An adman constantly strives connect market research data to insight to come up with a winning compaign. Ambi Parameswaran combines his thirty-five-year experience as an adman with a lifelong passion for religious to answer question like:
Are Indians becoming more religious and more consumption driven at the same time? Why has the bindi disappeared from advertisements? How did Akshaya Trithiya become such a big deal?
What makes Lord Shiva so cool?
How did a Chennai-based department store start the New Year Sale Phenomenon?
Are Muslims more open-minded shoppers?
Why do people who have no interest in using an MBA degree?
How did the Manusmriti do a disservice to Hindu women?
What can Harvard Business School learn from the Kumbh Mela?
Ambi has filled this book with personal stories, anecdotes, lessons and excerpts from research and other publications. This is a treat for anyone interested in how religion has evolved and how clever marketers have ridden the wave by tailoring their products and services.
Ambi Parameswaran has spent large part of his thirty-five-years working career in advertising at Draft FCB Ulka where he rose to be Executive Director and CEO.
An engineer from IIT Madras and MBA from IIM Calcutta, he also completed his phD from Mumbai University in 2012. Ambi has authored/co-authored six books on topics ranging from brand building and advertising to consumer behaviour.
When he is not busy at work, reading, writing or teaching, you can find him at a music concert. His wife, Nithya, is an ex-marketer turned stock market investor. His son, Aditya, is an alumnus of IIT Bombay and Stanford.
Ambi and his son started their phD at the same time but Ambi says he beat his son in the race to complete his phD.
And Ambi will not tolerate any sassy back answers from his son on that, For God’s Sake!
I spent many years in the wilderness of atheism till I discovered God and He empowered me to write the Shiva Trilogy, and it was His blessing that they went on to become big sellers, prompting me to resign from my job and pursue writing as a full-time career.
God inspires what I do and I am grateful to Him for His blessings.
So when Ambi called me to request that I write a Foreword for his book For God's Sake, I did not hesitate for a minute. The book, which is an anecdotal take on how God and religion influence our day-to-day life, is indeed timely and relevant. On the one hand we as consumers are drifting in many different directions. Our love for God is what is keeping us moored and anchored, in spite of the winds of change buffeting our lives.
In this book, Ambi is slicing and dicing the many ways religion is impacting our everyday life, from the way we design our houses, to the way we plan our holidays, to the way we celebrate our festivals and so on. While the experts had predicted the slow decline of religion, I don't see that happening for a long, long time-if anything, the force of devotion is becoming stronger. As we live in a VUCA world (the term coined by the US Army War College to indicate the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world we live in), the one thing that we can be certain about is God and our own faith and beliefs.
It is no wonder that in this VUCA world we are seeing consumers and citizens of India going back to their roots to look for greater meaning, or a simple ritual, that helps them feel more grounded. The manifestations are all around us, in the books we read, the music we listen to, the programmes we watch on television. But is there a method to this and is there a way we can understand how it will impact our own lives and businesses?
Ambi has used his own three-decade experience in marketing, advertising and communication to address each dimension. The stories he will tell you are all drawn from his own experience and, therefore, they are on one level personal and at another level very real. Each topic is presented through a combination of personal stories which are then linked to a religious anchor, be it the Vedas or the Manusmriti or the Koran, and then each chapter presents a way you too can benefit or not get hurt by the trend.
There is something that you can take out of this book and put to use in your day-to-day life, unlike many other non-fiction books you may read.
I would like to imagine that India will rise as a superpower in the coming few decades, if not earlier. Our own religious beliefs will continue to anchor us as we grow more wealthy. I am also hopeful that as we become more and more literate, we will start seeing the commonality of all religions, and we will find His grace in every belief system, as Shiva or Vishnu or Shakti Maa or Allah or Jesus Christ or Buddha or any other of His myriad forms. A day will come when we will start appreciating our great nation with its inherently liberal culture which melds beautifully with our traditional views on religion, rather than hold in esteem the fraud-liberalism we practice today where those who are religious are looked down upon.
We will once again become a 'Cradle of Civilization'. May God bless us all! May God bless our great nation, India!
'What do you mean by the word religiosity?' was the question raised by the Research and Review Committee of Mumbai University while considering my thesis topic 'Religiosity and Consumer Behaviour'. I had already spent a year working on the subject and their question came as a bolt from the blue. Did this mean they had serious objections to the topic since they considered it to be incendiary? Or was it that they found it impossible to figure out the connection between religion and consumer behaviour? Or was it just a simple question that arose from their unfamiliarity with the term religiosity?
If you have attempted a PhD, or know anyone working on one, you will be aware that the biggest challenge in doing original research is finding a topic that is unique and yet relevant. I realized that either I had stumbled upon a topic that the Mumbai University's R&R committee had not seen before or I was back to square one.
Fortunately, it turned out to be a simple issue of explaining the origin of the word religiosity and being a bit more specific about the topic. I ended up focusing my thesis on a specific type of consumer product, instead of making it a general purpose consumer behaviour exploration.
As I completed my PhD, I realized that the topic of religiosity and consumer behaviour is quite interesting but very little has been written about it. This led to the idea of writing a book that looked at the myriad ways in which consumer behaviour in India is influenced and guided by religious beliefs and practices.
'In God We Trust. Rest Strictly Cash' read the sticker near the cashier's counter in a fancy goods shop in Mylapore, Chennai, not too far from the famous Kapaleeswarar temple and the birthplace ofThiruvalluvar, the most famous Tamil philosopher- poet, now revered as a saint. In a sense the shopkeeper had unwittingly endorsed the view of modern-day Indians. Yes, they are embracing a new, intense form of religiosity, but they also want to have the cash to enjoy a richer, fuller life. In fact, religion, gods and rituals have become new avenues for seeking and spending cash.
Is this trend new and unique to India?
In the early twentieth century, Max Weber, the father of the science of sociology, conducted a breakthrough study in the relationship between religion and economic growth. He coined the term Protestant Work Ethic. Weber propounded a theory on the relationship between the rise of the Christian Protestant faith and the growth of capitalism in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Weber's near contemporaries like Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche were quite sure that with the growth of science and scientific thinking the twentieth century would see the demise of religion and god worship.
We are now more than a century or two from when those wise men made this wise prediction. Interestingly, PEW Global Surveys indicate that except for some north European countries where these thinkers lived religion has seen a revival all over the world. In Shopping for God, the author James B. Twitchell traces the growth of the megachurch phenomenon in the United States.
While our founding fathers saw us as a secular state and government-owned media channels abhorred airing explicit religious content for many decades after Independence, the course was altered in 1987. Starting 25 January, for seventy-eight weeks, every television -owning home in India was given a strong dose of religion every Sunday with the airing of Ramayana. This was followed by Mahabharat, which ran from 2 October 1988 for ninety- four weeks on Doordarshan. The growth of religiosity in India cannot possibly be linked solely to these television serials, but these telecasts and the phenomenal viewership they garnered probably set the agenda for a hyper-religious India.
As Indians became more and more prosperous with the liberalization of the Indian economy in the early 1990s, they also became more and more religious in many subtle and not so subtle ways. Increasing religious fervour is not restricted to the old women of India. Several studies have shown that high religiosity cuts across income, sex, age and religious barriers. They also reveal that the more religious consumer is often the more demanding consumer, wanting more and more, often for less and less.
When a new car is bought, the car dealer usually gives the proud new owner a box of Indian sweets and a small Ganesha figurine for the dashboard. Chances are the first trip the family takes in the brand-new car is to the neighbourhood temple; astute pujaris in every temple that qualifies as 'new car worthy' have even worked out a super special 'new car' puja. Most smartphones in India sport at least some religious apps, Ganesha screen savers and Hanuman Chalisa being big favourites. New houses are not bought without the vastu consultant giving his nod, often also prescribing the right location for the puja room or the puja cabinet.
Tourism industry data indicates that religious tourism is the single biggest growth segment as Indians, rich and poor, want a special dose of salvation. The Tirupati and Vaishno Devi temples have had their coffers filling up to the brim. People walking up to the Sabarimala temple today include autorickshaw drivers from Madurai, Hyderabad and Bangalore as well as liquor barons from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Traditionally, the temple was only opened for a few months in a year, but it is now kept open a few hours every morning.
Unheard of religious practices have grown new wings. Akshaya Trithiya was probably found only in religious texts until a few decades ago. Now every jeweller will reel out his special 'sales' plans for the next Akshaya Trithiya. Another example is the phenomenon of Karva Chauth, which has started seeing a following not just in North India but across the country, with habitually late-working management consultants and financial analysts rushing home so that their loving wives can have a meal after seeing their face and the moon.
This has unleashed innovative modes of celebration. Spanking new malls are now also places of worship with special decorations for Onam, Pongal, Durga Puja, Baisakhi, Ugadi, Valentine's Day, Akshaya Trithiya, Diwali, Ganesh Puja, Eid and Christmas.
This book is an exploration of the ways religiosity interacts with the way we are marketed to, the way we shop and the way we express our desires. The book's focus is very much on the changing Indian consumer. We explore numerous areas where religion and religiosity playa role, sometimes in the open but often on the sly. We also delve into the religious dogmas, myths and beliefs that still tend to influence us in our consumption behaviour.
Each chapter attempts to present a picture of the new religious Indian consumer and will hopefully raise valid questions on what these could imply for businesses. What could the business opportunity be? What could the threats be? What may the lessons be? What could the long-term impact be?
We will examine several aspects of religious belief and practices, and look at how they playa role in our lives as consumers of products and services. We will also do a bit of crystal-gazing about how religion will affect our lives in the future. Some of these predictions may come true, but the attempt is not to predict the future; it is to look at what the future may bring, and what we can do to be prepared.
India is a multi-religious, secular country. While Hindus form the majority at 80.5 per cent (2001 Census), we also have a sizeable Muslim population (13.4 per cent, the third largest Muslim population in the world, after indonesia and Pakistan). Christians account for 2.3 per cent, Sikhs for l.9 per cent, Buddhists for 0.8 per cent, Iains for 0.4 per cent and other religious groups for 0.6 percent.
Origins of Religion in India
What are the origins of what we call religions in India, how did they spread and how have they changed over the years? Such topics are meant for a textbook on religions of India and I cannot even attempt to scratch the surface. But to understand the chapters that follow, it would make sense to take a short detour. I promise we will return to the main road soon. Right through the book we will refer to eras as BCE (before the Common Era, which used to be referred to as BC) and CE (Common Era, which used to be referred to as AD).
Hinduism is arguably seen as the oldest living religion in the world and can be traced back to 3000 BCE. The oldest surviving text of Hinduism, the Rig Veda, was produced during the period 1700-1100 BCE. The Upanishads, Puranas and epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata were composed roughly during the period 600-100 BCE. Several schools of thought such as Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya and Vedanta were all codified after 200 BCE. The Code of Manu or Manu Smriti was written around 300 BCE.
Gautama Buddha was born in 563 BCE, attained enlightenment at the age of thirty and travelled around north-eastern India, teaching his path of awakening. He passed away at the age of eighty in 483 BCE in Kushinagar, located near modern-day Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh.
Mahavira, the twenty-fourth Tirthankara who founded Jainism, was born in 599 BCE and lived till 527 BCE. The other important Jain guru was Parsvanath (812-772 BCE), the twenty- third Tirthankara. Literature says that Iainism could be as old as Hinduism, and was in its formative years a form of protest against Brahminical Hinduism, and may even have been influenced by Zoroastrianism.
Buddhism was built up as a pan-Asian religion during Emperor Ashoka's reign of thirty-eight years, which ended in 232 BCE.
In the following chapters we will refer to the Vedic era and the Puranic era as two distinct eras. We will also examine how Hinduism was totally transformed, thanks to the influence of Buddhism and Iainism that stressed ahimsa or non-violence.
By absorbing some of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism, Hinduism grew during the period 400 to 1000 CE.
Jews arrived in Kochi, Kerala in 562 BCE and more Jews came as exiles from Israel in the year 70 CE after the destruction of the Second Temple, but their numbers did not grow substantively.
Thomas the Apostle visited Kerala in the year 52 CE and baptized Jewish settlers. Christianity took root around the third century CE and got a leg-up during the British rule.
Islam too arrived first on the shores of Kerala via Arab traders in the seventh century CE soon after the passing away of Prophet Muhammad (in 632 CE). India was under Mughal rule from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and it was then that Islam spread across India, especially North India.
Following the overthrow of the Zoroastrian Sassanid empire in 651 CE by the Arabs, many Zoroastrians migrated, and some ventured into Gujarat in western India. Their descendants, now known as Parsis, form a small, vibrant community that has played a pivotal role in the development of modern India.
In fact, as a counter to the spread of Islam in India, a more pious and populist form of Hinduism, the Bhakti movement, swept across central and northern India during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Sikhism was founded in the fifteenth century CE by Guru Nanak in the Punjab region and continued to grow under nine successive gurus to become one of the largest and youngest religions in the world.
As these religions spread across India, they influenced each other. Practices of one religion got modified by the birth of another. The growth of a new religion changed the character of an older religion. Many of these changed the way Indians celebrated festivals, their dietary habits, the way they conducted worship and more.
While the book will look at a range of topics including home design, festivals, auspicious periods, Muslim consumers, marriages, tourism, food, music and more, we will start our journey from an interesting starting point. A point in fact. The bindi.
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