Strategic Perspective on how Spiritual Brands work
- Nimal CN
This paper intends to study how the various religious orders called ‘Spiritual Brands’ are
marketed and the strategic implications of the same. In an era of competition, religious
institutions are using different strategies and promotional efforts to sustain themselves. A
study on how these brands have been built over the years and their strategic marketing
perspective is likely to come out with something for marketers of other commodities or
services to learn from and replicate.
Keywords: Spiritual Brands, Strategic Marketing, Religions and Need Satisfaction.
In the early society people worshipped the sun, wind and fire. They were afraid of these
phenomenon and those things which they could not control, they revered. Soon there
were stories associated with these Gods and slowly they were imputed with human form
and qualities. Temples and other places of worship began to be built for them.
Origin and chronology of religion: A summary
The purpose of human life was considered to be salvation and this salvation was possible
only if people adhered to certain tenets which soon became religions. Besides beliefs,
religion also meant following certain rituals that was prescribed. Later when society
wanted to control people and their behaviour they started using the fear of these Gods as
Over the years people no longer wanted just salvation for the soul but something much
more tangible and material. So, good deeds were supposed to bring you closer to heaven
which was the ultimate place in terms of comfort and luxury. This was also not
acceptable by the turn of the twentieth century. People wanted things to happen now and
not after death or in the next life. Prayer and religion was soon supposed to bring material
things and ultimately peace of mind. Once the immanent God became obscure through
the intervention of such institutions as the synagogue, temple, church and mosque slowly
people started moving away from religion. Religious orders found that they could not
retain people with fear; they had to come out with something different.
Background of the study
God is an abstract entity that is intangible in nature. There are numerous religious orders
who live by selling the concept called God and the ways and means to reach his presence.
The marketing of the service they are offering is a minor miracle by itself since you are
trying to sell something that is unseen, unknown and unheard and giving advice on how
to achieve its presence. Which would in turn, give you certain benefits which were again
abstract. And all this, without any concrete proof that would satisfy the five senses. In
fact if we go further we can see that almost all the tenets of marketing are closely adopted
from the way religions have originated and grown.
These are socio-religious organizations, organizations which tackles social problems
while at the same time use spirituality not only to attain salvation but how to solve
organizational and even relationship problems, an extension of what Mara Einstein
(2008) calls ‘Faith Brands’1
. When we talk of spiritual brands we are talking of different
religions with their numerous subsects and the grouping of believers under the
spokesmanship of a particular evangelist who runs their own versions of the some
religion. These include such foreign brands as Kabbalah Centre and United Way and
Indian ones like Missionaries of Charity, Chinmaya Mission, Art of Living and Prasanna
Trust. All these brands may not be strictly similar, and that is what makes a study of these
more interesting - to understand what are the things that they have in common.
Specifics of the study
Secondary data has been mostly used for the study. Numerous Spiritual Brands including
Chinmaya Mission, Art of Living, Missionaries of Charity, United Way, Prasanna Trust
and Mata Amritananda Mayi Mutt has been studied, with their websites and published
material providing the majority of the data. Other websites have also been a source of
information. Television programmes based on the Brands and speeches by their spiritual
leaders were watched and observations made as part of primary data collection.
The Strategic Perspective
The first step in any strategic marketing process is to "find a need and meet it". Then
tailoring a product to satisfy that specific need. After that of course comes the nitty gritty
of the the actual distribution and hard core marketing of the product. This is where most
of the strategy comes, where the branding comes. And socio-religious organisations in
India have long been following this sequence with the strategic angle being given a fair
bit of importance.
Satisfying a need
For a non profit organization with a religious bend, the first and main objective, of
course, is salvation of the soul. There are also many more needs stated and unstated. In
the present rat race peace of mind is a commodity that is in short supply. Consequently
people have been trying out different methods to achieve inner calm. Religions have over
the years provided succor to these aspirants to happiness. The second is a sense of
belonging. Of being part of a group - a network which will give you support especially in
times of crisis.
Then again are the basic amenities of food, clothing and shelter. Swami Vivekananda
once said quoting his guru Sri Ramakrishna ‘An empty stomach is no use for religion’2
Street children without means for one meal a day and street walkers who had to depend
on the wealthy clientele for survival needed much more than food for the soul. Even
religious orders which were more concerned about the spiritual than material aspects and
did not give more importance to charity over the years had to change to satisfy their
target audience. Now for many spiritual brands charity has become one of the main
objectives. In fact they are the reason many people become part of these religious orders.
Where once religion tried to retain people with fear, now they try with more direct
assistance; sin is no more the agenda, stomach is.
For the corporate, the take home is that you have to clearly define a need and cater to the
same. Although this is easy to preach many corporate don’t actually do it. Besides
people’s need keeps changing and it has to be monitored closely for the company to be
successful in the long term.
Once the need is identified a mission statement which delineates the objective of the
brand has to be formulated. This makes it clear whether an organization is having the
same values and culture as the prospective customer or employee has. Whether their
objective will gel with our objectives. Again the statement has not only to be there in the
PC of the CEO but be clearly spelt out to the stakeholders. And of course … it has to be
Missionaries of Charity To care for…
"The hungry, the naked, the homeless, the
crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those
people who feel unwanted, unloved,
uncared for throughout society, people that
have become a burden to the society and
are shunned by everyone.".
United Way The focus of United Way is “identifying
and resolving pressing community issues,
as well as making measurable changes in
the communities through partnerships with
schools, government agencies, businesses,
organized labor, financial institutions,
community development corporations,
voluntary and neighborhood associations,
the faith community, and others.”
Art of Living “To strengthen the individual and society
by offering programs inspired by His
Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar that
eliminate stress, create a sense of
belonging, restore human values, develop
life to its full potential, and encourage
people from all backgrounds to come
together in celebration, wisdom, and
Chinmaya Mission “To provide to individuals from any
background, the wisdom of Vedanta and
the practical means for spiritual growth
and happiness, enabling them to become
positive contributors to society”
Packaging of the services offered by the Brands are very important. The music, types of
text, additional services, food, all determine whether people come for a sermon. And
whether they continue to contribute to the cause depends on the causes espoused. Outside
of the government it is the religious institutions that have the most number of educational
institutions running in the country. These institutions take all types of hues and sizes.
From primary school and kindergarten to professional post graduate colleges. From stand
alone institutes to global chains. From Hindus to Christians to Muslims. Chinmaya, Don
Bosco, Amrita, Christ… the list goes on. If you look at the charitable activities you find
that Spiritual Brands are again in the forefront. They conduct blood donation camps, they
are there to take care of the homeless, the tsunami victims…
Missionaries of Charity • There are 19 homes in Kolkatta
which cater to refugees, ex-
prostitutes, the mentally ill, sick
children, abandoned children,
lepers, AIDS victims, the aged, and
• Schools run by volunteers to
educate street children
• Soup kitchens, hospices as well as
many other services as per the
Chinmaya Mission • Management Courses and Services
• Medical Services and Training
• Senior citizens' homes
• Research in Sanskrit and Indology
• Rural Village Development
• Schools and Colleges
United Way • Helping children and youth succeed
• Strengthening and supporting
• Improving access to health care
• Promoting financial stability
Mata Amritananda Mayi Math • Schools to colleges of higher
• Multi speciality hospitals
• Soup kitchens
• Providing homes to the homeless
• Succour to the victims of natural
disasters like Tsunami, Katrina..
Art of Living • Organise Executive Training
• Various levels of education
• Trauma relief in areas of trauma
Prasanna Trust • Home for homeless
• Education and executive training
• Blood donation camps
Of course churches, mosques and religious institutions of other denominations have
always been educators, but of a spiritual kind rather than anything material. In fact the
church was very critical of the natural sciences. Then how come things changed? And
why did they start diversifying, both concentric and conglomerate?
The question here is, if the need has been delinated is the product and services offered
suitable to satisfy the need?
If anybody thought that consumer products are having a tough time of it with massive
competition then there is another category where competition is even fiercer, if that is
possible. It is among the spiritual brands. Once the fear factor of God diminished people
started moving away from religion. They had also to fight against the different media of
entertainment as a leisure time activity. With the choice available in the religious market
place the competition also hotted up. On the demand side things were not looking up and
on the supply side the numbers were going up. But luckily for these brands the stresses
and strains of everyday life had started to catch up with people and they needed a prop
very badly. Just that the offerings had to be more stress reductive than salvation more
therapeutical than theological3
What differentiates many of these brands from consumer ones is the fact that many are
unwilling to look at competition as enemies. On the other hand they study them and find
out things that are of worth in each and incorporate them into their own teachings albeit
under different names and words.
Segmentation, Differentiation & Positioning
With the increasing competition, differentiation and the communication of this
differentiation has become important and what the brand promise is decides whether the
‘believer’ will follow that creed or not. Art of living(AOL) is all about Joy, there is lot of
dancing and singing in all the sessions. But Sri Sri Ravishanker became popular with his
Unique Selling Proposition(USP) of Sudarsana Kriya. His face has an innocence which is
also a hall mark of his success. AOL is more upper income in Brand Image than say a
Mata Amritananda Mayi Asram. Prasanna Trust under Swami Sukhabodhananda is even
more upper crust. He is one of the best orators around and the Prasanna Trust website
claims that a Times of India poll on ‘who talks best’ rated him the best in India. Mata
Amritananda Mayi is known as the hugging saint and in her case also innocence is a
major factor for success. Swamy Chinmaya was a proponent of the Bhagavat Gita and it
is the Mission which popularized Gita as a text for the stressed out executive.
Mothers of Charity’s beneficiaries are all among the lowest of the income categories, the
so called scum, people who nobody wants. Their uniqueness is their simplicity and
commitment to service. Christian institutions have been more oriented to the service
aspect than the spiritual and Missionaries of Charity is no different. The reason for this is
also dependent on the fact that Asian nations are more spiritual than western ones. A
study shows that 80% of people in Asia is spiritual as compared to 33% in Great Britain.4
When it comes to United Way the spiritual aspect is the least among the Brands studied.
As of now Kabbalah Centre a Jewish sect is the least service oriented of the Brands
studied. They are mostly a spiritual organization.
If different sects selling the same product – God and peace of mind – can have so many
ways of differentiating themselves it is surprising that many companies refuse to do so
going along with me too products and communication.
Secularism & Globalisation:
But even with all this for a Spiritual Brand to succeed long term the need was to get
people of all cultures and nationalities to follow the order. The conflicting claims,
ideologies and warring religions, who insist that theirs’ is the only way to salvation also
have created a need for something more secular. Art of Living and Prasanna Trust are but
two examples of the latest trend of secular Spiritual Brands which draws from the
teachings of different philosophies, blending together Vedanta with Gestalt, NLP, Reiki,
Zen Buddhism, Sufism, Scientology et al. They quote Shankaracharya, the Bible, and
Osho with equal felicity. Instead of the old beaten methods like Homa and Puja they have
break dancing to group and peer counseling sessions. These educational not for profit
organizations and have found large takers in the corporate sector where executives are
constantly stressed out and are in search of methods to combat the problem. They have
become such huge successes that some have followers in more than a hundred countries
world wide. Globalisation if ever there was one! In fact United Way which was started by
church leaders in the US and the International Red Cross which was started by a
Christian Evangelist, Henri Dunant in Switzerland respectively is as wide spread and
secular as you can get these days. Companies can no longer think local but have to be
The first step of the brand building process is to decide on the brand identity factors and
then communicate them to the target audience. This is a part and parcel of creating an
awareness for the brand. We will take a look at some of the identity factors of the
Name: Some of the names are based on the person who founded the order, Mata
Amritanandamayi, Mahirishi Mahesh Yogi, Swamy Chinmaya and Sri Satya Sai, but
others have been given specific names that are more globally viable. Missionaries of
Charity, United Way have a Christian base but Art of Living has a Hindu orientation.
Prasanna Trust as a name is neither here nor there.
Logo: Most of the Spiritual Brands have a single logo across the world, there are others
which differ from country to country, some with minor, others major variations.
Dress Code: Dress code generally is simple with the nuns of Missionaries of Charity and
Sannyasinis of the Amritanandamayi Math wearing predominantly white sarees, while
that of Chinmaya is the traditional ochre colour. The Swamis of Amritanandamayi Math
wears predominantly white, that of Chimnaya Mission and Swamy Sukhabodhananda of
Prasanna Trust Ochre
Positioning statement: The Spiritual brands have clear cut mottos and baselines which
indicate their positioning in the competitive environment of the religious marketplace.
At least Identity factors is one area where most companies do put in some amount of
thought and effort and off and on you can see rebranding exercises where companies pour
in crores of rupees.
Art Of Living Motto: Serve society and strengthen the
Baseline: We care for the world, we care
Chinmaya Mission Motto: To give maximum happiness to
maximum people for maximum time.
Missionaries of Charity Motto: Trust, surrender and cheerfulness
Prasanna Trust Baseline: Roots of responsibility, wings of
Sri Sathya Sai Baba Ashram Motto: Love all, serve all
All Spiritual Brands use various means of promotional activities. In this internet age it is
not surprising that they are very much present in the world wide web.
Art Of Living artofliving.org
Chinmaya Mission chinmayamission.com
Missionaries of Charity motherteresa.org, laymc.com
United Way liveunited.org
Amritananda Mayi Math amritapuri.org, amma.org
Prasanna Trust prasannatrust.org
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram maharishi.org
Sri Sathya Sai Baba Asram sathyasai.org
Kabbalah Centre kabbalah.com
In most cases the role of the brand ambassador has been occupied by the founder of the
order itself. In some cases the baton has been handed over once they died. There are of
course cases where celebrities in other fields have taken over the roles.
Art Of Living Sri Sri Ravishankar
Chinmaya Mission Swami Chinmayananda
Missionaries of Charity Mother Teresa, Sr.Nirmala
Kabbalah Centre Madonna, Demi Moore
Amritananda Mayi Math Mata Amritananda Mayi Ma
Prasanna Trust Swami Sukhabodhananda
Sri Sathya Sai Baba Asram Sri Sathya Sai Baba
Use of mass media
All these brands use media like posters and banners to announce their events. But TV is
their favourite medium. In fact Amritanandamayi Math has its own secular channel
Amrita TV and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram has a spiritual channel called Maharishi
Channel. There are a number of spiritual channels like TBN, EWTN, GOD, Shalom,
Aastha and Sanskar. Other popular channels also have specific timings(mainly in the
early mornings and early evenings) where the spiritual programmes are telecast. Banners,
posters, bill boards and leaflets are commonly used medium of communication. Mata
Amritananda Mayi has also had a documentary shot on her called “Darshan – The
Embrace”, while Mother Teresa’s “Something Beautiful for God” was shot by Malcolm
Art Of Living Sanskar, regular TV channels, leaflets,
Chinmaya Mission Regular TV channels, leaflets
Prasanna Trust Leaflets
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Asram Maharishi TV(own), Sanskar etc.
Amritananda Mayi Math Amrita TV(own), Sanskar etc.
Missionaries of Charity Regular TV channels(Italian TV), EWTN,
CDs having sermons and devotional songs, photographs, calendars, sacred threads, chains
and rings with symbols like crosses, T-Shirts with messages emblazoned across them are
all sold. This bring them additional revenue as well as free publicity. This is true across
almost all orders. In fact musicals are one of the best promotional methods seen.
Books are a major medium of promotion, not only to create awareness about the order but
to get the message across. These maybe specifically written by the founder or one of
his/her disciples. It maybe the hard copy of sermons and interviews or it maybe just the
biography of the founder. In fact book publishing is one of the major activities most of
these brands are involved in and some come out with dozens of titles a year. Of the
Brands Missionaries of Charity themselves are not into book publishing*. But there are
numerous biographies on Mother Teresa and books on the Mission published by
commercial and catholic publishing houses like Harper Collins, Ignatious Press and
Art Of Living, Sri Sri Ravishankar God Loves Fun, Celebrating Silence, I am
the Sky, Science of Breath, Time, Guru of
Joy, Bang on the Door, The Way of Grace
Chinmaya Mission, Swami
Art of Man making, Meditation and Life,
Holy Geeta, Say Cheese, Lead Kindly
Light, Wandering in Himalayas(Swami
Sri Sathya Sai Baba Ashram My Baba and I, Pathways to God, Love of
Conscience, Transformation of the Heart
Prasanna Trust, Swamy Sukhabodhananda Celebrating Success and Failure, O Life,
Relax Please, O Mind Relax Please,
Wordless Wisdom etc.
Amritananda Mayi Math Ammachi: A Biography, Bhajanamritam
Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa* Mother Teresa: Missionary of Charity,
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta: Missionary of
Charity, Servant of Love: Mother Teresa
and Her Missionaries of Charity
Many of these brands also publish periodicals regularly. This varies from fortnightly, to
monthly to quarterly. Missionaries of Charity doesn’t have a regular magazine, but on the
other hand have a monthly e-newsletter which is sent by the Lay Missionaries of Charity,
a part of Missionaries of Charity*.
Art Of Living, Rishimukh
Chinmaya Mission Tapovan Prasad
Sri Sathya Sai Ashram Sanathana Sarathi
Amritananda Mayi Math Matruvani, Immortal Bliss(Quarterly)
Missionaries of Charity* You did it to me
Stories and myths are the basis of a brand. How you propagate this credibly is very
important in brand building. PR, Publicity and word of mouth play a major role in this.
This is one area where the commercial brands are lagging behind the spiritual ones.
Biographies play a major role in this exercise. So do the devotees. If modern brands can
get their customers to promote the brand through referrals there is nothing like it. But
hardly do we ask clients to do some marketing for us. And good biographies of
companies and their founders are few and far between. Those like Nuts! of South
Western Airlines has helped a lot in building their image.
Conclusions for marketers:
In conclusion what we can take home is that there are a number of things that we can
follow from the successful Spiritual Brands. But unfortunately which we don’t do. The
target audience has to be clearly defined, need found, products properly packaged and the
need satisfied. The mistakes corporate make is that they don’t look at things from the
customers/consumers point of view. If we look at religions they never talk of what it
provides them rather what the members can get out of it. There is a clear customer
orientation which many organizations lack despite the lip service given to it.
There is differentiation even among the spiritual brands to overcome the competition,
brands have to be built block by block using different kinds of techniques. But what
builds Spiritual brands are love and salvation but commercial brands talk of targeting
people, marketing warfare and flanking attacks. They are also unafraid to log on to other
successful philosophies. Isn’t it high time that we saw our customers as our friends,
people to love than making them a target of our product and promotions?
The value and culture aspect is one thing many marketers forget to look at. If we
basically don’t speak the same language as our customer and have the same culture,
values and aspirations, we are unlikely to succeed in the long term. But the researcher for
one has never seen a marketer or an advertising professional study the consumer say on
the Roackeach parameters before coming to some important strategic decision.
But more than all these it is the stories, the myths about the sect and its founder that make
the brand. That defines the culture and values. These stories have to be genuine, if
possible unique and dramatic(as in miracles) and it has to be clearly communicated to the
audience. In the case of the different Spiritual Brands these stories are published as
biographies; as experiences encountered in the prayer meetings. Just like Infosys did with
Narayanamurthy or like Walmart did with Sam Walton we could be taking the brand to a
new dimension. Presenting the consumer with a tangible living entity with whom they
can identify and empathise with rather than a cold, distant conglomerate represented by a
name and a logo.
Reference and word of mouth are the best possible promotional tools and these are areas
which commercial brands have to seriously think about. This is pure common sense.
Some body else talking about you is likely to be listened to more than if you were
blowing your own trumpet. If somebody else says something good about you it would be
more credible than if you did it yourself.
The Musicals and bonhomie of the Satsangs and group activity is a major crowd puller
since people from time immemorial has felt the need to be part of a group and this need
itself is the basis of what we call society. The commercial brands also have used this idea
sparingly with a few clubs and teams, the Harley Davidson club being the best example.
Again this is an area of opportunity for ‘ordinary’ brands.
The study of Spiritual Brands is one which is likely to become biased, based on the
researchers beliefs, but done objectively it is a great exercise to understand how abstract
concepts can be sold to the Target Audience. This paper has tried to study what are the
common areas of strategic intent that the Spiritual Brands have considered. But, there is
more scope to study further and in depth in this area and this paper just scratches the
surface of the concept.
1. Einstein, Mara, Brands of Faith, Routledge, N.York, 2008, p14
2. Letters of Swami Vivekananda, 4th
Edition, Ramakrishna Mission, Calcutta 1976,
3. Cimino, Richard and Lattin, Don, Choosing My Religion, American
Demographics, 1999, p 62
4. Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2002