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Interview With Prof. Dr. Jonathan A.J. Wilson – Part 1


“ From my personal and professional perspective, I was fascinated by how little marketing, branding, and consumer behaviour know-how seemed to present.”

What’s the difference between branding & marketing

Is it about identity? One’s uniqueness and specialty?
Elements such as logo, website, and brand style guidelines -- is it important?
So, if marketing is what gets people to engage with for the first time,
then branding is what gets people keep coming back.
Is this a valid statement?

Well, let’s hear from our expert in Branding & Marketing, Prof. Dr. Jonathan A.J. Wilson whom we had a privileged of interviewing recently. He is a Co-Founder of Dragonfly Black, a Business and Brand Strategy firm based in London, England. A team that consists of strategists, researchers, statisticians, designers, and website developers taking a holistic approach – underpinned by their own methodologies, which has been successfully applied in the strategic frameworks to Nation, Corporate, Product, Service, Employee, and Personal Brands.

Prof. Dr. Jonathan A.J. Wilson, is a dynamic, quick-witted public – speaker that sparks the real-world phenomena, especially in growing the Ethnic, Halal, Muslim minority and majority markets. He’s culturally blended with old school thinking, gritty Hip-hop/Grunge style and flamboyant personality. Much to be said, but let’s hear the backstory…

Prof. Dr. Jonathan A.J Wilson, you have one of the most interesting backgrounds in the Islamic economy space: A College Professor to (4x) four times award-winning LinkedIn influencer, to Podcaster to Global halal branding expert and so on. Could you share with our readers about your 'journey to arrive!'

At first it might sound a little strange, but I am going to share some personal experiences of mine with you, which I believe have taken my journey towards Halal and I would argue give me an informed, honest, pragmatic and unique perspective - and I’ll explain why later.

I was born into a Christian household, son of white Scottish hospital pathologist and black Caribbean nurse. I went to a grammar school where during my time, out of 1,500 pupils there were never more than about 5 of us who were black, about a third of the pupils were Jewish and we in particular would hang out a lot. Was is because we bonded in a way many minority communities do, or was it because Slash from Guns ’n’ Roses and Lenny Kravitz were the cool mixed Jewish kids at the time - who knows?

I was an elite athlete who decided to quit competitive sport at university, rather than pursue a career as a professional. If I’m to be blunt, sport felt monoculture and it looked like a risky and short career, where if you had a brain, you’d be better using it, than having your head smashed on a rugby field. So instead, I threw myself into music, getting to work professionally as an artist, sound engineer and DJ. I performed on stage at concerts like Glastonbury music festival and further afield internationally, I appeared on television and radio, wrote and performed on the first few Grand Theft Auto video games under the name Robert De Negro - and basically did a bunch of wild things and met crazy people.

I was doing the music thing during university and later while holding down a job working in advertising after I graduated. My first degree was in Chemistry, where I specialized in human sciences in areas like pharmacology, physiology, and genetics. When I finished in 1996, I had no idea what I wanted to do as a career, but I won a competition to receive some free radio journalism training and the chance to produce some science stories - so I did that and then settled on signing up to study a Masters of Business Administration (MBA), which I completed in 1998. I applied for a ton of jobs afterwards and landed a job in London, working in advertising - not particularly because I wanted to work specifically in this field, but I needed a job and it looked interesting.

A big driver behind me being so into music was because it was a vehicle for me to explore issues of race, identity and culture. Perhaps surprising for someone playing bass, singing and rapping in rock and metal bands, and later hip hop, drum and bass, and Asian underground groups - finding out about Muslims in all of their shapes and sizes started happening with more frequency. Indirectly, it led to me choosing to convert to Islam at the beginning of 2000, after tasting life and being interested in pretty much everything.

In the early 2000’s I started to make changes in my life. Advertising with all of its drinking culture wasn’t so much fun for a praying and fasting Muslim and nor was music - I needed a break from them both. Also, my mother sadly lost a battle with cancer during that time. Completely by chance, I was given the opportunity to lecture at university and this seemed to be a fulfilling and worthwhile new career opportunity, where I could draw from my various experiences.

After a few years of university lecturing, it became clear that well-rounded academics were research active, published and had a PhD. I wanted to do my PhD in Halal Branding, but no universities were particularly interested in taking me on to do that - it wasn’t considered to be a viable topic. However, from my personal and professional perspective, I was fascinated by how little marketing, branding, and consumer behaviour know-how seemed to present. Anyway, I parked that topic and did my PhD in global brand management and culture - 3 years, part-time, self-funded, while I was working. It wasn’t easy and meant a lot of late nights - but in many ways it replaced the time I used to spend before doing music.

This chapter of my life also brought other new experiences. My PhD supervisors were the first non-white teachers in my life. All through school and university, previously, all of my teachers had been white. The same was true for sport.

I decided to take up martial arts and move from being just a Kung-fu flick and anime fan, as I became even more fascinated with alternative non-Western approaches. I started with Kung-fu and Karate, but settled on learning under a Japanese sensei with nearly 70 years’ experience - which has resulted in me gaining 7 black belts (4th Dan in Iaido and 3rd Dan in Kendo).

In about 2010, the world and opinion appeared to be shifting: exploring Islam, Muslims and business seemed to be gaining traction. There were more and more conferences, news stories, businesses and individuals proudly proclaiming their Muslim/Islamic credentials and heritage. I decided with no funding or support, to research these areas myself. At times that meant using my own money to attend conferences to see what experts had to say. I wanted to meet the best minds in marketing and Islam. I watched, listened, networked, hung out, questioned, studied, thought, and then wrote and wrote some more.

In 2011, I took over editorship of a recently founded international academic journal, called the Journal of Islamic Marketing. I’m happy to say that since then, I and all of the wonderful academics around the world have been able to grow it every year - at a rate that is really astounding. To give you an idea: we’ve increased the number of issues and the size of each issue each year, and there’s still a one-year waiting list to get work published in it.

More recently, I came out with a book called Halal Branding, published by Claritas Books, who are part of Awakening Media and are the people at the forefront of the Nasheed scene. The tide had turned and with the wave of interest in Halal and understanding Muslims, meant that I had book deal offers from mainstream publishers. But the Muslim and the musician in me decided to go with Muslims involved in Islamic media, who gave me creative freedom - which stretched to allowing me creative control over the book layout and designing the cover with my own team.

In 2019, I was awarded a second doctorate, called a Doctor of Letters (DLitt) for my work on Halal, Muslim consumption patterns, and marketing. For those of you that don’t know, it’s a qualification above a PhD that only some of the older universities have within their power to award - where in addition you have to demonstrate innovative thinking, measurable influence, and contribution to humane learning. The University of Dundee afterwards told me that they have not awarded one anywhere in the university for 18 years. Therefore, I put it up there with my pride at being a full-professor - in a climate where in the UK, out of about 20,000 full-professors, less than 150 are black. I mention all of this because I see it as a personal victory and a victory for Halal - for if you remember not so long ago, scholars like me and others were not taken as seriously.

There are still many barriers - and discrimination and negativity are rife, inside and outside of our communities. I also think that I have been blessed with great luck. However, hopefully there are enough stories in here to make you think that the world is a rich place full of opportunities, many of which you probably don’t know about and can’t see - but when something comes along, keep your eyes open and embrace the challenge. Also, people change.

So to summarize, my expertise is based upon drawing from what has and continues to be an eclectic collection of experiences and struggles, where often I’ve been the minority within a minority and the outsider. I wear these with pride, because for me understanding Halal is not just about having an intimate knowledge of the holy texts and heritage of Islam - it’s more than that. We need to understand people from all walks of life, belief and disbelief; science, business, culture - and ideally, you need to have lived and breathed many of those things, or at least know people who have.

I said to an audience recently, if I was picking a midwife, I would look for these three things: qualifications and training, professional experience, and personal experiences. In fact, when it comes to personal experiences, being female and a mother would be a bonus. I would use the same analogy for Halal: being qualified, certified, experienced, and ideally Muslim with insight into what it’s like not to be a Muslim too. And when we say Muslim, for me that means embracing all of the various interpretations and cultural nuances - because after all, they are your audience.

If you don’t have all of those things, I just feel it’s tougher to understand everything and you will be more prone to blind spots and biases. I know that I have learned a lot from travelling to over 40 countries and having been involved in teams where we have sold or spent millions of pounds on advertising. Make no mistake, Halal is a business now - it has to behave like one in order to survive and thrive, and has to serve the full pyramid of populations around the globe. We have cheerleaders, but we need more players.

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