Why Brands Need To Understand Religion

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There are more small and big temples in India than there are hospitals and schools, according to sociologists. In India we see religion everywhere but you would be hard pressed to locate a few pages on the impact of religion on branding activities in marketing textbooks. Often religion lurks behind what is called “Cultural Studies.” But why?
Marketing as a term can be traced back to 1884 according to Oxford English Dictionary, but its use was probably the way most Indians use it colloquially, marketing is “going to the market.” The field of study that we call Marketing actually emerged from Economics as a separate field of study only in the 1900s, the first course on “Marketing of Products” was offered by University of Pennsylvania in 1905, and coincidentally Harvard set up its B School a few years later.

Marketing and consumer behavior scholars in the United States did not look at religion as an area of study until the 1980s. Given this lack of longitudinal data from America on religion and consumer behavior, most books on this topic devote at best a page to religion and consumers, and it is often tucked away into the section on cultures and sub-cultures.

Global research done by organizations like Pew Research Center show that more than 8 out of 10 people around the world identify with a religious group. Studies show that Indians are among the most religious consumers in the world. More than 90% claim to be visiting temples or places of worship every week. And 95% believe in God.
And all around us we are seeing how religion is affecting the way we consume products and services.

Take, for instance, tourism in India. It has been reported that well over 50% of all holiday travel is really religious tourism. And this is not restricted to the millions who go to the Kumbh Mela and such large gatherings. In fact, tour operators have tailored religious tours to cater to various socio-economic groups.

If we look at entertainment, it is interesting to note that the first Indian film was a religious-themed one, Raja Harishchandra. And from the days of Ramayana/Mahabharata to the present craze for Mahadev, Indian consumers’ appetite for religious-themed entertainment is not going to be satiated anytime soon. Look at the Best Seller lists and Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi rules the charts.
Or take Indian music. If you exclude film songs, the biggest segment of music is religious-themed music. Even in caller ring-back tones, religious music and religious shlokas are a big segment.

Even religious festivals are becoming bigger and better every year, and newer religious festivals are springing up and finding support across India.

Look at the booming construction activity and you will find that builders are offering “Vaastu-compliant” flats; it interesting to note that the Vaastu guidelines were originally prescribed for Indian temples (most Hindu temples have an open space in the center and so on).

Where does this leave brands? Do they need to understand how religion can affect their fortune? Can they use religious practices to their advantage? Or should brands be cautious before invoking religious sentiment in their marketing campaigns?

Well, not really, say sociologists like M.N. Srinivas, who have observed that an Indian’s relationship with God is a mix of adulation and negotiation. And Indians are not averse to favoring brands that are “religious themed.” Brands that have nothing to do with India or Hinduism can wear the religious cloak with impunity. Look at Lladró, a Spanish brand selling Rama and Krishna idols at super-premium prices.

So if your brand can ride the religious wave, do not hold back. Figure out the festival you can capitalize on. Or the holy city where you can pitch your tent.

Ideas derived from Ambi’s book For God’s Sake: An Adman on the Business of Religion, published by Penguin India.