Figure skater Zahra Lari model wears Nike's new hijab for Muslim female athletes.
Vivienne Balla—Nike via AP

It could help the company find some cushion against global competition.

By Bernard Banks
March 11, 2017

In Nike’s “Pro Hijab” ad released earlier this week, the campaign should not be viewed as a political statement following Trump’s immigration ban, but as a business move to reach new female consumers in the Middle East.

The Pro Hijab launch, which set off a flurry of headlines globally, seems particularly well-timed, given the many U.S. businesses speaking out as pro-refugee and pro-Muslim in the face of Donald Trump’s executive order targeting travelers from a handful of mostly Muslim countries.

But Nike’s efforts to introduce a lightweight, highly wearable hijab that doesn’t come untucked when working out or during competitions has little to do with timing or the political climate. It wouldn’t be surprising if Nike hopes to expand its reach to a growing market of Muslim shoppers buying apparel and footwear, which is estimated to reach $484 billion annually by 2019.

This makes sense, since in recent years, there has been much discussion around the world about the role of women in the Middle East, including in traditional societies such as Saudi Arabia. While there are political and social differences across the region, there is a trend toward greater awareness of the rights and role of women.

Nike NKE appears to be capitalizing on that conversation with a new Nike Middle East ad that features a Muslim woman running in a hijab and other Middle Eastern women participating in sports. The ad’s narration asks women: “What will they say about you? Maybe they’ll say you exceeded all expectations.”

For any company or organization, making a connection with consumers requires a great deal of cultural dexterity to understand the habits and norms of a particular region. I became highly aware of this during my military career, during which I served in such varied locations as South Korea and the Middle East. When a company or its product strikes a chord with the thoughts and feelings of a consumer group, it makes for an emotional connection that can establish or strengthen brand loyalty.

If Nike’s Pro Hijab campaign is successful, executives could also position the company to introduce Muslim women to athleisure wear, an already growing market that is projected to top $350 billion by 2020 for brands that cater to every style and choice from yoga to basketball.

In the U.S., athleisure has caught on in big ways, as office wear evolves at a time when more employers favor the casualness of open offices. In time, athleisure could gain greater traction in countries with the largest Muslim populations, particularly in places with secular governments, such as Indonesia, Pakistan, and India.

 

Nike’s new reach in the Middle East could also help the company find some cushion against growing global competition, particularly in emerging markets, where it has been taking a deliberate approach in recent years to attract consumers in China. But given the concerns about slowing economic growth in China, Western companies have been looking to expand in other markets. For Nike, tapping the Middle East could be very important to offset any decline it might experience in China, while also introducing its products to a new group of consumers.

Given the size and consumer power of the Middle East, it will be no surprise to see more products from Western companies tailored for the tastes and needs of the region. We have already seen the trend in retail, from Dolce & Gabbana and H&M. So Nike is naturally the next.

Bernard Banks is associate dean for leadership development at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He is a retired Brigadier General of the U.S. Army.

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