Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Marketing Religion: Mara Einstein on Brands of Faith

As I mentioned in a previous post, a flyer from Routledge promoting their new titles in religion, film, and media mentioned a number of interesting books, including Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age (Routledge, 2007) by Mara Einstein. As her website states:

Dr. Einstein has been working in or writing about the media industry for the past 20 years. She has enjoyed stints as an executive at NBC, MTV Networks, and at major advertising agencies working on such accounts as Miller Lite, Uncle Ben’s and Dole Foods. Her first book, Media Diversity: Economics, Ownership and the FCC (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004), was the cause for much debate when research from this work was used by the FCC as the basis for redefining the media ownership rules. In addition, Dr. Einstein has written for Newsday and Broadcasting & Cable as well as having her work appear in academic journals.

Mara Einstein is an Associate Professor at Queens College as well as an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University. She has a doctorate in media ecology from New York University. In addition, she holds an MBA from the Kellogg School at Northwestern and a BFA from Boston University.

Mara agreed to respond to a few questions related to marketing and religion as discussed in her new book.

Morehead's Musings: Mara, thanks so much for agreeing to discuss your forthcoming book touching on marketing and religion. I'd like to begin with your background. You have said on our website that you wrote Brands of Faith as a way of coming to an understanding about your own journey through religion and spirituality, and how you were born in a secular Jewish household and eventually got involved in "New Age" and Buddhist practices. Can you share your spiritual journey with us that led to the book?

Mara Einstein: My pleasure. Thanks for asking me. In terms of my own spiritual journey, I think my “path” is similar to that of a lot of Americans. (I specifically say Americans because of our proclivity to maintain a spiritual practice – more so than any other industrialized country in the world.) I was raised in a particular tradition – Judaism – but as I grew older I began exploring other faiths. Now, I should say that my religious background was more secular than spiritual, which may have accounted for my wanting to search elsewhere.

That search led me to several New Age-type of practices throughout my 20s and 30s. I went to the Open Center in New York and Omega, where I was exposed to meditation and Buddhist practices, I followed Marianne Williamson and A Course in Miracles, I did spiritual adventure travel to Machu Picchu and Stonehenge. And, in all of this, the underlying theme seemed to me to be having to pay for my spiritual practice. Now that's not to say that you don’t pay temple dues or put money in the collection plate, but this was different. To learn about a belief system, I had to fork over money – often a lot of money – and that seemed somehow off to me. It made me begin to question the idea of the commercialization of religion and spirituality.

Morehead's Musings: In what ways have various faiths become brands? And can you touch on some of the examples you mention in your book, that of Alpha and the Purpose Driven Life in Protestant evangelicalism, and Madonna with her practice of Kabbalah in the celebrity interest in Western esotericism?

Mara Einstein: In Brands of Faith, I write about what I call faith brands – belief systems that have easily recognizable icons and mythologies just like any other consumer product. For example, Purpose-Driven is a brand; Rick Warren is the icon and the story of the making of the Saddleback Church is the mythology. Joel Osteen is a faith brand, and yes, Oprah Winfrey is a faith brand. In our culture, there is a blending of the secular and the sacred – the sacred is becoming more secular and the secular more sacred. That’s where the celebrity spiritual phenomenon comes in – Madonna and Kabbalah; Tom Cruise and Scientology, etc.

Morehead's Musings: You also note in your website that the statistics for church attendance are down, but that the crowds at Starbucks on Sunday mornings seems to be doing well, leading you to wonder about the success of brand marketing in relation to traditional religion. In your research do you think that the close connection between commodification and spirituality negatively alters the spiritual "product," and if so, how?

Mara Einstein: One of the ideas that I play with in the book is what in marketing is known as the relationship marketing curve – how people take on a product as part of their identity – and compare that to the conversion career – how people convert to a faith system. I show how similar these processes are. I also suggest that marketing religion is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a necessity. However, it is important not to confuse the marketing with the belief system. Using the Purpose-Driven example again, the book The Purpose-Driven Life and even the seeker services are part of the marketing. The product is much deeper than that.

Morehead's Musings: In your Alumni Profile for Kellogg School of Management you make the interesting statement that, "Religions are competing not only against each other, but against all other leisure-time activities." This struck me not only because I think it is true, but in my graduate thesis on Burning Man Festival it appeared that for many people there was a combination of the spiritual and a leisure-time event through participation in the annual festival itself. It was almost like people scheduled or calendared their time to be spiritual at the festival as a leisure-time activity, which is marketed in a sense (even though it promotes a non-capitalist ethic) through the Internet and by viral marketing. And interestingly, even this subculture and festival that is so strongly opposed to branding and consumerism has developed its own logo and "corporate" structure. Is it difficult for religions or spiritualities in today's market to resist the combination of religion or spirituality and branding despite some of the best desires and intentions?

Mara Einstein: Absolutely. As I said in response to the previous question, it’s almost impossible not to be commercial. The average person is bombarded by upwards of 3000 commercial messages a day. In order to be heard above that cacophony, religious and spiritual practices have to market themselves. Add to the level of noise the limited amount of time that people have to process information and then you can begin to understand the need for branding – a logo (sign or person) that is immediately identifiable with your product. I see the Nike swoosh and I know immediately what that means. The same thing is true for the Alpha question mark or Joel Osteen or the Burning Man.

Morehead's Musings: After writing the book what kinds of conclusions did you come to about your own spiritual journey and the influence of branding and faith?

Mara Einstein: In writing the book, I find that I’m closer to Sam Harris in my thinking than I used to be. In his book, The End of Faith, he suggests that there are mystical experiences that occur that we cannot understand and that we should by all means find ways to keep the mystical in our lives. However, in regards to religion itself, we should put our belief systems to the same empirical tests that we put other institutions in our culture. Given this scrutiny, many of these belief systems – particularly ones that have become so market driven that they have lost their core – don’t provide that sense of the mystical. This is not to say that religion should be abandoned, simply that it should be called on to deliver what is its unique attribute – the ability to connect us with the unexplainable.

Morehead's Musings: Mara, thanks again for making time to talk about your book. This is an important area of study and I hope your book is well received by scholars and others for its contribution to the subject.


Scott Eggert said...

What a great interview. I love her final comment. A challenge of religion "to deliver what is its unique attribute – the ability to connect us with the unexplainable". I often feel as though we are in a race with other religions to define God. In our race to define, we also draw the lines reagarding where he is and what he expects. In the process we end erecting walls between others and God, with us and our expectations as the gatekeepers. We do so much to keep other from God and so little to actully light the path toward Him and the unique and unexplainable.

Great interview.

Phil said...

Very good interview. There's a ton of important points to discuss, and it is always interesting to me to learn more about what inspires scholars to write and study the things they do.

The intermingling of the sacred and the secular that Mara talks about is just fascinating. Religious leaders gain popularity by becoming more "secular" and "secular" leaders garner followings and establish legitimacy by tapping into streams of religion. There is such a long and interesting history of this in the U.S., and it is not a stretch to even talk about a kind of global religious marketplace.

Anonymous said...

I'm just left wanting more. So many thread you could follow deeper. That was great.