This week at the University of Lausanne there is a conference of learned scholars to examine the phenomenon of Branding in Religion. Entitled: Religions as Brands. The Marketization of Religion and Spirituality, the conference is looking at the way that modern mainstream religions use branding and other marketing techniques to promote themselves and increase their patronage. Religion is big business, especially in the United States where a disproportionate amount of the population is actively religious in comparison to other western developed nations. The conference is focused on the major religions of the world but the principals being discussed have a similar if not stronger impact on modern and new age religions.
In her book Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age, Mara Einstein said that she “…came to realize that religious products (and by that I mean institutions, not simply crosses and tchotchkes) have become branded in much the same way that consumer products have been branded.” She goes on to point out that many of the newer Christian churches like Hillsong have used marketing to appeal to a youth audience which has in turn altered the nature of the churches themselves.
…religion is a product—when you introduce marketing into a category, you change the category and the products that compete in it. First, in the case of religion, when you market spirituality, you introduce people to the idea that they can shop for it, and so they will, or at least are more likely to. Second, as people are increasingly prone to shop, religions will not only have to increase the level of marketing and promotion in order to be heard among so many competing forces, but they will also be increasingly prone to creating a product that religious consumers will buy. They will change the product to suit the market. Now, this is not to say that religions have never changed with the times. Of course they have. What is different now, however, is the rate at which change occurs.
Just this aspect of marketing religion will certainly affect new age religions as they become more acceptable to the mainstream. The impact in recent years of Wicca being featured in popular films and on television has made it one of the possible alternatives for someone that is shopping for a religion. Wicca is heavily marketed through web sites and glossy magazines and is made to appeal to girls as an instrument of feminine empowerment. Neo-pagan religions have used the environmental issues of our time as a marketing tool to recruit people to a nature religion. Other fringe practices have recently been made extremely popular through celebrity involvement and product placement in the mass media such as Scientology and the current Hollywood fashion for following the once esoteric practice of Kabalah.
The market model views churches and their clergy as religious producers who choose the characteristics of their product and the means of marketing it. Consumers in turn choose what religion, if any, they will accept and how extensively they will participate in it. In a competitive environment, a particular religious firm will flourish only if it provides a product at least as attractive as its competitors’.
(Finke and Iannaccone, 1993, Supply-side explanations for religious change. The Annals of the American Academy p. 29) [n.b. Finke is a speaker at the conference]
One of the hallmarks of modern western society is the importance of branding to the youth culture. Having or wearing the right brands marks you as the right kind of person and the right brand of religion is no different. This has of course been constant throughout history, belonging to the right religion has been vital to success everywhere for as long as there has been more than one religion. What is different now is that the religions are now touting for business. In most developed countries about 2/3 of the population is either not religious or ambivalent or religiously inactive. Church attendances have halved in those countries in just the last 10-20 years and have fallen from much higher percentages only a century ago. This has forced the mainstream religions into a more aggressive marketing stance just to survive. The corporate world has made westerners so brand conscious that branding religion, once a heresy, is now an acceptable practice.
Brands aren’t just a way of remembering what you want to buy any more. They’ve become part of the fabric of our society. Brands are part of our system of ordering things—they even create context about who we are and how we live. Brands have become badges for people. They articulate who you are and what your values are.
(Clifton and Maughan, The Future of Brands: Twenty-five Visions 2000, p. 71)
At a glance it would appear that new age and nature religions are among the most aggressive marketers. The number of witches currently offering their services for various spiritual practices, the economy being generated by the workshops and other courses available in all things witchcraft along with the rising popular public profile of Wicca have made it a serious commercial property. Neo-paganism has aligned itself closely with the green/environmental movement giving it loads of good press as well as mainstream credibility while at the same time projecting a new public image of itself as being a cool religion that cares for our fragile earth. The explosion of different sects of witchcraft makes Wicca even more attractive to a youth audience that is looking for a unique brand of spirituality to suit their unique set of personal tastes. In many ways, Wicca and Neo-pagnism, being almost totally eclectic practices offer the religious brand with the widest variety of choices.
Once, our religion was chosen for us, even if it was done so tacitly due to a lack of any choice at all. Even now most people ambivalently class themselves according to the religion most prevalent in their culture. Into the future will it be the best branded religions that survive? How will branding change the style and eventually the message religions? Will the branding of new age religions contribute to the sectarianism that is emerging as a wider set of influences is accepted as being valid or popular? In a world where religious observance is in decline will branding and marketing of faiths become more aggressive? Maybe the conference in Lausanne will answer some of those questions.
for more on the conference: