items on Whole Foods' website along with sponsored giveaways of Saffron Road food and supermarket gift certificates. Additional content for the campaign is being added by Yvonne Maffei of the My Halal Kitchen blog. While it is a relatively small promotion, it also marks a new benchmark for the Muslim-American community: the first coordinated Ramadan promotion by a national supermarket chain.

No in-store promotions for the campaign are planned, instead, in an apparent attempt to test the waters, the promotion will start online. The "campaign focuses on reaching Muslim consumers online where they are already having conversations about halal foods, grocery shopping, and preparing for Ramadan," Saffron Road spokesperson Lisa Mabe tells Fast Company. Saffron Road maintains a heavy social media presence and an ongoing charitable relationship with Whole Foods' Whole Planet foundation, and hopes the promotion will further strengthen their brand awareness.

There are approximately 1.8 million Muslims living in the United States. Of these, Arab Muslims are a distinct minority; the bulk of the population consists of African-American converts to Islam and South Asian (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan) Muslims. And 45% of Muslim immigrants report annual household income levels of $50,000 or higher—placing them squarely in Whole Foods' demographic.

Whole Foods' marketing campaign might earn them customer loyalty, but it is taking place in a market that sometimes exhibits anti-Muslim sentiment. Extensive Ramadan advertising campaigns have existed in Europe for years, but the Ground Zero Mosque controversy remains a sore point in many parts of the United States and large chains have been caught in the crossfire between Muslim- and non-Muslim consumers in the past. A 2009 Best Buy Thanksgiving circular acknowledging the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha (which occurred in the vicinity of Thanksgiving) drew the ire of right-wing bloggers, newspapers, and television networks

With Whole Foods' self-consciously granola self-presentation and liberal-, cosmopolitan-skewing customer base, they are the ideal chain to attempt a marketing project aimed squarely at Muslim-American consumers.

So, knowing that Muslims usually fast on Ramadan and wanting to know more about why a supermarket chain would advertise during a fast, we reached out to the expert—Aman Ali of the must-read mosque-hopping project 30 Mosques in 30 Days:

Ramadan is the Islamic holy month of purification, where Muslims fast (abstaining from food, drink, etc.) from sunrise to sunset. As far as the foods that are generally served at the meal, the cuisines are usually reflected by the cultures taking part in the meal. On our trips we've eaten everything from Indian food, to Arab food, to Pakistani food to good ol' fashioned $5 foot-long Subway sandwiches. The only real common item  is breaking the fast with a date, something that was a tradition of Prophet Muhammad.

Believe it or not, a lot of the major supermarket chains are starting to carry halal foods. Kroger carries Midamar meats, a major halal food supplier based in Iowa. And I believe Wal-Mart and Whole Foods carry halal frozen dishes from a company called Saffron Road. It comes in super handy for Muslim communities that dont have a local halal butcher but do have these grocery stores.

A lot of my friends in college went to schools in the middle of nowhere and it was basically halal chicken nuggets became their breakfast, lunch and dinner. In places with large Muslim populations, like Dearborn, Michigan, there are Wal-Marts and Krogers that actually carry halal butchered food there.

Ramadan 2011 begins on August 1.

[Image: Flickr user Laszlophoto]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter.