I find it fascinating that all the marketing skills we have today were used by people thousands of years ago. They may have believed iron age superstitions but they could learn nothing from us about marketing because they knew the secrets of branding: the creation and projection into the market of a generic identity and buying incentive for a product or service that’s otherwise difficult to sell.

At the simpler end of the market, products don’t need a brand – they just need to work. No-one ever bothered to create a brand for spoons or wheelbarrows - but to market a vacuum cleaner, a car or a broadband provider, you need a brand. Why? Because the more complex or rarefied the product or service, the harder it is to establish a perceived benefit in advance of purchase. An effective brand will not only persuade a customer to buy, but also ensure continued purchase (‘brand loyalty’).

Religious use of the brand

Religions, spiritual movements, political ideologies, self-help theories and therapies are all examples of services which can't succeed without effective branding. Christianity makes full use of the two most powerful marketing words known to man: ‘new’ and ‘free’. Novelty sells itself; people are are always curious about something new. ‘The Good News’, ‘the New Dispensation’, ‘the New Testament’ – two thousand years is a long time for something to remain new, but Christianity has managed it, and also kept the free ticket claim going: ‘Jesus paid the price of our sins’. Convince people they are getting something for nothing and they’ll not only flock to buy your product, they’ll be grateful!

The spread of all the major religions has required strong brands from the outset. Logo, corporate identity, endorsements, free offers, unique selling proposition (USP) and perhaps most important of all: story. In much early religion story is the only clearly identifiable factor – creation myth, disaster myth and divine intervention, making religion indistinguishable from story at the ordinary level. Later religions owe much to their use of story to address psychological problems such as insecurity and guilt. To solve these problems they first had to establish ownership of their solutions, in exactly the same way as a marketing campaign for GM food claims to solve third world hunger, or a supermarket ‘beats the recession’ by claiming to create jobs and slash prices. The story of the specially-engineered solution to the perceived problem becomes part of the brand.

Having taken over story from early religion, the ‘major’ religions introduced a high-profile brand feature: the symbolic individual. Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha are the religious equivalent of brand mascots such as the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Dough Boy, Sunny Jim, Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders. Early religions certainly had heroes, but Heracles, Perseus, Theseus, Osiris, Apollo, Thor, Krishna and others were not the sole focus figure of their respective religious frameworks. In the Middle East the cults of Tammuz, Adonis, Zardush (Zoroaster) or Mithras lost ‘market share’ to the monotheistic religions, despite sharing many of their features, because the latter had stronger brands. Where religious beliefs were long-established but diffuse, e.g. in Asia and Africa, they lost ground to the major religions because of the clarity and simplicity (and therefore strength) of the newer brands.

It has been recently recognised that when people make a buying decision, they are not really buying a product but what they believe it will do for them. The successful brand addresses that belief. Think of the famous campaign for margarine based on the slogan ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter.’ People bought the margarine in the belief that it tasted as good as butter.

G.K. Chesterton famously said: ‘When people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.’ Well, yes. You may believe that a sports shoe with a flash on it will make you run faster than one without. But people entertain these beliefs anyway, whether or not they believe in God. So the quote could, without loss of meaning, be shortened to: ‘People will believe anything.’ Marketing Man understands this. Belief is the most powerful, and the most secret, weapon in the branding arsenal. It is possible to influence people radically, but one must first know what they believe, or are willing to believe.

Creating the brand

A brand doesn’t create itself. Someone has to do it. Someone also has to push the brand and ensure that it stays pushed. In the consumer market, the incentive is money, and people with proven marketing skills are very highly paid. Religious movements are comparable, though not necessarily incentivized in the same way. In the established ‘brands’ there is a payment for services rendered: the notion that if one ‘buys in’ to certain ideas, one gets something in return - heavenly rewards, increased merit, good fortune, nirvana or some such thing, desire for which has been created and developed by the marketing department concerned. This concept of divine remuneration is central to all the ‘great’ religions, whose designers established such promised rewards as physical resurrection from the dead, eternal life in paradise, or freedom from reincarnation and attainment of eternal bliss; a benefit that they not only expected to receive themselves but offered as an incentive to others. Earlier religions had less well-developed incentive schemes; as a Viking warrior who died in battle you might go to Valhalla and drink mead, but only in order to fight again with Odin at the last battle of Ragnarok! As an ancient Greek or Egyptian you would expect your behaviour in life to determine your fate after death, but you would have no concept of special bonuses for promulgating the faith, or dying for it.

Increasing market share

Why the need to spread a faith? Because a market based on the principle of unlimited competition is inherently unstable. To survive in the market a business must grow, and for that it needs an effective strategy. There are such things as stable, non-market-driven economies operating without the assumption that more is better and that security comes from having the most stuff. Not surprisingly, societies with non-expansionist economies tend to have non-expansionist religions, if they have religions at all. The religions with the most aggressive strategies arise out of market economies, and offer bonuses for spreading the word. Some of them eulogise martyrdom – what could be a better customer endorsement than the willingness to defend a product to the death? Forget the fact that this strategy does not make sense. Killing the customer to strengthen the brand? But remember that brands do not appeal to common sense, but to the emotions, first of all building desire and then positioning a product or service so as to appear to fulfil that desire. To that extent, the appeal of martyrdom is a branding triumph.

Customer endorsement

You won’t see many adverts for bicycles featuring satisfied customer testimonials. But you won’t see an advert for hair restorer without them. User endorsements are the most reliable way of creating confidence in a product or service whose claim is unverifiable in advance. The more tenuous the claim, the greater the dependence on witness. Islamic religious tracts are full of ‘so-and-so said’ or ‘so-and-so heard such-and-such say’. Christian scriptures and hagiographies consist largely of deeds, sayings and observations recorded by witnesses. Brand loyalty is built on the fact that the more opinions you hear reinforcing a certain sales message, the more likely you are to believe it yourself. The ultimate customer endorsement, dying for the brand, seems excessive to most people today but nevertheless fits the category. A customer has bought the product and is so satisfied with it that he makes his satisfaction public in the most irrefutable way possible. It might be thought a bit odd that in Christianity the mascot (Jesus) endorses the brand (dies for his belief) in order first of all to create it. It would be as if the Jolly Green Giant advertised tinned peas by writing his own testimonial on the tin – it wouldn’t work, because we know the Jolly Green Giant is not real. Which explains why the early struggle of Christianity centred on proving the historicity of Jesus. If the brand mascot is a real person, not just a symbol, it can do all kinds of things a mere icon can’t do.

Adapting the brand

Brands have to change to suit circumstance, but the strategy has to be properly thought through. In the 1990s Wranglers decided to expand from its core product, jeans, into the general clothing market; the attempt was a costly failure – no-one believed Wranglers could make fashionable suits and jackets. More recently Pepsi-Cola tried one last effort to reverse its decline against Coca-Cola by rebranding itself with the colour blue, thereby shrinking its market share still further. More successful have been McDonald’s attempt to claw back public goodwill lost in the junk food furore by projecting itself as sustainable and energy-efficient; tourist destinations such as Ireland, Tunisia and Egypt use seductive advertising to overcome the fear of terrorist attacks.

Religious rebranding over the centuries has had mixed results. Christianity’s claim on universality led to its adopting many of the rites and festivals of paganism on the basis that these were all better expressed in Christian terms. There is no evidence that Christians originally believed Jesus to have been born (of a virgin) around the time of the winter solstice or to have been crucified and resurrected around the time of the spring celebration; but as these were major pagan festivals it was expedient to rebrand Christianity according to the pagan calendar. Islam’s pioneering and disinterested pursuit of science and philosophy increased the acceptability of its brand in medieval Europe. The dogmatist Al-Ghazali single-handedly reversed that trend by introducing the idea that God was directly involved in every natural phenomenon, therefore nothing could be studied in the absence of theology. This led directly to the loss of Islam’s lead in technology and the decline of its global influence – something that Al-Ghazali could not have intended. Judaism ‘rebranded’ itself successfully after the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, by removing the requirement for sacrifice and instituting the synagogue and the rabbinate. This fundamental reconfiguration enabled it to survive without the core elements by which it had previously defined itself, but limited the brand's appeal. Buddhism began to fragment into varied interpretations early on. It underwent various tranformations on its journey, most noticeable of which is the alteration of the Buddha’s image from Indian thin to Chinese fat, representing the change from the original Indian ideal of balance and discipline to the Chinese one of happiness and prosperity.

Deliberate attempts at rebranding in order to reverse a perceived decline often don’t work or have unforeseen adverse effects. Successful rebrands are the ones we hardly notice as they either don’t concern us or offer us more of what we believe we want.

So what's the difference?

Brands speak to the emotions. In commercial marketing, only positive emotions such as well-being, rewards, security and inclusiveness are addressed. The commercial marketing industry has learned that whenever a negative reinforcer has been tried it has always failed, sometimes spectacularly, as in the 'You're Never Alone with a Strand' cigarette campaign. People always associate the brand with the dominant emotion, even if the product is portrayed as conquering it. The Strand campaign used fear of isolation as a buying incentive. This resulted in people associating the product with the negative emotion and abandoning it in droves.

Only religion has succeeded in using the carrot-and-stick technique in which negative reinforcers such as guilt, fear and hatred work alongside positive reinforcers such as inclusion, security and reward. The rewards and punishments are big: eternal bliss in a world after death, contrasted with eternal torture or countless lifetimes of suffering. To get people to believe these claims required, and still requires, a massive marketing effort.

From positive and negative reinforcement, the invention of the bad guy as antithesis of the mascot follows easily. In commercial marketing the bad guy would take the form of an anti-mascot whose purpose is to stop you gaining the benefit symbolized by the mascot. I have only ever seen this once, as part of a McDonald's invention called the Hamburglar. The Hamburglar tries to steal hamburgers away from children, and Ronald McDonald gets them back. This particular campaign was predictably short-lived, since it followed the rule that advertising which focuses on a negative attaches the negative to the brand.

The major religions use one tool that commercial products and services can't use: punishment for failing to buy or for ceasing to buy. Microsoft can't claim, although it might want to, that Mac users will have a terrible life, because there are plenty of Mac users who can easily refute the claim. Religion can claim what it likes about eternal punishment because its claims can't be proved false. This, however, undermines its case to be stating the truth (see Karl Popper, falsifiability theory).

The Subud brand

All religions and popular spiritual movements are commodity-based. Small-scale movements are popular movements in the making. They aim to expand their membership, and in order to do that they must have an effective marketing programme based on a strong brand. It should come as no surprise to any Subud member who has read this far that Subud has such a programme. There World Subud Association (WSA) hosts regular discussions about promoting the message of Subud and protecting its reputation. To this end the Subud symbol was registered as a trade mark in 1996.

Like Christianity, Subud makes use of the powerful marketing words 'new' and 'free'. The latihan is 'newly' and 'freely' available to all. Like many other spiritual movements Subud also plays the 'tradition' card: offering a connection that goes right back to the beginning. It is also universalist: the 'one stop shop' - you can get everything you need here, why bother looking elsewhere? The appeal of a single product 'specially formulated' for all types of application - engine oil, shampoo, plant feed etc. — is, like that of the one stop shop, an appeal to convenience. That is its only real benefit, however. The effectiveness of the product has to be determined in quite other ways. One needs to know if the product actually does what it says on the tin.

Brands rely on loyalty. If the product can be shown not to deliver on its promises, the customer will be disillusioned and look elsewhere. In order to get round this difficulty and retain customer loyalty the promise of all 'major' religions is that the reward lies in another domain, i.e. the spiritual world, a hoped-for state of grace, or life after death. Pak Subuh said, 'you will only know the benefit of the latihan after you die' (1985, S Widjojo Centre, Jakarta). This is a 'rebranding' from his earlier claim that the latihan exercise provided proof of its own validity through experience, and would of itself make a person healthy in mind and body.*

Products are often rebranded to match changes in perception, in order to retain customer loyalty. Christianity today places much less emphasis on hell than it did in the middle ages, and accuses no-one of being a witch or a heretic. Current Pope Francis says things like ‘When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.' Walmart recently won a rebranding award for changing its slogan 'Always low prices' to 'Save money, live better', repositioning the clothing giant from a merely cheap choice to a lifestyle buying option, which attracted more customers.**

Subud's problem at present is that its brand is inauthentic, whereas the product itself is quite a good one. The claims – spiritual development without doctrine or hierarchy – are at variance with the facts. In order for its brand to work, Subud must first of all decide what it really is. It must either endorse the statements and practices of Pak Subuh and his followers, in which case it officially becomes a popularised Javanese cult (nothing inherently wrong in that), or revert to its original form in which such things are of peripheral interest compared to the 'product' (the spiritual exercise), the USP (no teaching, no hierarchy) and the story (how Pak Subuh received the latihan) which, again, is quite a good one. There are customer endorsements aplenty, the logo is strong, the free offer is there ('no charge, contributions welcome') – everything is in place but one: a clear and accurate brand.


The success of a brand depends less on what it actually does than what it promises to do, though it should not mislead. ‘A brand is the emotional and psychological relationship you have with your customers’ (John Moore). Emotion contains subconscious drivers which override conscious (i.e. logical) thought. Powerful marketing tools such as logo, endorsement, free offer, unique selling proposition and story access the emotional, not the logical part of the brain. Religions use all these tools. Does that then make the products they represent something other than they claim to be? Not according to Oren Harari: 'Your brand must be the truth and it must be about you.'

* Many of Pak Subuh's statements are supported only by anecdote or personal conviction, not evidence, and have therefore inevitably become doctrine. At the time of writing there is a furore over Subud's perceived anti-gay stance based on statements such as 'Homosexuality is not allowed by religion and it is not allowed by God. It is a misuse of the body and not only harms a person physically but harms the jiwa in a way that is very difficult to put right.' (Letter from Pak Subuh to a member, May 1976, republished 2013 in the Subud Helpers' Handbook.) Strangely enough, the man to whom Pak Subuh owed more than anyone else for the expansion of Subud from a small Javanese group to a worldwide spiritual movement — Husein Rofé — was homosexual. Rofé single-handedly took Subud from Java to Sumatra, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, and was then invited to Cyprus where he introduced the latihan exercise to Ronimund von Bissing, who then introduced it to John Bennett and his Gurdjieff group in England. The resulting international spread of the movement was managed by Bennett. If, as Pak Subuh says, homosexuality is not allowed by God, how does Rofé fit in (no pun intended)? The initial spread of Subud – a God-centred organisation – was solely due to the efforts of a man displeasing to God. This if nothing else places Subud in a ludicrous position and I find it most odd that no Subud leader has ever publicly remarked on the fact, certainly not Pak Subuh himself nor his daughter Ibu Rahayu (currently the main Subud opinion-former). I don't know any anti-gay Subud members and the ones I know share my personal view that Pak Subuh's doctrines are at best quaint, at worst inaccurate and ignorant. Customer loyalty has to be very strong to overcome this problem, and latihan experience itself is often the overrider.

** In fact, comparative price analysis shows that supermarket price claims, taken as a whole, are usually false. Their use of 'loss leaders' is a manipulative ploy that exploits people's willingness to believe what they are told as long as it comes from a trusted authority. Supermarkets, like politicians and spiritual leaders, use various strategies to project themselves as trustworthy, friendly and 'on the customer's side'. Having acquired the trust and confidence of their customers they are then in a position to make statements and carry out actions which are not questioned.


Successful rebrand: Green Ronald

Emotional appeal: the Good Shepherd

Good story: Muhammad and the Miraj

Crafted symbols: religious logotypes

Brand mascot: 'I stand for goodness'

Buddha from thin...

...to fat

More fine tuning needed? Mithras...

... and the lonely Strand man

Logos: religious and corporate


Dirk Campbell 2010

Designing the product brief: Steve Jobs...

What is a Brand? It is the emotional and psychological relationship you have with your customers. Strong brands elicit thoughts, emotions, and sometimes physiological responses from customers. A brand isn’t a brand to you until it develops an emotional connection with you.’ Daryl Travis – Emotional Branding

‘The first stone set in the construction of a solid structure is the cornerstone. It is the most important piece of any masonry structure because all other stones will be set in reference to this stone. Your brand determines the position and strength of your entire marketing framework. Your marketing cornerstone must be plumb and level. In other words, your brand must be the truth and it must be about you.’ Oren Harari – Break from the Pack

‘People don't buy products logically, they buy with their emotions.’ John Moore – Tribal Knowledge

...and St Jerome

What is Subud? It is a spiritual path originating in Java in the mid 20th century. It is based on an exercise of active inner surrender (latihan). It claims to have no hierarchy, no teachings and no other set practice than the surrender exercise. The key element is belief in God (the latihan exercise is believed to be guidance and direction from the power of God).

Subud members revere the movement's founder, Muhammad Subuh. His talks contain a wealth of material from Javanese, HIndu, Muslim and Naqshbandi Sufi sources. Much of the material deals with the correct conditions for doing the latihan exercise, the 'lower forces' contained in the nafsu (passions), the organisation of the Subud movement and the setting up of businesses. To date there are twenty-six volumes of his talks published,

The latihan exercise is practised two or three times a week for half an hour, either alone or in a group, where men and women do the exercise separately (in line with Muslim religious tradition). There is also a practice called 'testing'. This consists of asking a question, putting oneself into the surrendered latihan state, and seeing what comes through. 'Testing' is very popular with Subud members and many of them base their life decisions on it.

The Subud symbol: now a registered trade mark

Rebrand failure: Blue Pepsi