As Muslims around the world brace for a very different Ramadan this year, Cheil MEA's Aakriti Goel offers some tips for brands on how they can still play a meaningful role in these unprecedented times.

Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis

This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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Ramadan is around the corner: a month of spirituality, down-time, reflection, and... ads! If the Super Bowl is the pinnacle of the US ad calendar, its equivalent in the Arab world is Ramadan; an opportunity for advertisers and consumers to enjoy the most coveted advertising efforts of the year.

However, with the possible extension of the ongoing physical distancing, normality is not a viable option. Even if the restrictions are lifted before or during, the intrinsic wariness of coming together and mingling would still continue. Countries, such as Egypt have already released a statement banning any gatherings and public iftars (breaking of fast), as well as collective social activities during Ramadan.

For the very first time for many, people will be forced to observe this period differently.

Never has it been more important for a brand to be empathetic and authentic, as it will be this Ramadan. To that end, here are five tips for brands to keep in mind when building Ramadan communications.

1) Reassure

While Ramadan has always been a time of the year that people look forward to, today with all the fear, isolation and uncertainty, a heavy shadow looms over a period of awaited peace and joy.

For many, the communal aspects of Ramadan (going to mosques, praying behind clerks, iftars with family, volunteering time) is what drove the spiritual connectedness with god. And not being able to do this, is bound to create a feeling of disconnect with Ramadan.

Brands can play a role to reassure and remind that although we are in confinement, the core values of the holy month are not lost. In some ways, this period of self-introspection is similar to the kind of spiritual healing people do in the month of Ramadan.

And people can still, from home, fulfil their goals which are all about practicing their religion and strengthening their faith, empathizing with the unfortunate, practicing willpower and strength and giving thanks to the blessings they have.

2) Recreate togetherness

But let’s understand that Ramadan is also a month of joy, festivities, and togetherness. Large families gathering at iftar tables, sharing stories and lessons about Ramadan; decorating patios with dazzling lights; and friends and cousins enjoying a round of football before adhan (call to prayer).

However, with social distancing in mind, it is possible that family and friends aren’t able to celebrate together. Especially the elderly.

Brands need to think on how they can facilitate togetherness, in a time when people will, most likely, be feeling very apart.

From facilitating grandparents recording Ramadan stories to share with grandkids, to Tarneeb and Jackaroo games online, to virtual iftar parties. Think about what Netflix has done with Netflix parties.

3) Facilitate giving

One thing that won't change and will probably increase during Ramadan is the concept of "giving back". A core principle of Islam is helping others in need; this is heightened during Ramadan as "giving back" lies at the heart of the holy month which goes beyond the annual zakat fitrah, a charity taken for the poor a few days before the end of fasting.

Typically, mass iftars were help for the underprivileged. Ramadan sharing fridges were set up across Dubai to allow easy donation of food.

While brands have always initiated CSR activities during Ramadan, this year it will become important to not just give but facilitate giving remotely in a more meaningful manner.

4) Provide distraction

People spend nearly eight hours a day watching video content during Ramadan, while activity on digital video platforms rises by 122%, according to a report by advertising agency Spark Foundry in Saudi Arabia. Special Ramadan comedy shows, drama series and game shows play a huge role in keeping people entertained during Ramadan.

However, with much-loved TV soaps struggling to keep the cameras rolling, there may not be plenty of soap operas to watch during this Ramadan.

More so, in times of uncertainty like this, when the situation feels overwhelming and stressful – the opportunity of a distraction or light-hearted humour can go a long way. Instead of serious hard-hitting pieces of communication, brands could try to skew their messaging to be (mindfully) humorous and entertaining.

Brands can take cues from Egypt, a market renowned for its boisterous sense of humour, where brands jostle and compete to be the most entertaining.

5) Celebrate comradery

COVID-19 has truly brought out the ingenuity and creativity of people. Despite all the limitations, people in the region have found ways to stay connected, to follow their passions, to spread joy.

From fitness dance parties online, to DJing at home, to jam sessions on the balcony, to pub quizzes through video conferencing. But nothing is going to require more resourcefulness than creating an atmosphere of Ramadan in the backdrop of such tiring times.

Brands can take this opportunity to highlight and celebrate this spirit, and even include people and real stories into their communication. (And being able to produce assets without the need for a filming set, is just an added bonus!)

As we continue to face challenges and unpredictability in the coming weeks, one thing is clear: Ramadan will not be business as usual. This Ramadan will be more so the opportunity to build that connection with consumers, than the high sales volume that the holy month typically presents.