A while ago, a photograph of a self-service laundromat in Muar, Johore, with the signage, “For Muslim customers only. Muslim-friendly. Leave your shoes outside”, went viral on social media. Otherwise an obscure signage, it triggered much controversy leading to a heated debate about the state of racial and religious harmony in a multi-ethnic society of Malaysia.
The signage by this Muslim-Malay owner was scrutinised in the perspective of religious and race relations and deemed prejudicial towards other ethnic groups. Contrarian religious opinions were given freely by Muslim scholars, non-scholars and the public. Johor Islamic Religious Affairs Committee Chairman said there was nothing wrong as such restriction was within the owner’s right as a business owner. Johor Mufti, Datuk Mohd Tahrir Samsudin, welcomed the initiative taken by the business owner because some Muslims were doubtful in using self-service laundromats. “If someone wants to do it, then it is a good thing because some Muslims hold doubts over laundromat services”, he said.
The mufti of Perlis jumped into the fray, criticising that the Muslims-only policy of a laundrette in Johor, was due to a convoluted understanding of the Islamic rule on hygiene. Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, said that the Islamic teachings were not meant to burden but to make things easier as reflected in the concept of “rukhsah” or concession in Islam. He described the move by the laundrette as “narrow-minded”, saying that the practice ran contrary to the teachings of Islam, which did not seek to burden the lives of its adherents.
Dr Asri clarified further that Islam, as the living religion, must exist in harmony with its surroundings. Muslims must not presuppose everything as unclean. “I wish to advise Muslims that if the origin of something is clean, and that there is nothing unclean in terms of colour, smell or taste, then it is clean. Any kind of over-assumptions burdening our lives is not teachings from Prophet Muhammad, whose intent is to make life easier”.
Interestingly, opinions among the non-Muslims also widely varied. Whilst some disagreed with action, many also saw nothing wrong with it as it was within the owner’s right.
The owner initially brushed off the whole thing, “This is not about being racist, or about any religion…this is business”, but later defensively claimed that he was only carrying out my duty as a Muslim. He maintained that it was his duty as a Muslim to adopt such a policy for reasons of “purity” in Islamic perspective.
The controversy didn’t seem to simmer down until the Sultan of Johore weighed in, “I cannot accept this nonsense. This is Johor, which belongs to Bangsa Johor, and it belongs to all races and faiths. This is a progressive, modern, and moderate state. This is not a Taleban state and as the Head of Islam in Johor, I find this action to be totally unacceptable as this is extremist in nature.”
But, like what the owner originally claimed, the act was not derived from religious zeal but was simply a business strategy or in the marketing term- a service positioning specifically targeted to the Muslims who care about the ‘purity’ of the self-service laundrette.
When marketing in today’s consumerism is overwhelmed by the flux of promotional messages, market positioning must be able to cut through all these ‘noises’ and reach the intended market with a strong impression.
First introduced in 1969 by Jack Trout in a paper published by Industrial Marketing Magazine, a positioning strategy is an organized attempt to create a distinctive or unique element for a company’s product or service from the competitors. A successful positioning strategy is to promote the feature which exactly matches the needs of the customer. Translated into an effective marketing communication to the target consumers, a company’s market positioning ensures the message resonates with the target consumers and compels them to take action into buying its product or service. And that was exactly what the owner of the laundrette seemed to be, albeit with a certain religious zeal.
Muslims market is significantly large and thus, naturally, you will see many products or services being positioned as Halal (permissible, shariah-compliant). There is a sundry shop in my neighbourhood (of which 90% is Muslim population) with tagline ‘Halal Mart-Gunakan Tanpa Was-Was’; and another one with the tagline, “Ayam….Segar, Halal, Suci”. Obviously, such taglines or positioning statements are targeted to Muslim consumers. We are similarly familiar with promotions of Halal pharmaceutical products, Islamic banking products, Halal restaurants, and many more “Halal promotions” all over the globe for that matter, which are narrowly targeted to Muslim customers. There is a UK brand of “Halal” beauty products with the tagline of “”Where Beauty and Belief Co-Exist”, as one of many examples of how a religious-based product positioning is a well-established marketing approach globally. This product positioning is not even confined to Muslims market alone but also to other religious groups, like “Kosher Meat” for the Jewish target market. Strategic positioning of a product or service based on demographic segmentation by ethnicity, religion or culture is a well-accepted approach to strategic marketing.
Similarly, strategic positioning is also targeted to children, elderlies, babies, female, people with dark or light skin, athletes, big and small body size, not to mention those directly targeted to various ethnic groups. These variations of market segmentation and the accompanied identification of target market followed by specific positioning are to create differentiation with the ultimate objective to develop a competitive advantage over the competitors.
In this light, what is wrong with the value propositioning by that particular laundrette? For one, this laundrette has outrightly disallowed the ‘non-target market’ from using the services based on religion. The owner instead, for example, has the choice to simply put a notice on the Do’s and Don’ts, like what is common practice elsewhere, to safeguard certain aspects of the facility in order to bring peace of mind to customers with peculiar concerns on hygienic practices.
Hence, in the case of this laundrette, the action cannot really be argued as an acceptable marketing practice as it grossly violated marketing ethics by undermining other religious or ethnic groups. Responsible marketers should consider the ethical implications of any marketing strategies being implemented. A marketing activity that can create a certain disharmony within the society, despite no violation of any laws, has obviously crossed the line of ethical marketing behaviour.
Consumers’ peculiarities coming from different nationalities, ethnicities, culture, and etcetera may provide justification for market segmentation, targeting and positioning, but marketers should not use them to camouflage any racial or religious prejudice. Market profiling for the purpose of marketing strategy does not or should not create a negative impact on consumerism.