An Investor’s Guide to Indonesia | What to remember when marketing to Muslims in Indonesia

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. For this reason, foreign investors need a working knowledge of how best to market in the archipelago. 

Indonesia’s religious landscape is unique, as the local Muslim community clocks in at more than 88 percent of the total population. By 2030, this number is projected to reach 238 million, according to research by the US-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. What’s interesting is that if we talk about religion in Indonesia, we are not talking about strict Islamic practices as they exist in places like Saudi Arabia or Iran – countries we can categorise as theocracies, or governments in which priests rule in the name of a God.

Indonesia, on the other hand, can best be characterised as a religious democracy, as the nation does indeed incorporate Islamic-based teachings into its policy-making. This includes Islamic prayer at most state ceremonies, and presidential vows. It also can be seen in the nation’s regulations on food and alcohol.

However, Indonesian Muslims are observably more tolerant of other cultures and religions than perhaps people are in other Muslim-majority nations, according to Freedom House, an independent watchdog organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world. A 2014 democracy index from The Economist says Indonesia is the only Muslim-majority nation that is acknowledged as a democracy.

Geert Hofstede, former professor of organisational anthropology and international management at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, describes most Indonesians as moderate Muslims. This is partly due to an increased exposure to cultural diversity from media and locally-based foreigners, according to Hofstede.

It’s common in Indonesia to see Muslim women walking around shopping malls wearing trendy clothes. Today, it’s not unusual for Muslim women who wear the hijab to also incorporate a degree of modern fashion. This often includes colourful fabrics and beads, or perhaps sparkling crystals.

Netty Herlita, owner of a Muslim-wear clothing store in Tanah Abang, agrees that most Muslims in Jakarta are moving toward a more moderate level of Islamic practice when it comes to commerce. “Demand for more fashionable and colourful veils is increasing day by day, not only from young women, but also a sizeable demand originates from middle-aged woman,” explains Herlita.

What are the marketing implications that investors should consider for a large and fairly moderate Muslim society?

Although Indonesia’s Muslim culture can be seen as moderate, the nation still retains most of Islam’s basic principles that every marketer needs to be aware of. If you’re in the restaurant business, for example, it would be foolhardy to not apply for a halal certificate from Majelis Ulama Indonesia (the Indonesian Islamic Cleric Council). While the archipelago has many moderate Muslims, eating at restaurants that serve pork is still considered a big “no-no” for some. Additionally, a restaurateur with an otherwise family-friendly establishment is far less likely to attract the large crowd during the Saturday night dinner rush if there are bottles of Johnnie Walker or Grey Goose in the front window, as it sends a subtle message about the kinds of people that will also be in the same restaurant.

But this doesn’t mean that marketers can’t benefit from being creative. For example, while using sexually suggestive images of women is frowned upon in many contexts, Indonesia is culturally comfortable with casual exposure. Women’s bodies are often featured in ads and graphics for bathroom products like soap and shampoo, as well as on banners in the front of fashion retailers. It’s no secret that more skin is being shown in Indonesia’s advertisements these days. However, the smart foreign marketer will recognise the nation’s religious values, and therefore try to portray these images tastefully. After all, Jakarta is not Las Vegas.

Incoming foreign investors and entrepreneurs in Indonesia need to also be aware of when to ramp up marketing efforts. There are two major times to keep in mind. Eid al-Fitr starts on July 17 this year, following Ramadan which includes a month of daytime fasting. Eid al-Adha begins on September 24, following the annual pilgrimage. Both these holidays are festive celebrations comparable to Christmas in western countries. Families convene, and despite the traditional call from Islamic Teachings to refrain oneself from extravagance, in Indonesia we can expect a serious increase in consumption levels. The Indonesian Association of Retail Business releases annual data that indicates consumption during these two holidays increases by 20 to 30 percent year-on-year like clockwork. Rizki Rahmadianti, owner of an online Muslim fashion shop called Rizhani, says that her revenue can double—and even triple—during Eid al-Fitr.

Muslimwear by Aramara. Courtesy of Indonesia Fashion Week

Marketers must also take note of state regulations. Indonesia’s advertising code of conduct (Etika Pariwara Indonesia) incorporates many rules derived from Islamic teaching. For the most part, the majority of goods are not forbidden to be marketed, but in some cases, advertising is limited. It’s not uncommon to see a television ad that shows people skydiving or mountain biking, but then in the end it turns out to be a cigarette commercial. This is because brands aren’t allowed to show people lighting up and enjoying a smoke in their ads, despite tobacco production and consumption being a major economic support pillar of the nation. Tobacco companies must come up with other clever ways to portray the appeal of being a smoker. Promotional messages related to alcohol and nightclubs also face criticism from the local Muslim community, which has resulted in heavy regulation.

Geographic diversity is another element to be aware of. Muslims in big cities like Jakarta enjoy considerable freedom and are more exposed to different views and cultures. This makes them the most moderate Muslims in Indonesia. However, if we go to remote areas, we will experience a much more conservative society.

Marketers would do well to tailor their campaigns according to the level of religious conservatism in different cities.

For example, promotional materials for lingerie would look different for a store in Bali than they might for a store in Semarang in Java.

Before setting up shop in Tanah Abang, Netty Herlita was based in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra. A small city with a population of 92,000, it is a bona fide one-horse town compared to Jakarta’s 13 million population. Comparing her experiences between the two cities, Herlita says the gap in religious conservatism is easily observable.

“In Bukittinggi, people will be looking at you all the time if you dress like that,” explains Herlita as she points to one of her customers wearing a short skirt. “However, in Jakarta I don’t see any rejection.”

One last item to keep in mind is the use of sales promotion girls in revealing clothing – a common practice in cities like Jakarta and Surabaya. However, this will likely be frowned upon if executed in other areas. In general, the rule of thumb to keep in mind for religious conservatism in Indonesia is inversely proportional to the size of the city you’re targeting. The smaller the population, and the farther you are away from a big city, the more you can expect to see religiously conservative consumers. Marketing to Indonesia’s Muslim-majority population will almost certainly require foreign investors and entrepreneurs to familiarize themselves with this concept.



Aryo Moedanton is an Indonesian entrepreneur, professional communications trainer, and Managing Director of communication and consulting firm PT Oratoria Tahana Paramasastra. His interests range from social politics and affairs to military and international issues.