Monday, December 19, 2005

Buy, all ye faithful

'Cos you gotta have faith goes the old George Michael song. Sure. But the rise of religion-based identity is a vexing issue - as recent events in both France and Australia have shown.

Should we nullify differences, or acknowledge and celebrate them? That is the big question.

The French government's controversial ‘no headscarves’ rule in public schools is a reflection of the 'nullify' school of thought. But people will believe what they have to believe, is what any smart businessman knows. So let's acknowledge that and create products to cater to their unfulfilled needs!

Faith based products
In September this year, Paris saw the launch of a Muslim-themed fast-
food restaurant - Buerger King ('buer' being the French slang for second generation Muslim immigrants from North Africa). The menu is standard but the waitresses wear head-scarves and all the meat served is 'halal'.

Then there's ‘Mecca Cola’. Launched in 2003 by French entrepreneur Tawfik Mathlouthi with a shoestring budget of €22 000, the soft drink cleverly capitalised on anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world.
Additionally, Mecca Cola tom-toms its commitment to donate 20% of its profits to charity - 10% to Palestinian children and10% to local organisations, wherever it sells.

Mecca Cola has spawned me-toos like Qibla cola in the UK and a 7-up alternative - Muslim UP.

What’s faith got to do with choice of cellphone? Well, with a little imagination it well might. The Ilkone i800 is the world’s first- ever 'Islamic' mobile phone.

The handset includes features such as establishing Qibla direction (towards the Ka'bah at Mecca, which Muslims face to pray) from anywhere in the world and automatic precise prayer timing with inbuilt Azaan (call to prayers). Additionally, the Ilkone i800 contains the full text of the Holy Qur'an with English translations -approved by the scholars of Al-Azhar in Egypt.

The phone was the brainchild of Saqer. Tellawi, a Palestinian telecommunication professional, who led a 2 ½ year R&D effort to develop the phone with the best technology, and highest quality 'Muslim' features. The product has been available in the Middle East since last year but was launched only in October 2005 in key
markets such as Malaysia. The company also targetted the 12-16 million strong Muslim population in Europe with a pre-Ramzan rollout in the Netherlands.

Other 'culturally compliant' products introduced by local entrepreneurs include 'Razanne' (a doll with a hijab) and Shukr Online (a store specialising in 'modest clothing'.

Does faith sell?
But are these ventures small niche opportunities which make for interesting headlines, or do they signify an important trend marketers need to take note of?

Ilkone has sold just 100,000 units in the past year, although it is hoping that number will soon swell to a million handsets. The lack of key features such as camera and MP3 player is likely to put off trendy young Muslims. As for Mecca Cola, although it did get off to a promising start, the brand has under 1% of the market share in its biggest territory - France.

However, the slow progress being made by faith-based products could have more to do with the limitations of the start-ups selling them, than inherent lack of market potential. But it’s unlikely that large corporations will actually use religion to sell products. And if they do, it will be cloaked under the garb of ‘cultural sensitivity’.

The Ikea store in north London recently asked to design a ‘hijab’ with the brand logo sewed on - for employees who wished to wear one as part of the company uniform. A symbolic
we-accept-you-are-different gesture which well might attract more Muslim customers to the shop.

Corporations like McDonald’s have always taken cognisance of local dietary preferences - religious restrictions included. So, in India, Mac sensibly deleted pork and beef from its menu. Conforming to local custom, it’s ‘halal’ burgers in the Middle East and similarly, there’s a ‘kosher’ outlet in Jersualem to satisfy Orthodox Jews.

The new trend however is that based on demand from the local population, individual McDonalds and KFCs offer 'halal' items - in cities like Sydney and Detroit. A response to rising immigrant populations who, instead of assimilating into what ‘is available’, influence the availability itself.

Helping to 'keep the faith'
A recent report in IHT noted that “Global financial institutions, led by HSBC, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas, are now setting up either Islamic divisions or separate banks.”

HSBC’s ‘Amanah Islamic Banking Solutions’ are currently offered in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, USA, UK, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Brunei and Singapore. The ‘Amanah’ products and services conform to the requirements of Islamic ‘shariah’ law.

Muslims, with their very distinct religion-based preferences, form the largest and most attractive market for faith-based products. But ‘Born Again Christians’ are being targeted similarly, in the US. The entertainment industry, in particular, is looking at churches as a serious alternative marketing ‘channel’ to reach out to family audiences.

‘The Passion of the Christ’, which raked in more than $400 million at the box office alone was marketed intensively at churches. But then, the subject matter was such that the strategy made perfect sense.

But the recent Walt Disney film ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’ has nothing to do with Jesus – it’s about golf. Yet Disney held sneak previews at influential churches, promoting it as a film with “very secular, but potentially Christian virtues”.

Disney has also hired Motive Entertainment, which handled "The Passion of the Christ" church-marketing campaign, to sell the fantasy film "Narnia" to Christian audiences. Incidentally, many view the tale as a "Christian allegory."

20th Century Fox has gone a step further and launched a website called which sells ‘family-friendly’ home videos to the Christian audience . A ‘church resources’ link offers downloads of Bible verses that are relevant to scenes in particular films.

It’s all a numbers game – greeting cards giant Hallmark classifies 72 million Americans as ‘Born Again’ and 14 million as ‘Evangelical’. Recognising the need to cater to this giant market, in 1999 Hallmark acquired ‘Dayspring’, a company specialized in the production of Christian greeting cards.

A CNN/Money report titled “The Financial Power of Faith” reported that religious-themed books now represent the No. 3 publishing category by market share, after popular fiction and cooking. That’s $1 billion in book sales – excluding Bibles. While in music, Contemporary Christian music (CCM) recordings now outsell classical and jazz music combined. 43 million Christian ‘rock’ albums flew off the shelves last year.

Even gaming developers are eyeing this lucrative market. Companies like ‘Digital Praise’ aim to provide wholesome alternatives to the gory games currently in the market with titles such as ‘Bible Games’ for the Xbox, PS2 and Gameboy.

The India story
Given the political incorrectness of the idea, overtly faith-based marketing does not really find favour. So, for example, instead of labelling themselves as ‘Hindu’, channels like Aastha sell on a ‘spiritual’ platform.

Of course, in the late 80s, Godrej Soaps did try to market ‘Ganga’ bath soap – hoping that its ‘Gangajal’ content would attract the devout. It didn’t work. Even though around the same time Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan was a monster hit on television.

Now the Sagars may have another winning idea on their hands. Shiv Sagar, son of Ramanand Sagar, has plans to build ‘Gangadham’ a 25 acre Hindu ‘theme park’ at Hardwar. Dubbed ‘Disneyland on the Ganges’ by the BBC, the park aims to recreate great moments in Hindu mythology through hi-tech rides, an animated mythological museum, a "temple city", food courts and a sound and light show. Expected completion date: 2007.

Last but not the least, there's ‘tele-shopping’ on late night television. Now, in addition to miracle knives and magical stain removers, religion-based products are being hawked.

Kader Khan is peddling ‘Allah ke darwaaze ka aks’ while Smriti Irani extols the virtues of ‘ShreeYantra’, invoking Ram, Sita and a host of other Hindu gods. Health, peace and happiness for just Rs 1999 (posting and handling extra).

All major credit cards accepted.

As you might note from the rather formal tone of this piece, it was not written as a blogpost. Was felt to be potentially controversial for MSM, hence sees light of day here instead!

P.S. I am not for or against faith-based products - simply a keen observer of trends.


  1. I have tremndous respect and admiration for all entrepreneurs who cash in on religion. I think they some really smart and gutsy folk. The have manged to see through the oddities of life and look at religion for what it really is - a cash cow.

  2. Hi Rashmi,

    Wow can u write!!
    I mean how do u get all this comprehensive info from all around . I havnt even heard of this faith based products. Mobiles ya i had heard of them but not cola!!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. I agree with Soham Pablo. As long as there are gullible people out there, some smart-ass will make money out of their ignorance by selling them 'peace' and 'happiness'.

  5. Everything was new to me-a very well researched post!

  6. hey Ms rashmi bansal i know where ur coming from -:)must say that u have written it very well but the point is if it sells it sells and more money into coffers so cares abt integration of society and separation of church from the state or is it temple ,mosque from state
    and must admire u coz i dont think u r going to be appreciated very much for raising such issues in such a unbiased manner usually the bias is towards one side and everyone knows which side

  7. The truth of the matter seems to be that ghettoisation sells. As we move into a more fractious and polarised society, marketing is bound to get more target specific. That is not necessarily a new thing. Marketing has always, in order for the tail to wag the dog, artificially created new demands in niche markets to sell products. This is just an extension of that.

    The problem lies not in the more in the sociological reasons that allow target fragments to be exploited by cynical marketers. From colas to Islamic Banking, marketers are actively enouraging this fragmentation so that they can mint money. This can potentially lead to dangerous situations. What happens if someone accidentally knocks over a bottle of Mecca Cola with his feet? What's the guarantee that someone will not consider this an insult to Islam? Similarly what will stop a rabid RSS guy from accusing someone of using the "pure" Ganga soap to wash unmentionable body parts? Or what happens if someone spots an HSBC employee having pork chops for dinner?

    These maybe far out examples, but will the marketers take responsibility then for the potential fallouts? Where does business beend and responsibility begin?

  8. Faith does sell. But this we see as "the other". Most products sell to a very Euro/US centric, Christian market anyway. It's diversity in product, and religion is a way of life - So more than being a cash cow - I guess it's about supply and demand. Market mechanics at work, and as all good market mechanics go - they drive towards creating more demand.

    Fad or otherwise, atleast they are bothering to understand their markets. Though I think trinkets (Aimed at the spiritual and healing market) is different from niche markets like Mobile phones. What eats me is that it could possibly mean more stereotyping.. hhmm...

  9. Hi Rashmi

    Terrific post. You ought to be in market research, or are you already there?

    I believe that a smart doc in the US is now peddling the Jesus diet! Yeah, eat what He ate and lead a happy life. Apparently he chanced upon the idea after noticing the rise in obesity among young Americans, and decided that this diet was the only cure.

    Out here in Tamil Nadu, religion's a truly big business. So many magazines, so many mutts, so many swamijis and's pretty big. But unlike the instances you have mentioned, the believers' market here is highly segmented. So a Sai Baba book or tape will not find favour among non-Sai devotees.

    Ciao for now


  10. i believe it's "beurger" king. fyi in addition to mecca cola, there are talks (or maybe it has been introduced) to bring on "corsica cola" and "breizh cola" - both in france. breizh meaning someone from brittany in france.

  11. Superb one after quite a few just OK ones.

    What our sadhus/saints (most) do is exploit the deep seated faith of people to get the best of lifestyle and money flowing from themselves.

    The marketers creating faith brands are very much the same except that they are more honest about their deeds.

  12. With regards to media here in the US there is CBN - Christian Broadcasting Network which is headed by Pat of the biggest names in conservative Christian society. Fox News can also be lumped in that category and they are the #1 cable news channel.

  13. Hey Rashmi,
    This was another terrific, well-researched post.

    Another way to look at this phenomenon is the premium that politically-aware products have historically commanded. Environmentalist pay more for green-friendly products and bleeding hearts buy expensive shirts not made at "sweatshops" and health concious people burn their pockets buying organic food.

    The newest niche market are economically empowered religious folks, who due to the current political climate around the world, are assertive about wearing their reliousity on their sleeve. For capitalists this is a God-send. (also available in Allah-send and Bhagwan-send flavors).

    But, and I'm echoing commenter shan here: Will the marketers take responsibility then for the potential fallouts?

    Mr. Lampoon

  14. Couldn't have put it better than Shan..
    Ghettoization sells...

    But on a marketing point I feel it won't we long before faith based brands launch their secular versions as well..It will be just the sensible thing from a money making pov

  15. Ma'am:

    Great post!

    Ghalib, the greatest of all Urdu poet sums up the thing about faith in the following lines (enable unicode encoding if you don't see the lines below):

    तेरे कूचे का है माईल दिल मुज़्तर मेरा
    काबा इक और सही किब्लानुमां और सही
    [कूचे = lane, माईल = obliged, मुज़्तर = restless, काबा = house of Allah in Mecca, किब्लानुमां = direction for prayer]

    So, even when we all know that Qibla isn't the only direction where God may be sought, we all seek the direction nonetheless. And marketing can't be blamed, they'll use all notions that people have/talk about, believe in/criticize. For a bit of humor see the jab on Emm Bee Aays

    Can I make a request, Ma'am? It would be great to get some tips from you about how you develop a story (read blog entry). Do you like think of a theme to write on and save notes related to that and publish once you have enough material to make a good post (like most of your posts are)? Or do you think, research and publish "runtime"? Naive as asking these questions sound, I'd cover it up by saying that we're all born 6 pounds before we become beings who gain 6 pounds per week :)

  16. Well-researched and wonderfully presented!

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