One of the major trends we have been tracking for some time is the rise in the influence of religious beliefs as a driver of people’s values and behaviour. A MarketingWeb article on the issue (extracted from Nilewide) puts it succinctly and clearly. This is an issue marketers need to take seriously.
Read this interesting insight below, or at MarketingWeb here.

Brands in a secular world
The post WW2 years have been a period of almost continual economic growth and materialism, which has coincided with a growth in secularism. However, since the turn of the century, and particularly post 9/11, there has been a resurgence of religious belief in the West.
This may simply be a natural swing from one end of the spectrum to another (facilitated by a level of affluence where all basic needs are met) or a response to the perceived shallowness of secular life and fear due to world events. In other parts of the world, religious beliefs may not have declined as they did in the West, but some countries have seen an increase in fundamentalist beliefs.
Whatever the reasons for these changes, marketers cannot ignore them. Religion plays an increasing role in many purchases, both directly and indirectly. In extreme cases, religious backlashes have destroyed companies and brands.
The state of the world
Only 20 years ago, it would have been difficult to believe that the world would be in what some have called a “state of war” with both sides drawing on religious beliefs (even if those views are extreme and not representative of what many believe religion stands for). But the war on terror, continuing violence in the Middle East focused on Palestine and Israel, genocides in Africa, religious riots in India, riots in France, cultural violence and anti-Muslim feelings in Australia, homegrown religious extremists in England, and so on, show that religion is a fundamental global touchpoint.
One of the side effects of the “war on terror” is the growth of anti-American sentiment in some Muslim cultures. This has provoked the establishment of new brands to rival American brands, such as Mecca Cola in UAE and ZamZam Cola in Iran. The response of some Muslims to cartoons in a Danish newspaper led the Danish dairy company, Arla Foods, to lose nearly all its annual Middle Eastern sales of US$430-million. Religion and capitalism can therefore be powerfully intertwined, but not always in a positive way (1).
The principle of separating Church and State is no longer adhered to as religious political parties in many countries and openly religious political leaders base decisions on their beliefs. If politicians believe religion is now crucial to electoral success (true in many countries) business leaders must also see its importance.
Evangelical fervour
Today, 70 million Americans (a quarter of the population) call themselves evangelical Christians, more than seven million Americans go to church on Sunday, and nearly 50% of people who attend church go to just 10% of churches (2). These are the megachurches, famous for their massive congregations, vibrant styles, and high concentration of African-Americans. They are also threatening to some of their long established, traditional counterparts, especially considering their relative decline. Evangelical churches are the new brand of religion.
This new brand is not without its critics, particularly as it uses many of the tools of marketing: marketing surveys, wealth-creation advice, and even priests who call themselves “pastorpreneurs”. The head of the World Council of Churches claimed it was a church being organised on “corporate logic” (3). Whatever its logic, it appeals to people who have grown up with corporate-speak, and who see the new church as something novel and exciting. Attendance at evangelical churches has gone up by 57% in five years, and their average income in 2005 was US$6-million (US$7.2-billion for all churches) (4).
Religion and capitalism
The teachings of the bible do not sit comfortably with materialist or capitalist leanings, so it is perhaps surprising that new churches, like Hillsong, have found a way to bring wealth into the chapel. This church goes so far as to say people can become wealthier with God. Brian Houston, one of the founders, wrote a book called You Need More Money: Discovering God’s Amazing Financial Plan for Your Life (5).
A new industry has sprung up, of faith-based consultancies, chief financial and chief operating officers, and leaders with MBAs. One church even provides mortgage brokers and real estate agents.
Other religions have perspectives on materialism similar to the basic tenet of bible teachings. Greed, materialism and coveting what others have and you do not, are themes that many religions explore and warn against. Some go further with the Koran outlawing the basic capitalist idea of charging interest. This is an example of how religion fundamentally shapes the way business operates in many cultures.
This is not to say that religion and capitalism cannot peacefully co-exist. There is a long tradition of American companies working with local churches. For example, Maxwell House has for 68 years run a gift-with-purchase offer for a Passover Haggadah (a book that tells the story of the holiday in Hebrew and English) and distributes about 750,000 copies through grocery stores annually (6).
The difference now is that churches compete fiercely with one another for members, in the same way that companies compete in the market, and companies now work at a national or international level. As an example, in 2005 Disney offered pastors a chance to win a free trip to London and US$1,000 cash if they mentioned Disney’s Narnia film in their sermons. Pepsi provided a bus service for the elderly in exchange for one church’s bulk purchase of Pepsi. MasterCard offers more than 150 credit and debit cards tailored to specific religions or religious organisations around the globe.
For some, this is akin to “putting the [moneylenders’] tables back into the temple” and for others, it offers a potential new market.
Religious advertising
Just as some companies choose to align themselves with religious groups, religious groups are becoming more adept at selling themselves. The marketing of religion is already well underway. In Britain, the popular Alpha Church took the line: “Church. It isn’t as churchy as you think.” Its cinema ad for the Alpha Course managed to advertise the faith without any mention of God, religion or church (7). Marketers might see it as a canny rebranding of church, while committed churchgoers fume at its sacrilegious, post-modern intentions.
The Churches Advertising Network in Britain launched a provocative Christmas campaign of 2005 with a picture of Jesus in the style of Che Guevara, with the caption, “Meek. Mild. As if.” It is not surprising that some traditional believers were offended (20). Some might question the need for a church advertising network at all, since advertising still smacks of the secular world.
As churches grasp that there is growing interest in religion, they are likely to use more of advertising’s methods to encourage the trend. One way is through the popular media, in particular, mainstream films.
A new direction for brands?
The rise of religion in the West, particularly evangelical religions, and the strength of other religions in the developing world, means that brands must start to consider their own position. Until now most brands have tried to remain secular, to appeal to people of all religions. But current trends suggest this will be increasingly difficult, as religion has entered the world of brands invited or not.
At the international level, many companies have moved away from their country/culture of origin in an attempt to be more local in each market in which they operate. They hope this will shield them from negative views of their home country and religion. There are at least some indications that this works for American brands.
The next step is the most difficult one – taking a religious position. Is this a Muslim, Hindu or Christian brand? Western brand managers will no doubt be fearful of this step because it will limit their market. But the longer they resist the step, the more opportunity there is for smaller brands to build a base of religiously-influenced buyers.
After a period in decline, when economic growth and materialism came to the fore, religion is on the rise again. In the West evangelical churches have rebranded religion and made it attractive to the masses, and they are using many corporate methods to advertise and expand their audiences. Religion is finding its way into the mainstream, helped by movies, music, pay TV and books. How brands navigate this non-secular world will be important, especially as multicultural societies in many countries increase the religiosity of the masses. Marketers may have to take a stand as to what side they are on, remembering that whatever side they choose risks alienating the other. Is it wise for brands to find God? Is there a choice?
1. Ettenson, R. et al (2006) Rethinking consumer boycotts. MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW (USA). Sum, 6-7.
2. Anon. (2006) Product placement in the pews? Microtargeting meets megachurches. KNOWLEDGE @ WHARTON (USA). Nov 15, online.
3. Morris, L. (2006) Rise of megachurches may be dangerous, top cleric warns. SYDNEY MORNING HERALD (AUS). Feb 23, online.
4. Baird, J. (2006) The good and bad of religion-lite. SYDNEY MORNING HERALD (AUS). Feb 23, online.
6. Spreading the word.
7. Tomkins, S. (2005) By your adverts ye shall be known. BBC.COM (UK). Sep 14, online.
This is an excerpt from Nilewide Vol 22 No 24. For more information or to subscribe, go to

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