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Divining the marketing pitch

March 28, 2014

Alokananda Chakraborty on the book, FOR GOD'S SAKE-- An Adman on the Business of Religion-- by Ambi Parameswaran.


If the McDonald's outlet down the road were to charge the same amount of money for its McChicken and Aloo Tikki burgers, you would probably say the multinational is out to fleece you. On the other hand, if your friendly neighbourhood bhojanalayadid something similar and labelled its vegetarian sandwich "Jain Shudh Burger", chances are you will be ready to shell out a premium for it. Such is the power of marketing, and that is exactly what Ambi Parameswaran - you really need an introduction here? - has sought to explore in his new book, For God's Sake.Mr Parameswaran - okay, Dr M G Parameswaran is a 30-year advertising veteran, and is now advisor, FCB (earlier Draftfcb + Ulka Advertising) - is clearly not interested in the my-religion-is-better-than-your-religion genre of arguments that has taken on an alarming intensity these days. A compilation of essays (24 in all, spread over 258 pages if you take into account the acknowledgement and index sections) based on his own experiences, For God's Sakehas a simple agenda: to understand the ways in which religiosity interacts with the manner in which we are marketed to, the way we shop and the way we express our desires.

At the outset, Mr Parameswaran says the book owes its origins to the topic of his PhD thesis. Somewhere down the line he realised that, while religion was a strong force in the country, very little had been written about the myriad ways in which consumer behaviour in India was influenced - and was guided - by religious beliefs and practices. And For God's Sake was born - or written, to be precise.

But is the marketing trope of leveraging God and religion a typically Indian trend? Doesn't it happen in the more evolved markets as well?

Religion is a powerful force in every country, he concedes. Even in a developed country like the United States, there is a strong revival of the Christian Church. However, in global advertising, religious symbolism is not very visible. American consumer researchers have not studied the interaction of religion and consumer behaviour as much as they should have. In fact, thanks to privacy concerns, even the US Census does not ask about one's religion. International brands, therefore, do not use overt religious symbols. There are, of course, exceptions. In the 2013 Super Bowl, for instance, there was a very moving Ford commercial with the line "And God Created the Farmer".

In contrast, in India, we have always had an overt display of religious sentiments and festivals. While global marketers do use occasions like Christmas to push sales, in India we use almost every festival - including Akshaya Tritiya, Valentine's Day and Ramadan - to sell everything from utensils to cars. If you look around, you will find that marketers are constantly exploring new festival "options" to connect with consumers.

Mind you, using religion as a marketing hook is not exactly a new trend. The oldest example of brands piggy-backing on religion in India is the multi-coloured God calendars of the early 20th century. Soaps and beverages started using God-themed calendars as a way of occupying mind space and wall space in Indian homes and shops. In fact, some of those calendars have become collectors' items today and command premium prices.

Once you accept the fact that the idea of exploiting religion to push products off the shelves is not exactly new or quintessentially Indian, it is easy to appreciate the anecdotes the author uses in the book and see their relevance.

My wow moment was the story of how one Katy Modi was able to sell her car in a jiffy. To cut a long story short, when her father died, she began looking for a buyer for her father's Morris Minor. After a lot of debate and discussion on how to do it as quickly as possible, some wise soul suggested the for-sale advertisement should talk about the car's pedigree. So the final advertisement read: "A Parsi-owned Morris Minor 1952 model for sale…." The car was sold in a day.

The moral of the story: in the Indian automobile market, a Parsi-owned car always fetches a better price; a Parsi is supposed to be someone who loves history and tradition.

All the same, Mr Parameswaran also cautions readers of the potential booby traps of religion-based marketing. First, he says in his research that he did not find any big difference between a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian consumer when it came to comparing how each evaluated durable brands. However, he did find that a more religious consumer was a bit different from a less religious consumer. Interestingly, the more religious consumer is also more demanding and probably quite adept at playing the consumption game in the name of religion. For instance, religious tourism consists of well over 50 per cent of all leisure travel undertaken by Indians. Also, few people will buy a flat today unless it is vaastu-compliant. He also says that religious typecasting is a blemish on society and that we should learn to read between the lines that appear in the popular media and political sabre-rattling.
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