Religion will throw up a lot of interesting business opportunities

Written by Anushree Chandran | Updated: Mar 4 2014, 08:48am hrs
Religion is at the heart of Indian life, and marketers have capitalised on this to create winning campaigns. Using anecdotes and research from his 35 years in advertising, Ambi Parameswaran, erstwhile executive director and chief executive officer of Draftfcb Ulka Advertising, and currently advisor at the agency, has written his new book For Gods Sake. He has earlier authored several books on brand building, advertising and consumer behaviour. In an interview with FE BrandWagons Anushree Chandran, Parameswaran talks about the new and emerging business opportunities in the area of religion. Edited excerpts:

How did the idea come about for the book

I did my PhD on consumer behaviour and religiosity and after I was finished with it, I thought it could be converted into a book. I reorganised a lot of the matter around topics such as festivals, wedding, home, decoration, music, movies, etc. And thats how the book came about. Unlike the western world, in Indian advertising, we use a lot of religious symbols and motifs. I see religion as having two sides to it. One is a celebratory side. And the other is the introspective meditative side. The former is used by the advertising community a lot. The latter is yet to be explored as much by the marketing community.

Are a lot of the religious symbols also fading away from ads Such as the bindi

One of the chapters does say that. But it doesnt mean that religiosity is going down. Indians continue to be religious but certain external manifestations are being reduced. This could be because we want to portray that we are becoming modern. So we dont show a woman wearing a bindi in an advertisement. But it would be wrong to assume that just because we dont see women sporting a sari or a bindi in television commercials; Indian women have become more liberated and less religious. In published surveys Indian men and women in the age group of 17-24 years have been revealed to be as religious as the older generation. And this is quite unlike the West.

What are the lessons for marketers in your book

Brands can benefit a lot by understanding how religion is important in a consumers life. It is important for us to put time, effort and money to understand the multi-religious nature of this country. Muslims will be 20% of the Indian population in the next few years, so thats a sizeable population we are looking at. A lot of marketers dont understand the Muslim consumer at all. You need to put enough time and effort to understand the Muslim consumer and I dont think that we are doing enough. For instance, why dont Muslim consumers buy as much insurance And what are the insurance companies doing about it Religion is going to throw up a lot of interesting business opportunities. I have talked about a few in the book, for example, the whole area of religious tourism. Half of the tourism in India is religious and there is a huge opportunity for us to leverage that. Also, we should understand the whole concept of seasonality. You should look at seasons where traditionally you dont have much sale of products and services, and try and create opportunity by putting up certain offers. The whole concept of a New Year sale came about this way.

Harvard Business School sent a delegation to study the Kumbh Mela. What are the lessons that can be learnt from such an exercise

The Maha Kumbh in 2013 was a humungous exercise since you had to create temporary living places for around 100,000 people in about six months time. And then you had to dismantle it in four weeks. And to our credit, it was executed perfectly. Our client Tata Swach (water purifier) had a fair presence at the Kumbh, and they decided not to allow any PET bottles inside. So if you wanted water you had to go to a drinking station and use a stainless steel glass and drink. The place was kept completely free from garbage. The learnings from the Maha Kumbh can be used for disaster relief and refugee camps. You can set up small townships for specific events. Brands used the occasion smartly, whether it was Tata Swach or Lifebouy.

Have marketers milked the wedding bandwagon enough

This is one area that has been milked to the maximum. Yet a brand called Manyawar comes from nowhere, focuses on ethnic wear for Indian men and builds a R500 crore business in five years. If you were to rank apparel (ready to wear) brands, Manyawar will be among the top five. They took one niche and excelled in it. With Indian weddings becoming four day-five day affairs, there was a real opportunity for ethnic wear for men. But why focus on weddings alone The fact is that in India, a significant segment of society has become wealthy. They need to be given occasions to spend money without guilt and religious functions give that nice sugar-coating. So there is no reason why the Pehla Janamdin or the first birthday cant become as big as the Godh Bharai. I see a big opportunity for ready-to-wear saris as well in the next five years. There could be newer versions that are easier to drape.

What about the rest of the world Have other countries linked brands, consumer behaviour and religion as effectively

The US has seen a huge revival of faith. But researchers havent studied religion as much in the US and have certainly not linked it to consumption or brand related behaviour. As a country, the US does not collect religious data even during a census, as it is considered as invasion of privacy. Half of Europe is soon going to be Muslim. Its important that they open up this area for study. But to be fair, even in India, this area is relatively new. We dont know enough.