Whole Foods' Ramadan Marketing Headaches

Whole Foods is encountering a not entirely unforeseen headache during their first Ramadan marketing campaign: Pressure from anti-Muslim bloggers and internal dissent at their company.

A pioneering Ramadan marketing campaign at Whole Foods has turned into a headache thanks to a handful of vocal anti-Muslim bloggers. The Houston Press leaked an internal company email claiming “it would be best” if Whole Foods did not observe Ramadan in-store, leading to widespread blowback from angry customers who supported the promotion.

Several weeks ago, Whole Foods became the first major American supermarket chain to launch a Ramadan campaign, with a pilot, online-only marketing project conducted in collaboration with frozen food brand Saffron Road. The campaign is still taking place and has not been canceled, according to Liz Burkhart of Whole Foods. Burkhart added that it was “business as usual” for the promotion and that the company is excited about the promotion. Lisa Mabe, a spokesperson for Saffron Road, also confirms the campaign is still on.

However, some people in the chain were not excited about the promotion... at least in the right way. The leaked email, published in the Houston Press by Katharine Shilcutt, has been confirmed as originating in Whole Foods' regional office for Texas. Here is an excerpt

"It is probably best that we don't specifically call out or 'promote' Ramadan," reads a portion of that email. "We should not highlight Ramadan in signage in our stores as that could be considered 'Celebrating or promoting' Ramadan. […] We recently introduced a line of frozen products in Grocery that are Halal certified (meet Muslim dietary laws) called Saffron Road," continues the email. "With the introduction of this line company wide, and the beginning of Ramadan last week, we posted a product giveaway on the Whole Story blog (on July 31) to generate awareness and interest in the products. Some people have misinterpreted the blog post to mean we are celebrating or promoting Ramadan in our stores. The misinterpretation has generated some negative feedback from a small segment of vocal and angry consumers and bloggers."

Shilcutt told Fast Company that despite the email originating from a regional office, it also contained a company-wide section stating that Whole Foods is specifically "not promoting Ramadan."

The Whole Foods Ramadan marketing campaign, aimed at upper-middle-class Muslim-Americans, was vocally criticized by vehemently anti-Muslim bloggers such as Debbie Schlussel and on right-wing online forums such as Free Republic.

This has caused Whole Foods an understandable headache that makes it easier to understand why they opted for an online-only Ramadan campaign that lacked in-store displays or print advertising of any sort. Despite the Muslim-American consumer dollar, courting that demographic means corporations are stuck between the Scylla of angry anti-Muslim activists and the Charybdis of uncharted marketing territory.

Mainstream companies have been trying to target the Muslim-American niche market for years due to special buying needs that show parallels with the purchasing habits of Jewish-Americans and Mormons. The headaches of the Whole Foods campaign constitute a setback. Ibrahim Hooper, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent Muslim-American advocacy group, tells Fast Company that “it is unfortunate anything to do with Muslims or Islam will come under attack from a cottage industry” of anti-Islamic bloggers and activists.

[Top Image: Flickr user Yeowatzup]

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

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10 Comments

  • Sa Ki

    In the article, it would have been very helpful to have had some context of what OTHER religious holidays may be celebrated or marked or advertised around by Whole Foods.  (One other commenter below notes this briefly...)  Without that context the issue of Ramadan stands in isolation -- we have no idea what the norms are. 
    As for the comment about Pearl Harbor, KKK, etc, perhaps observe these rules of posting comments:
    Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data, ability to repeat discredited memes, and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Also, be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor even implied. Any irrelevancies you can mention will also be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

  • mandinka

    This is great when will they offer a Dec 7th Pearl Harbor celebration for the Japanese, an what about one for the KKK, how about a dinner ware night  for Kristallnacht

  • Love4All

    I commend Whole Foods for standing tall in the face of hatred and embracing the true American patriotic ideals of diversity, inclusion, and justice

  • American Lover of Peace

    I would like to make a very important clarification and correction to this article -- as seen today on CNN and on numerous press releases, Whole Foods *IS* promoting Ramadan and Saffron Road halal products in their stores. They hold similar promotions for Jewish and Christian holidays; the promotion of Ramadan goes beyond religion to the issue of racism and bigotry facing the States today. Only one store was considering the idea of removing promotion, and such was never an idea from the company as a whole, as indicated on CNN.

    Thank you soooo much Whole Foods for wonderful promotion plans this Ramadan with Saffron Road!!! Whole Foods really is sticking it to the racists and bigots. We should all buy Saffron Road at Whole Foods to promote both businesses in spreading religious tolerance, one of our nation's greatest tenets.
    The memo saying Whole Foods is ditching the Ramadan promotions was only from one member from a regional store, and by no means expressed the plans of Whole Foods. This has been blown way out of proportion.

    Whole Foods *DOES* support Ramadan promotions, and Saffron Road's unparalleled success over only the past year only proves that the Muslim-American market is a huge avenue for business to cater to. Go Whole Foods for giving it to the racists!

  • pdxuser

    The anti-Muslim blogger ginning up controversy, Debbie Schlussel, was one of the bloggers frequently read by anti-Muslim Norway bomber Anders Breivik. She and her readers are not consumers and readers of the Whole Foods blog who randomly went apoplectic at the scent of a shish kebab. They are dedicated Muslim haters who were directed to the Whole Foods website to go hate at Muslims. They should be ignored, when not being openly mocked.

  • Ash Meer

    This is silly, its pure capitalism for Whole Foods to identify a need, a market niche, and attempt to connect with that market.  No one says that commerce should have anything to do with beliefs. Trust me, I am a Muslim and whether I shop at Whole Foods or not has more to do with the price and quality than anything else, it is a purely business relationship,. I am not so dumb as to think that a large corporation is concerned with anything but it's bottom line... as this ridiculous corporate insecurity displays.

  • Steve Jackson

    Looks like the biggest problem here is that Whole Foods did not "sell" this internally. American Muslims contribute to every part of the American fabric and their response to this promotion shows their gratitude when someone has the intellect and heart to understand them as more than a "cult."

  • Nickaos

    Yes please please show tolerance to the most intolerant cult on the face of this earth- CAIR is a complete and utter joke and those that really believe Islam is of peace is truly entranced by the governments obsession with making this belief system main stream.   It is not and if you do your homework and dig into the stories, and history of Islam and its beliefs you will see the true story.  The sad part is that there are many Muslims that do mean well and want to live in Peace but there is an agenda at hand and they unfortunately have to suffer for it.   Get a grip and to cater to what Muslim population? 

  • George Bush

    I'm sorry, did you have anything that could be construed as a logical argument in that septic diatribe?

    You are right when you say Islam is not a religion of peace. But guess what? I got news for you. 1000 years ago, you Christians (or zionist Jews, take your pick) weren't exactly following the teachings of Moses/Jesus either.

    If you want a religion of peace, try jainism. Now there's a REAL religion of peace. It's also, ironically, more cult-like than you accuse many (or all) Muslims to be. The very fact of the matter is Islam is comparatively the youngest Abrahamic religion on the planet, and it just so happens to still be growing up in a modern world where we look down on religious sectarian violence. But this wasn't always the case. I'm sure you're still pining for the good old days when we could just enslave the infuriating races. After all, that's the white man's burden right?

    You disgusting bigot. That's really all we can say about you.