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Marketing Lessons from the Spiritual World - By Sanjay Anandaram

India has been known for its spirituality, swamis and sadhus for as long as anyone can care to remember. Spirituality has been one of India’s most successful exports (Bollywood’s “soft power” notwithstanding). It would be most unusual to refer to the purveyors of spirituality as entrepreneurs but then that is what they, in a sense, are. They are on their own, they undertake their work with a great deal of passion and energy, and actually head organizations that generate serious revenues. Given the vast spirituality “market” it is not surprising to find a bewilderingly large array of spirited entrepreneurs of spirituality. Yet there are only a few that have acquired a pan-Indian or global following. The success of these few therefore offers many interesting marketing lessons to entrepreneurs from the temporal world.

Lesson 1: Unique well defined customer segment
Each guru has a well defined set of followers. There are hardly any overlaps and fewer instances of cannibalization where one guru weans away followers from another. For example, one would be hard-pressed to find, say, a follower of both Sri Sri Ravishankar and Osho. Or of a Baba Ramdev and Mata Amritanandamayi. Each segment is uniquely defined.

Lesson 2: Unique Motifs
Each guru has a unique motif that defines his/her message or persona. For example, Sri Sri Ravishankar has his Sudarshan kriya, Baba Ramdev has his Yoga, Swami Prabhupada had his Krishna Consciousness, Maharshi Mahesh Yogi had Transcendental Meditation, Osho had Dynamic Meditation (most significantly), Mata Amritanandamayi has her unique hugs.

Each guru also has a unique pre-fix or suffix that defines them. “Sri Sri”, “Baba”, “Swami”, “Acharya”, “Mata”, “Bhagwan”, “Ma”, “Maharshi”, “Amma”, and so on.

Some perform “miracles”; Others talk in “holistic” terms integrating everything from Christianity to Zen; Others advocate a back to basics or back to nature approach. But each is unique in its appeal to a target audience!


Lesson 3: Laser sharp initial focus, Growth in concentric circles later

Each guru initially just had a focused simple spiritual message usually of enlightenment, how to live a stress free life, deal with personal angst and so on. Later, as the number of followers grew, the messaging reach spread up and down and across different customer groups. For example, Baba Ramdev, primarily a Yoga guru, now holds forth on AIDS, role of MNCs and fast-food; The Art of Living movement offers spiritual solace to Defence personnel and to prisoners; Deepak Chopra from mind-body medicine to “Seven Spiritual Laws of Success” and “Kama Sutra”. Swami Sukhbodhananda has corporate training programmes.

Almost all gurus today predominantly perform social service reaching out to many tens of thousands of people every day. They have established disciplined and sophisticated structures for co-ordination, command, and control of operations.

Lesson 4: Communication, Branding and Positioning
The communication techniques are interesting as well. For example, some adopt the time-tested formula of having celebrities endorse them (politicians, film-stars, sports personalities). Others use the well-known MLM (multi-level marketing) model where each follower organizes local gatherings (usually a home) where the uninitiated are invited and so on down the hierarchy. Yet others use mass media (e.g. TV) for reaching out to large numbers at a time. Mega events such as meditation camps, international meets on spirituality and consciousness with several national and international dignitaries in attendance. Aggressive pamphleteering, noisy processions and colourful banners proclaiming the arrival or presence of the gurus are employed usually catering to the mass audience.

The creation of the personality cult via the addition of adulatory prefixes and suffixes. For example, a recent banner in a city proclaimed the arrival of “His Holiness Shree Shree Param Pujya (insert guru’s name) ji Maharaj”! Clearly, some organized group of people is bestowing these honorifics and popularizing them.

Usage of modern communication tools such as TV, Events, Audio, Web-sites call for a sophisticated understanding of the role of these tools and the target audiences for each of these media vehicles.

Sample this from the web-site of a spiritual leader with a reasonable name-recall:

“Times of India in their recent poll on “who talks the best” places Swamiji as the one, who tops the list on all counts as the best speaker; The Week magazine acclaims Swamiji as one among the top five best exponent of spiritual knowledge (sic); His other English books are marching best sellers; Swamiji was invited as a dignitary in five different panels at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and was a special invitee to the United Nation World Millenium Summit of spiritual Leaders”

Clearly, gaining recognition abroad is an important element is gaining acceptance at home. Indians love things “phoren” and spirituality is no different. Most gurus started out at home, acquired celebrity Indian followers and then acquired foreign followers, which helped increase the following in India; Some like Swami Yogananda and Swami Prabhupada (ISKCON founder), and Maharshi Mahesh Yogi emigrated to the US; However, with India’s rising self-confidence (thanks to the attention in the international arena and recognition by the global press!), gurus like Baba Ramdev have gained immense following in India even with a negligible international following with their simple earthy communication bolstered by savvy TV based messaging.

Well, what do you think of these four lessons?

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings close to two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.

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