September 1, 2009

Selling Salvation

One of the regional magazines I occasionally read, Marketing, has a cover story for the month of August about religious marketing, entitled "Selling Salvation." (Unfortunately, the article is not online.) The basic theme of the article is that "marketers have much to learn from religion"; more specifically, how religious institutions market themselves, especially to gain new followers. Most of the article focuses on two evangelical Christian megachurches (which is somewhat ironic, considering that Christianity is very much a minority religion here, behind both Buddhism and Islam). However, there is some interesting information about the various marketing methods the three main religions here use. More commentary follows at the bottom.

Islamic groups inform the public about upcoming religious events by advertising in Malay-language newspapers, paid for by travel agents which [sic] arrange travel plans for the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimages [sic] to Mecca. Posters to encourage young Muslims to attend seminars, lectures and fun camps are hung outside mosques, where leaflets are distributed to promote a better understanding of Islam among non-Muslims.

Buddhist organizations ... engage young people through cultural activities such as lion dances, charity shows and martial arts training, and through youth groups... Buddhists are active in universities, too, with religious societies set up in all the major high education institutions.

First time attendees ... are ushered to the front of the queues that amass ... before each of four services on Sundays. After the service, new members are led to a "welcome room" where a white-shirted "server" takes down personal details and gives them a welcome pack.

Inside the pack is a booklet on the values of the church, a directory with information on services, meetings and contact details of cell group leaders, an introductory CD of sermons..., and a church magazine...

Outside the auditorium is a gift shop where CDs, DVDs, postcards, posters, books ... and other memorabilia are on sale. ...

Critics also like to point out that [the pastor's] teachings have such appeal because they push the "prosperity message" of financial and material gain. ...


A use of topical language delivered with local humor is combined with what observers say is these churches' most effective marketing platform: music.

"The evangelical Christian churches have been brilliant at drawing the young crowd with good-looking, witty pastors with sharp suits and gelled hair... But the secret is music. [Another church] is like one big karaoke session - a sort of religious version of Singapore Idol..."

[Both churches] have their own music publishing businesses that have propelled them into mainstream culture. Associations with celebrities have helped too.

An offshoot [of the second church] reportedly has plans to quite literally put its brand at the heart of the mainstream by building a mall with a church in the middle, and shops, cinemas and restaurants positioned around it.

High visibility and "mainstream appeal" has ... enabled the evangelical churches to attract affluent, upper-middle class Singaporeans who help the church expand faster (and spend more on marketing) thanks to the generosity of their donations.

The article continues with a brief section on how all three religions are taking advantage of the Internet, including Facebook, Twitter, blogs and Youtube. The article also describes how both Islam and Christianity have been using similar methods:

A strategic focus of Islam ... has been to instill moral values among youth, build self-esteem and temper the rise in delinquency and unwanted pregnancies. This is a worry for Christians too, and both religions have started to address the issue using the same marketing tool: cell groups.

"Youth are at an impressionable phase in their lives where they are discovering and building their identities. Religion is able to fulfill many voids that they might feel at this point ... Cell groups play a support function allowing them access to a trusted group that they can turn to for advice, encouragement and comfort."

The last column of the article has some of the best information:

"The peer-to-peer networking structure that religion employs, empowers followers on every level to be an advocate." ...

The value of the "feel good" factor is something else brands can learn from religion.

"One almost always feels good after going to the church/temple/mosque and making a donation because they believe they're earning good karma... This is a particularly important lesson for brands in light of the current economic situation where many are losing their jobs and have to tighten their belts. Those who have may feel guilty when they spend."

Brands can alleviate this sense of guilt by adopting CSR [corporate social responsibility] initiatives linked to the consumer experience. ...

One of religion's most successful strategies has been its immersion in local communities. Religions support local activities, raise funds for charities and set up schools. ...

Probably religion's biggest allure is that it gives consumers values they can live by. Brands should follow suit. ...

"The values that religions preach are open to interpretation, allowing followers to make it their own. In this way, they don't feel like they are buying blindly into something, but rather adopting a belief system that they genuinely aspire to and abide by in their daily lives." ...

"Religion helps people in their quest for a deeper level of fulfillment. This is their secret."

What the article doesn't mention regarding Islam in Singapore is that Muslims also employ a number of the other marketing tools that the Christian megachurches use. While almost every masajid in Singapore doesn't have anyone to greet non-Muslims who might want to look around the masjid (the most notable exception is Masjid Sultan), there is Darul Arqam - The Muslim Converts Association to Singapore, which provides numerous classes about Islam to those who are fairly serious about learning more about the religion. At Darul Arqam is a bookstore very similar to what is described in the article. New Muslim converts also receive a "welcome pack" as well; mine included a Yusuf Ali translation of the Qur'an, a prayer rug, a sarong, and a prayer compass, all packed into an attractive cloth briefcase. I also received (at the MUIS headquarters) S$40 as part of the zakat that's supposed to be given to converts, as mentioned in the Qur'an.

Should Muslims adopt other marketing techniques? I would say, it depends. As described in the article, music and the shopping mall experience? No way. (That passage reminds me all too much of certain passages in Robert Heinlein's novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, involving the so-called Fosterite Church.) On the other hand, I think Muslims worldwide could do a better job promoting ourselves through print media. Books we have aplenty; four-color offset-printed magazines can be found. (Do they add value to the marketing proposition, though, other than to say, "Look, we can be slick too with high production values.") What I would like to see more of is lower-cost, monthly-produced magazines. Despite the fact that both of the Jehovah Witnesses' two tracts, Awake! and The Watchtower and the infamous Chick Tracts are banned here in Singapore, I think, if done properly (and without the hate as in the latter publication), both formats could be successful as a means to educate non-Muslims about Islam and Muslim society.

On the digital front, the problem isn't that Muslims don't use the Internet to good advantage; on the contrary, I think we use Facebook, blogging and Youtube quite well. The big problem is that our message has become diluted through clutter, specifically, the hate messages spread by Islamophobes. Using a simple search term like "Islam" generally brings about 75% hate on blog search engines like Google and Technorati. Youtube isn't much better. How to rectify this problem? I'm not sure.


Anonymous said...

Why are there so damn f***ing MANY Islamophobic sites and blogs? Are some of them run by people who are employed by organizations specifically for this purpose?

kinzi said...

Great write-up, J. Interesting to see the common angle and thrust of both our faiths (I know nothing about Buddhism).

One missing link was that generally, people don't go to a church 'just because' or even all the hype mentioned. They go because they have another believer encouraging them.

It made me a little wistful for 'converts' to Christianity here in Jordan. They cannot fellowship with regular churches (informers), and some pastors are so afraid of the guv that they don't welcome them. The churches that do are regularly harassed. So these people have their own system.

@ George, I've read some of those sites, and while some are respectful, most are not. They seem to be put on by individuals without much connection to organizations. It seems a big feeder to Islamophobia is the perceived double standard.

A Christian cannot bring a Bible to school or pray in school, but a Muslim may bring a Quran. Charter schools cannot teach Christianity, but get funding for schools with Islamic curriculum.

What I have learned, as a Christian, is to live in a way no one can slander my faith to my face, and always denounce those who publicly blow their testimony (Mark Sanford, Ted Haggart, etc.)

Muslims who do the same are the ones I respect the most. Muslims who stand for protecting the rights of religious minorities in Muslim lands get my vote and cookies, too.

JDsg said...

@ George: I wrote up this post as a partial response to your question. I don't think the Islamophobic websites and blogs are being run by shadow organizations; I do think that a lot of people are scared of Islam for some of the reasons I wrote in the other post.

@ Kinzi: They go because they have another believer encouraging them.

Yes, I would very much agree with that.