By Deeksha Sivakumar
Religion has always provided a reliable and recognizable brand name in the realm of the market where choices are too many. This is especially so in India, where Hindu gods have more celebrity appeal than any movie star and “Hinduism” quite actively involves itself in branding and public relations (PR). This usually occurs in three very visible ways:
1) Gods’ Celebrity appeal: Anything sold by a company named after a god, or endorsed by a god, celebrates success. Moreover, customers are more likely to think that those products have authentic powers to cure, heal, and enhance their lifestyle. This is very easy to regulate, because most Hindu gods come with favorite herbs, scents, objects, vehicles, animals, etc. They lend themselves to be easy brand ambassadors for their chosen goods and services. Sandal paste, flutes, yellow silk garments, peacocks, and butter, these are a few of Krishna’s favorite things. Gokul sandal powder and Brahma Herbs are popular brands associated with deities.
2) FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) companies promote prasādam and ritual offerings during major public festivals. Much like concerts in America where RedBull and Radioshack offer energy drinks and entertainment, FMCG companies inspire local masses to buy their products by supporting public rituals. Recently in the Durga Puja of Bengal, rice and clarified butter companies paid for and offered their special ingredients to make the prasādam, which would be distributed among the visiting devotees.
3) Big corporate sponsors foster competition among practioners for festival displays and decorations by offering large cash prizes, especially during Navarathiri in Tamil Nadu. Local Newspapers provide certificates and publicity for winning doll displays in Arcot district. The abundance bestowed by the goddess during this festival is celebrated and interpreted as charity from media and wealthy family-owned companies. There is a social obligation to share the prosperity from the goddess with everyone else. Participating in such rituals is encouraged by the gods. When Navarathiri season begins, buying is essential to the festival itself. The market is encouraged and promoted every season. From an economic standpoint, Hindu rituals, festivals, and everyday life seem indispensable to support an economy based on goods and services.
In an American context, by contrast, this sort of overt use of God(s) to sell butter or soap would likely been seen as manipulative. Though religion affects our choices of cereal or President, god isn’t visibly endorsing them, and isn’t allowed too; because goods and services explicitly marketed through god’s aid may offend “secular” or non-religious sentiments. However, choice isn’t always an unhindered act. In choosing, we are often acting out of things that affect us, and god or religion is no exception. Also, while choosing is seemingly permitted to the consumer, the endorser, in this case god, isn’t allowed to choose anything at all.
To religious people too however, it may seem trivializing to associate an omnipotent god with basic human choices. Here, religion is incompatible with branding as it is considered politically incorrect and rather irreverent to mix religion and quotidian goods. Religious festivals like Christmas always talk about sharing rather than buying in a “true” Christmas sense. It seems rather hypocritical to me to identify that selling/buying goods and services is modern and inauthentic, and real Christmas is about giving. In order to give, one must buy or take, and the idea that objects trade hands thus accruing value is an antiquated one. To create this value, good marketing is required.
But after all what is irreverent and inauthentic about an act that sustains so much of our world like marketing and branding does? Religion, taking on a good marketing strategy always ‘catches us young’ and brands our choices with god(s). We are taught religion in most families before we are taught about sex. We are taught to do things that god likes us to do and stay away from things that god would punish us for, labeling some actions, in other words, as ‘endorsed by god.’ Just like any good marketer must create branding for a good or a service, religion’s marketers too must seek to create good faith among the masses. In this sense, the idea that branding is something outside of religion’s purview is quite absurd. To me, religion and marketing often go hand in hand and borrow technologies and strategies from one another.