Promise – large promise – is the soul of advertising; Samuel Johnson (1709-84).

For God’s Sake: An Adman on the Business of Religion by Ambi Parameswaran is an interesting read. Tackling the subject of “Religion” that’s normally avoided along with discussing caste, Ambi has produced a useful work that can serve as a reference for any marketer working in India.

The author Ambi Parameswaran is a veteran of Advertising industry in India and was former CEO of DraftFCB Ulka, a leading Ad Agency. He has the benefit of being there when consumerism took off in India especially post the economic liberalization of 1991; till then Indian households had access to few brands in each category with rationing and quotas being the norm. Whether it was soft-drinks or cars all of a sudden the roles changed with brands which hitherto didn’t bother to reach customers had to learn “marketing” in its true meaning. The bigger brands of India had help here with Ambi by their sides and this book is a ring-side view of the journey.

The book gets a perfect start with the quote of the first Thirukural which says just like Alphabets begins with “A”, so does the Universe with God. Ambi starts with explaining Religiosity and Consumer Behaviour, after all advertisement is all about understanding the latter. To establish that Religion for Indians cuts across all their divisors like age, sex or region. The author reminds the readers on how vast majority of the billion Indians stayed glued to Television sets for 78 weeks while Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana played in 1987 and B.R.Chopra’s Mahabharat in the following year. We see how Akshaya Trithiya and Karva Chauth, two simple religious practices have been turned by smart marketers across the country into major shopping bursts.

The other day a friend of mine showed me the draft of a cover design of her upcoming book, I noticed that all the ladies in the image were sporting a Bindi (the decorative dot worn in forehead centre by Hindu/Jain women as a symbol of piousness) which was odd. Ambi talks about how advertising shows mothers with bindi as a way to trigger “conservative” button in the consumers mind and ladies sans bindi is shown to attract the modern and the young.

Recently I learned from Bharat Matrimony’s founder & CEO Murugavel Janakiraman on the vast potential of weddings industry in India – over 15 million weddings happen every year in the country. Ambi explores on this subject too, giving us examples of GRT Jeweller in Chennai releasing calendars showing auspicious dates for Hindu Weddings in a year. And we know well that Indian weddings are greatly influenced by Religion at every step, any advertisement targeting the would-be weds have to be cognizant of their Religious background.

The book then talks of how a consumer goods retailer Vivek & Co in Chennai turned an off-season into one of the biggest “new” seasons. Ambi talks about how festivals of non-Hindus too needs to be tapped for marketing, like the Eid-ul-Fitr is being used by shops in USA to sell to Muslim consumers. In the book it’s not only religion we read about but also of Astrology, Vastu Shastra (traditional view of how nature affects human places of living), Upanishad (ancient texts), Religious Travel (Pilgrimage) and even medicinal (Ayurveda) / dietary (vegetarian/non-vegetarian) knowledge being used for branding campaigns. We learn that women in India pray more and that every fifth Indian will be a Muslim.

Ambi convinces the reader that basic study/awareness of religions should be part of business schools. I will suggest that “For God’s Sake” should be a compulsory read for every expat in/targeting India and for every marketing manager in the country.

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