Last year, a YouTube video called “Somewhere In America #Mipsterz” sparked furious debate over young Muslims taking too much liberty with their faith. In the video, women in colorful headscarves pranced through forests, hopscotched along curbs and ledges, and skateboarded in high heels to the backdrop of American rapper Jay- Z’s “Somewhere in America“ track. They referred to themselves as Mipsterz – a play on the word hipsters, popularized by a subculture that started in Brooklyn in the early ’00s. They wore long flowing dresses, leopard print tights and funky sunglasses. They flashed proud smiles directly at the camera and, just like hipsters, they were flaunting their individuality. Predominantly female and espousing a mentality of open-mindedness, they are called Mipsterz or “hipsters in hijabs” in the West and, in Southeast Asia, “hijabers”.
But, how do we refer to them in the Middle East? We are aware that there is an emerging fashion-conscious group of modern Muslim and Arab women – such as those whose hot pink shoes peek out from below their abayas (traditional Muslim over-garments) – as well as Arab men writing socially conscious rap lyrics. However, new studies are bringing to light a whole new segment of young Arabs and Muslims that bear a close resemblance to Mipsters abroad and, although, right now, it appears easiest to use, the Mipster denomination will likely require fine-tuning in the future, as the segment gets further adapted and honed to the specifications and differences of the Middle East versus the West.
In a recent report, entitled: In the Name of Faith and Fun, JWT MEA’s head of brand intelligence, Mennah Ibrahim, and her team investigates the evolving Mipsterz segment and phenomenon in the Middle East. “They are out there enjoying life in every way they can without breaking religious codes. So, can they have a career? Yes. Can they be fashionable and trendy? Yes. Can they go out there and date without breaking religious codes? Yes,” asserts Ibrahim. “This group of moderate Muslims just suddenly decided to embrace life, break stereotypes around them and create the transformation they really want to see happen.”
The report also refers to the “current era of Muslim integration”, whereby typical stereotypes of Islam are being challenged by Muslims themselves in the public space. Having faced the waves of Islamophobia in the years that followed the 9/11 attacks in New York, Muslims have been discriminated against for their beliefs and religious dress codes, while Muslim women, in particular, have been criticized as being meek and submissive, with few interests beyond their faith, the report adds. It also highlights an important post-9/11, pre-Arab Spring 2006 statistic from global polling company Gallup Inc, which surveyed more than
9,000 Muslims in nine Muslim countries, that the percentage of radical Muslims out there is, in reality, a very low number, with nearly 93 percent of Muslims seeing themselves as moderates. With that in mind, the report offers an in-depth perspective of the driving forces and interests behind the subculture and its positive image.
“They [Mipsterz] want to adopt more inclusive mannerisms [within societies] and to be as fashion- able, educated or successful as any other human being in society, Muslim or not,” says Ibrahim. Concerned responses from Muslim conservatives denouncing the behavior of the “Somewhere in American #Mipsterz” girls were expected, but didn’t seem to bother the latter much. “There was backlash because we are not used to seeing Muslim women in this way,” Ibrahim says, adding that people were trying to figure out if the behavior was religiously compliant or not. “These girls are not doing anything against religion in any way. On the contrary, they put religion first.”
So how close to home are these Mipsterz and are they living among us like the ones in the video? “I think they’re easier to spot in the West where the comparison is more dramatic,” Ibrahim says. “When you take a look at predominantly Muslim areas, such as the Middle East, subtle nuances between devout Muslims and progressive Muslims are harder to spot.” JWT compiled a Hofstede framework as well – a Hofstede model describes the effects of a society’s culture on the value of its members – defining mainstream habits and symbols of the Mipster segment as being guided by a primary need for belonging and acceptance, as well as for a harmonious balance between their own religious values and those of others.
Mipsterz are well-versed in arts, culture, media and creativity, often excelling in and inspired by the creative industries, and use digital spaces as a means of connecting with other like-minded people. In fashion, they are trailblazers, breaking dress codes, but not religious rules, while bending the definition of Muslim style with daring modesty. Unlike more traditional Muslims, Mipsterz are comfortable frequenting mainstream social venues and restaurants that serve non-halal items, while upholding their own spiritual ethics. Typically well-educated and career-driven, with middle- to upper-class upbringing, Mipsterz look at their surroundings critically and are also socially active when it comes to ethical consumption practices. For Mipsterz, it comes down to living a complete, fulfilled life, while working within the rules.
Research on the youth in the Middle East shows that Mipsterz are an active subculture among young, modern Arabs, with many overlapping similarities. In fact, although Mipsterz are predominantly female, it’s not just women that are growing this segment, for which the age bracket ranges between early teens to late 20s. The changing viewpoints of Mipsterz, and those of young Muslim Arabs, as proposed in another report by JWT MEA, entitled: 8 MENA Trends for 2013 – which discusses the “new age Muslim” – are echoed in this year’s Arab Youth Survey, an annual study by regional PR firm ASDA’A Burston-Marsteller surveying male and female youth living in the MENA region, aged between 18 and 24 years. Young Arab participants are now set on embracing modern values, the survey reveals, with this sentiment witnessing a hike from 17 percent to 46 percent between 2011 and 2014. The survey – which covers young Arabs’ opinions on international affairs, media, as well as personal value systems and beliefs, among others – this year, sees them re-evaluating their core beliefs and is reflective of the region’s 200-million-strong youth population, where 60 percent are below the age of 25. The power of family, friends and religion, although still leading in importance, is noticeably dropping year on year, adds the survey, with youngsters admitting that entertainment, media and community leaders have become increasingly more influential to their outlooks on life.
As Arab youngsters gain independence and take on more responsibilities, they are also becoming more ambitious and recognizing the value of a career. JWT MEA finds that Mipsterz are exploring creative paths, perhaps with the support of their comfortable upbringing, while, on the flipside, Arab Youth Survey participants express major concerns over unemployment and rising living costs. At the same time, they are more open to working in the private sector, while also viewing the idea of starting one’s own business as more commonplace. The societal pressure of working for the government is slowly being lifted in some MENA countries; young Arabs are more curious than ever and willing to take risks.
In the context of high media and online consumption among the youth in the region, and with Saudi Arabia having the highest YouTube penetration in the world, brands, such as Pepsi, for which young Arabs are a huge market, are harnessing online channels to build relationships with them through entertainers they look up to. “Pepsi wants to own platforms such as music and football,” says Waseem Afzal, head of digital at OMD MENA, who previously oversaw digital activities for Pepsi Arabia. “Pepsi builds inspiration and passion among the Arab youth, and it’s in line with their [youth’s] consumption patterns.” Recognizing their need to simply be entertained, be it on traditional or digital platforms, Afzal believes the key to successfully reach young Arabs is to create content that’s shareable enough for them. When, last year, 7UP teamed up with Saudi YouTube comedian Badr Saleh, who had already reached more than one million subscribers with his show “Eysh Elly”, the brand checked off the entertainment factor and presented itself to the region’s youth through the eyes of a celebrity influencer with a willing audience. There’s no talk of serious subjects on the “Eysh Elly” show; politics and religion are sidelined by light-hearted content.
Over the past couple of years, Abdallah Ajmal, general manager at Ajmal Perfumes, has come to the realization that, as young Arabs become more ambitious and enterprising, the fragrance brand would have to find specific youth values it could actively nurture. Ajmal’s mostly Khaleeji customer base, aged 30 years and above, had begun to age and the brand decided to start expanding its reach to the under-25 age bracket. With a history spanning 60 years, it has developed a rich heritage in the region and abroad, but lacked the coolness factor of other fragrance and fashion brands. It couldn’t alienate its existing and older clientele, but it wanted to stand out among young people and their “fast-moving loyalties,” as Ajmal puts it. Young people, with their affinity for international labels and western trends, knew of Ajmal as a “matured and traditional” brand which, although respected for its Arabic line of fragrances, was probably more suited to their parents’ tastes.
In its quest to engage with hip and trendy Arabs, Mipsterz included, Ajmal decided against the entertainment route and, instead, targeted their need to explore new career paths – a finding that later arose in the Arab Youth Survey – using a combination of online communications and ground activities at universities; as such, the Ajmal Young Perfumer Hunt competition was launched, offering winners cash, a three- month internship with the brand and the chance to have the fragrances they created sold in-store. “In this part of the world, very few people think of perfumery as a career,” Ajmal says. In this sense, Ajmal made a key move that inadvertently brought it closer to the Mipster subculture and heightened its appeal among fashion-savvy young GCC women. Ibrahim believes that creating products that specifically tackle the needs of the Mipster market is another way to get closer to it. “Some brands are already Mipster compliant and just need to communicate it so Mipsterz know they’re on the same page,” she says, suggesting that brands address Mipster subtleties in order to connect with them. “Rather than saying: ‘What should I do to cater to a Muslim?’, brands should be asking themselves: ‘What do I already have that would appeal to a Muslim group?’”
Ajmal did just that by launching Prose, an arty fragrance with an intellectual personality, featuring a colorful appearance and style when compared with the brand’s other product offerings, through a campaign that merged animated creative with French and Arabic messaging. Under the tagline “Quli Oui” (Say Yes), the campaign made a direct connection between young Arabs’ interest in the West and their respect for local language and culture.
“The mistake many companies make is thinking that they should latch on to the most obvious, use a nasheed [Islamic vocal music] or Arabic writing, or just look at the basic pillars of Islam and try to put those things in [their communication],” says branding consultant and marketing academic at the London-based University of Greenwich, Jonathan Wilson. “But if you want to tap into the Mipster style of doing things, it’s [all] about [being] subtle and sophisticated; you need to put little secrets and signals in [your communication],” explains Wilson. Even visually, Ajmal found an ideal way to connect with Mipsterz through Prose, for which the bottle features a veiled woman’s face that is accessorized with self-expression embellishments, such as bracelets, trinkets, colorful eye makeup and glossy lips – packaging that directly plays up the individuality of the young Muslim woman.
Wilson says, as some mainstream brands tend to replicate their creative messaging across media platforms, they must put more effort into integrated marketing communications campaigns to address the Mipster segment. “If you want to target these conservative societies of Muslims, then you should work harder at not just doing something that is more conservative and is not going to annoy them, but also trying to do something where you’ve got different messages on each platform, from social media to UGC [user-generated content] and PR,” he adds.
The Muslim moolah
When looking at how international brands are approaching the young Arab market, both Ibrahim and Wilson point out that clued-in brands are learning to create products that are not necessarily Arab or Muslim in name and appearance, but that rather appeal to the cultural and spiritual aspects of these segments. Wilson refers to fashion brand Tom Ford, for which loud branding in the West is racy and provocative, but, in the Middle East, is focused completely on product and subtle in-store displays.
“One of the mistakes of Muslim and non- Muslim businesses is that they assume that, because somebody is a Muslim, an instant connection [can be established with them] if they use [Muslim] symbols or if they make it ‘halal’,” he says, adding that Tom Ford’s palette of fragrances has a distinct connection with the region through products such as Arabian Oud. Ibrahim believes that, in order to reach Mipsterz, it’s important to work towards a socially conscious product that is Muslim compliant and that provides some form of life improvement. “Either appeal to their values or allow them to live a more inclusive lifestyle experience,” she says, giving the example of the new halal nail enamel H, launched this spring by UAE company BCI, as a product that covers all touch points for Mipsterz. “[This product] taps into the value [of their] right to be beautiful: they want to look good, like anybody else,” she explains. “H is a product that allows [them] to be beautiful without going against their religious ethics.”
Additionally, Ibrahim sees more and more big luxury brands trying to get a slice of the “Muslim Moolah”, as it is referred to in the JWT Mipsterz report. Chanel, for example, has made sure to include long skirts in its stores for the region, she says, while Hermès has launched longer scarves that can also be worn as veils. In a recent report, fashion business title “The Business of Fashion” stated that marketers around the globe are missing the boat when it comes to the Muslim consumer. In the report, HRH Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, CEO of ALFA International (Harvey Nichols Riyadh), says brands have a valuable opportunity in Saudi Arabia, where employed women are readily using their earnings on fashion; these are womendrawn to veils with zippers and adornments, and dresses with lace at the hem and sleeve. Al Saud adds that, although the traditional abaya is still worn in public, Saudi women are personalizing their styles with layers, new materials and fine details. Ibrahim agrees, adding that Saudi Arabia is a progressive market, especially with women, because of how much they’ve achieved in the way of rights in recent years. “This market, in particular, is where we’re seeing the most change happening with women. Women are pushing for more rights and, when you break down their rights, again, it all boils down to inclusivity,” she says.
The Saudi market remains a key component of brand strategies and it continues to possess the most active consumption habits in the region. “In terms of their attitudes in respect to consumer lifestyle, they [Saudi consumers] are very western savvy, are exposed to a lot of western culture and are very acquainted with international brands. They’re also extremely affluent in terms of disposable incomes,” says Afzal. According to global market research firm Euromonitor’s studies, provided by OMD MENA, the more affluent out of these consumers are also seeking premium products of high quality and are using these expensive purchases as a tool to express their wealth to others.
While that might be the case in the Saudi market, where shopping is practically ingrained in the lifestyle, consumption habits of young Arabs differ from one regional market to another. As mentioned in the Arab Youth Survey, young people are not confident in their current economies and question the stability of their future careers. Still, according to another Euromonitor study from OMD, although young Arabs may be shopping on a budget and raising concerns around their financial stabilities, their highly fashion-oriented sensibilities and awareness of international brands mean they still spend a fair on fashion and grooming.
Spring into action
In their early days, Apple and American Apparel were rather successful with marketing to young hipsters, targeting mass audiences with the idea of individuality. Nowadays, marketing teams are learning alternative ways to tackle this segment. And although hipsters still do not like to be overtly marketed to, there have been countless successful campaigns that have managed to do exactly that.
The mipster, on the other hand, is conscious of marketing tactics and might be more critical when it comes to consumerism. “They want ethical consumption because that is part of their religious codes,” Ibrahim points out, adding that they seek “sustainable, morally correct, humane and transparent [social values]”. “Because they [Mipsterz] are linked to a religion such as Islam, they are going to have certain boundaries,” says Wilson. “With something like Islam, it will be interesting to see what effect the rules have on these kinds of hipster-style cultures. Because if you look at other subcultures, they don’t have rules. Actually, they make their own rules.” As Arab youngsters carefully tread the line of changing values, they will ultimately make the choice as to how much weight they want to give to the rules of their religion and culture. There are soft, subtle ways to connect with them through elements that are growing in importance in their lives. Brands, too, will make the choice as to how personal they really want to get with this segment.
Whether or not the subculture of Mipsterz picks up speed and catches on with the general public remains to be seen. With the Middle East region witnessing a paradigm shift in the values and beliefs of young Arabs, and the globalization of culture, a rumble of change is inevitable. Perhaps, they aren’t dressing exactly the same and aren’t making music videos of the same sort as western Mipsterz, but they’re developing their own Middle East identity, while adhering to Muslim standards. After all, the original Mipsterz video was eye-catching for a reason; Muslim women were simply “being themselves,” as one report puts it, just as their young Arab and Muslim counterparts have been during the Arab Spring; which is why the emergence of the Mipsterz in the Middle East and the changing demographic of the Arab youth, both from spiritual and cultural perspectives, are nothing unexpected.