Lessons in Marketing From Religion

‘Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’ is not a quote by a philosopher, but by a victim of good marketing. It’s an art that holds the strings to your perception. It is what makes you shell out ₹250 for a Starbucks coffee, while you try really hard to convince yourself that the ice-diluted frappe, with your name on it, is not really just the non-fancy cold-coffee that your Mom makes at home!

Let’s assume in this post that religion is good, it’s fantastic. But is that enough? Religion has existed for hundreds of years and has nearly all the world convinced of its greatness. Think about it! If religion is a company trying to grow its customer base even with the best product in the world, how do the customers know it’s the best product in the world? Just because the company says so? But every company trying to sell anything would say so, wouldn’t it? Religion is the best marketer there ever has been. Even good things (as we have assumed) need to be marketed. Religion provides an excellent case study for marketing excellence.

Like in the previous post, attaining/pleasing/praying/reaching God is the service religion provides to you. Let’s see why religion is extremely hard to market:

  • No verifiable proof of gain: Will praying to God make me happier in life?  I prayed to God for half my life, am I happy now? Has he redeemed me of my sins? If so, how do I know he has? It’s like someone trying to sell a specially prepared cake to you, with a flavour not known to man yet. To taste this flavour you need certain taste buds that humans are not born with. Yet, this person claims that it’s not tasteless, it’s just an unimaginably good flavour.
  • No correlation between quantity consumed (time spent praying) and potential gain: How much happy will I get per unit time spent praying? It’s like asking a grocery shopkeeper how much you should pay for 5 Kgs of Apples, and he telling you to pay as much as you can in return of as many apples as he wishes to give you.

But religion is smart. Here’s how it tackled these problems:

  • It’s always you:  If you are happy, successful or lucky it is because God was pleased with you. Remember the time you were late to class but your teacher was even more late? There. If you are not happy, say your teacher gave you a hard time, it means that you didn’t pray enough, didn’t follow the moral code (more later) closely enough.
  • It will happen when it will happen: If you remain good and pray, God will be happy and he will make you happy in turn. Questioning whether he will actually make you happy makes you not good, which makes him not happy, which in turn makes you also not happy. “Bhagwaan ke ghar der hain, andher nahi” (God might take his time, but he will deliver) Therefore, keep availing religion’s service without question.
  • Fear Mechanism: If you do not avail this service, not only would you miss out on the benefits of becoming happy by God, you will also be subject to miseries and sadness. Don’t believe us? Remember once your toe bumped into the chair? There.
  • Social Compulsions: The final push. You go to Starbucks because it has a high social value. It’s symbolic of your status and high living. Similarly, religious persons have been made to be the good people of society. And it’s good to be good. “You don’t follow your religion? You must be an immoral, rebellious brat.” Sounds familiar? This is also what makes it a self-sustaining model of marketing.
  • Mandatory entry: You become a consumer by birth. You can’t even choose which religion. This is also a way in which different religions like oligopolists coordinate their output policies (read spread of supply) though again just like oligopolists they cheat this agreement at times (read: conversions)

Let’s consider the marketing mix of religion. Any product/service is sold to its customers in exchange with something that the seller wants, the price. Here are the four P’s of religion:

  1. Product: Like before, attaining/pleasing/praying/reaching God.
  2. Price: This is the real reason why religion exists- To get their price. Their price is you following the norms and the moral code they have set out. You’ll only get God if you follow the religious rules. If you remember from part 1, God and religion aren’t really the same thing. Religion wants society to be as it wants it to be.
  3. Place: It’s distributors include god-men, priests and your devout uncle. Institutionally, it is dispensed at places of worship like temples, churches and mosques.
  4. Promotion: Branding and advertising works the same way as grass grows (as I read somewhere). You never actually see it grow, but soon enough you have an entire field covered with grass. The same happens inside your head through advertising. Why do you think companies like Coca-Cola spend so much in advertising even today? Presumably everyone knows what coke is. I’ll let you think over this. Advertising is about constantly reinforcing the brand, creating a permanent resonance in the customer’s mind. Here’s how religion brands and advertises:
  • Logos   Old-Cults,-New-Religions...
  • Brand reinforcement:
  1. Hymns: Remember singing along with the Mauka Mauka ads? Well, religion started doing it much before. #thuglife
  2. Advertising requires identifying the places with the maximum eyes on it and putting up brand reinforcers at those places. Therefore the more viewership a TV show has, the more ads it trouble you with. Religion from those days itself started identifying such places. Where was human attention most likely to be in the olden times? Human civilisations came up around rivers. Therefore almost all rivers became holy. To capture the river completely as its own, rivers became a way of washing away your sins. (Yeah? So why put prisoners into jails when simply mass-bathing in rivers can do the trick?) Similarly mountains, trees, sun, moon, the positioning of the sun and the moon- all became religion reinforcers to create a strong brand presence. They continuously remind you of God and religion so that you keep availing religion’s services.

Some of these advertising strategies become irrelevant since times change. Therefore, why you cannot cut you hair on Tuesdays is a mystery. Yet, they carry on through the ages. This is the power of advertising. Check out the first five minutes of this video to understand why that happens: Brain Games

And tell me if these strategies haven’t worked? Religion is a great marketer. This post assumed religion is good. In a scenario where it isn’t, this marketing might be a dangerous thing. You can add to the list of strategies if you can identify more, in the comments.

Read the last part of this series here: Religion and You

To stay updated with what I write, follow my blog by tapping ‘follow’ at the right margin (for PC) or the bottom (for Smartphone). I’d love to hear your views and reviews on my article in the comments. Thank you for your time!

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15 thoughts on “Lessons in Marketing From Religion

  1. While it has made for a good read, I believe that you have combined the terms “religion” and “religiousness” a little too radically. I concur with you when you say that religion has many flaws which people, much like a flock of sheep, accept without question; and, like any right-thinking individual, I believe they shouldn’t. But, that does not mean that the flaws of religion transfer/extend to the (supposed) flaws of religiousness. These days, the words are often confused.

    Cheers.

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    1. If by religiousness you mean the virtues associated with praying to God and worship, I do not contend with you. In fact, in the first part of this series, I have tried to create a distinction between God and religion and kept God and religiousness completely out of the ambit of the discussion. I believe that a person can achieve spirituality without following any religion if he so wishes to do so. I can be a spiritual person without being religious. Or I can choose to follow some teachings of one religion and some of other religions if I, through my reasoning, feel it is the right way to achieve spirituality.

      Cheers!

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      1. No, the “virtues associated with praying to God and worship” are what comprise “religion”. “Religiousness” – on the other hand – is spirituality. Religion is a derivative of religiousness, not the other way round. I do agree with the rest of what you mentioned in the reply. I shall leave you with the quote by the great mystic Osho: “There is no greater hindrance to the process of religiousness than religion.” Do listen to him sometimes, his ideas are thought provoking!

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      2. That’s essentially what I meant. As far as I understand, spiritualism can be achieved with any means that makes you a better human. I would consider a person who takes time out feeding the poor as more spiritual as one who spends hours in front of an idol. Osho is indeed amazing! Loved this quote, makes a lot of sense!

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  2. I have to disagree with you, sir, when you say that the only reason rivers started to be considered “holy” was because: “Advertising requires identifying the places with the maximum eyes on it and putting up brand reinforcers at those places.” Sanatan Dharm (the religion which Hinduism is derived from) stresses the “worship” of agni, jal, vaayu, dharti, and aakaash – the five elements which comprise the universe. It is crucial to note that these elements were not considered holy by Sanatan Dharm due to any innately divine property of theirs. Rather, the “holiness” was attached to it due to its major role in preserving life.

    I am sure you have seen the movie “PK”. Allow me to bring to your attention the part where the titular character sticks pictures of gods so that people do not slap him. Similarly, one can find many pictures of gods and goddesses on the sides of walls – this is not because Hindus have a tendency to worship anything anywhere, but because by virtue of putting up such idols, public urination is prevented.

    Therefore, the only reason Sanatan Dharm advocated the “holy” status being accorded to rivers is because they are the very source of life, and – as you rightly mentioned – all erstwhile civilizations have come up along the banks of rivers. The examples are innumerable and in common knowledge, so are therefore needless to quote.

    So followers of Sanatan Dharm never saw rivers as just water bodies or as geographical happenings. They always say them as life making fundamentals for our lives because over 72% of our body itself is water. Over 70% of the planet itself is water. If we are looking for lives in extra-terrestrial planets, we look for water and nothing else.

    Sanatan Dharm believed that by virtue of according a sanctuary status to rivers, people would know better than to pollute them (clearly, contemporary happenings have proven otherwise but that is another debate).

    Which brings me to the second part, that of taking a dip in such waters. Back when the Ganga was unpolluted, it was rich in sulphur and natural germicides. This meant that taking a dip in the river would rid the people of common and preventable skin diseases and elongate life. However, not many people would agree with the science. Take the contemporary examples of vaccines. Even though getting shots in childhood is a common (and rather logical) fact-of-life in India due to its obvious benefits, (some) people in the West still dispute the veracity of its scientific claims. This is not just a contemporary occurrence, and one can be positive that not many people would have believed that taking a dip in the (unpolluted) Ganga would actually be beneficial to their health. Therefore, the priests gave a religious undertone to the same. “If you bathe in rivers, you will be rid of all sins.” And people fell for that. Naturally, it had a huge impact and back when there were no scientific medicines to cure skin diseases, a dip in the Ganga did the trick.

    But that is not to say that it was not a double-edged sword. While it did help back then, it is almost useless now because there is a higher chance you might CATCH a disease by taking a dip in the Ganga today than rid yourself off one (read: iatrogenesis by Ivan Illich, 1976). But then again, have YOU ever taken a dip in the Ganga? Odds are you – and I, too – haven’t, and that is because you have made an informed choice not to. But does that mean it was never helpful? No, it doesnt’t.

    This is an example what the great Randy Pausch would have called a “head fake” – or, indirect – learning. In his words: “And the other thing about football is we send our kids out to play football or soccer or swimming or whatever it is, and it’s the first example of what I’m going to call a head fake, or indirect learning. We actually don’t want our kids to learn football. I mean, yeah, it’s really nice that I have a wonderful three-point stance and that I know how to do a chop block and all this kind of stuff. But we send our kids out to learn much more important things. Teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance, etcetera, etcetera. And these kinds of head fake learning are absolutely important. And you should keep your eye out for them because they’re everywhere.”

    Therefore, the connotation that you can get your sins washed in the Ganga was always a head fake learning. You think that you were washing away your sins, but you were instead just curing your body of diseases.

    Having explained the practical connotations of why taking a dip in waters of Ganga was considered “holy”, I would also like to talk about the OTHER head fake learning of the said practise (boy, religions do really have an expertise in head fake teachings) which is the spiritual one.

    The basis for all creation, including the physical body, is the group of five elements: earth, water, wind, fire, and space. The wellbeing of the body and mind can be established by purifying these five elements within the human system. This process also shapes the body into a stepping stone towards one’s ultimate wellbeing. There is a whole system of yoga called Bhuta Shuddhi, which means “purification of the elements.” The Bhuta Shuddhi is an esoteric Yogic science, and is explained very comprehensively by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev in this video: https://youtu.behc9g8u77g24.

    Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t see how simply according a river the status of being holy, or considering it essential for human preservation would have dissuaded people from not polluting it. If people were not smart enough to understand that the Ganga had several useful chemicals in it, they certainly didn’t have the brains to understand that each of them putting in ‘just a small garland or diya’ or their other domestic wastewater would pollute this MIGHTY river. It is this same religion that wanted these rivers to be given a sanctuary status- as per you- that recommended certain practices that actually polluted these rivers.

      While I’m intrigued by the head-fake idea (which also was to extent my idea for the next post), I still believe that at some point of time the reality needs to be addressed by the masses. Even today, you will see hundreds of ‘devotees’ taking a dip in the Ganga by its banks (and yes, even I’ve been made to) And argue your point with a priest or a religion-fanatic and you’ll know better if these role-models and propagators of religious beliefs have any inkling of the real intentions of these practices (head-fake learning).

      Religion is what religion is today. How it is was intended doesn’t quite matter. I will agree with you that perhaps a lot was started with good intents. Even dowry as a practice was started with good intents: The immovable property of the family was given to the son and the movable property was given to the daughter. This led to both dowry and male-dominated property inheritance laws in India. Head fake learning has done more harm than good to this society since the reality has barely been discovered in the minds of the masses.

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  4. The feeling after you read this article is similar to that one feels when the roller coaster has slowed down after a rapid ride. A brilliantly clever take on the promotion aspect. Waiting eagerly for the sequel 🙂

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