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An Adman speaks about the business of religion

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MG-Parameswaran

Dr Ambi MG Parameswaran

Over a course of thirty years in the feild of advertising and marketing, Dr Ambi MG Parameswaran, Advisor at FCB Ulka Advertising has gathered numerous insights into brands and consumer behaviour. His latest book ‘For God’s Sake’ explores the effects of religion on brands and marketing. Peppered with amusing anecdotes, the book is a delightful read for anyone interested in Indian culture, brands , marketing and human behaviour. Ambi shares his views on the subject with Rashi Bisaria of Pitch and talks about the origins of the tome.

The book is an interesting take on how religion affects the consumer culture in India. When and how was the idea of the book born?
The book is loosely based on my PhD thesis work which examined religiosity and consumer behaviour. My publisher wanted me to make the book more accessible to the lay reader, hence I worked hard to pack it with amusing anecdotes and real life stories. The book is not in any way intended to be ‘humorous’, if at all it could be termed as a light read and amusing in parts. So each chapter has a story that has a twist and then it looks at theological issues concerning the topic at hand. I have packed a lot of real research into each chapter. So it is up to the reader to decide what to take out and what to leave behind.

ambi--3Do you think religion will continue to play an important role for brands that are being launched now or do you think the new generation will be unaffected by the effects of religion
I suspect religion will continue to play a big role in the lives of consumers even twenty years from now. In India we are seeing religion very happily embracing high tech solutions to be contemporary. Did you know that the Hare Krishna Mandir in Bangalore has a Facebook page with million plus likes. I don’t think brands can become ‘religious’ but they can be more sensitive to religious aspects of consumers lives. Unlike consumers in the Western world, consumers in India and may be the East are more open to seeing religious codes in advertising. It could be a puja, or a temple or a church, everything is kosher.

Why do you think religion has such a big pull in the country?
Indian religions are deeply rooted in the cultural history of the country and while they did play a serious role in politics we never did have the equivalent of a ‘Catholicism’ vs ‘Protestantism’ debate. Even the Shaiva vs Vishnu debate was not very wide spread. In addition new religions have been born in India and many have entered our shores, often through Kerala, to be well integrated into our society. Instead of a melting pot, as someone said, our country became a salad bowl for numerous religions. Each had its own flavour, but were also influenced by the others. Christians wear a mangalsutra; in Bangladesh Muslims women wear a bindi. So like brands, Indian religions have been able to stay contemporary and relevant to the mood of the era. Our freedom fighters have used religious symbols and music to integrate the nation. And the tradition continues till date.

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There is an underlying sense of humour in the book that makes it an interesting read. Was that deliberate ?
I think the attempt at making the book more readable ended up with several amusing episodes, especially in some of the sections. The attempt was not to make the topic humorous, but to make it more approachable. I was delighted to hear that even people above 80 years in age found the book of great value; many have even written long letters to me. I was a little afraid that the more knowledgeable consumer may spot many mistakes, but I have not received any serious complaint.

Can we expect another non-fiction work from you in the near future?
This book, For God’s Sake, was published just this year in February. I don’t think I will start writing for another year. Often the idea for the book is formed and this takes several months. Then I start collecting information, articles and materials of interest. Then the book is written as an outline. The entire process could take two to three years, if the book is a light one. A serious book could take a lot longer.

There are several ideas that I am working on right now, nothing has as yet formed a shape. But give me two more years. I was quite pleased with the way this book has shaped up, thanks largely to my editor, Anish Chandy. I am planning on continuing this style for the next book as well. But nothing is final yet.

Do you think advertisers and marketers today have the required consumer insight? Or do you think they need to observe more, know more about the culture they are serving?
Marketers are aware that they are quite disconnected with the lives of their consumers. Hence the desire to do consumer focus groups, home visits, market visits etc. Many companies have even mandated that each brand manager should spend a particular number of days in the ‘field’. I remember when I was a brand manager at Boots Company, we used to spend at least five days a month in the field meeting doctors and chemists. Unfortunately a lot of these efforts have become systematized and lead to no real consumer insight mining. It is therefore necessary to train the managers on what to look for, how to spot them and what to do to leverage them. Rote research leads to rote insights. It is better to stay in office and read a book like “For God’s Sake”…..

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