Despite common misconception, the number one brand in today's consumerist society appears to be religion, not Coca-Cola.
What are the biggest brands in the world today? Is it Google, Coca-Cola, Apple or Microsoft? In commercial terms, that may be true. However, in terms of human impact and social and political importance, religions are today’s real global super brands.
In 2008, Gallup conducted a poll across 143 countries and territories asking whether religion was an important part of daily life. The median who said religion is important in their daily lives was 82%. By comparison, Coca-Cola is the world’s number one brand and daily consumption of their products totals 1 billion – only 20% of the world population.
We also see the dominance of religion in global media and politics. By contrast, commercial brands mostly have to pay for coverage, imposing themselves on target audiences. Global brands transcend their geographic, cultural or ideological origins, and create strong, enduring relationships with those who consume the brands across countries and cultures.
Brands like Coca Cola retain their strength by having what industry insiders jokingly call the ‘Brand Police’ – people whose job it is to monitor the product’s brand and ensure that everything that goes into the public domain follows the branding guidelines.
When religions fi rst come into existence, the foundations of the brand are generally laid by one person; think Buddha, Prophet Jesus or even Ron L. Hubbard.
Let’s take the example of the Prophet Muhammad. He was the living embodiment of the brand of Islam. He laid out clear guidelines about Islam’s values encompassing notions such as a complete way of life; a code for serving the Creator as well as creation; how to uphold the values of freedom, justice, respect and equality; building an ultimate relationship with the Divine to achieve a prosperous life in the dunya and the afterlife.
Over time, the ‘brand’ of a religion becomes diluted because it loses its intense and pure brand advocate, and is no longer managed centrally. That’s one of the reasons why religious brands are so strong at the start, but weaken as successive generations develop different ideas about the values of the brand and how the brand should be maintained.
Even more detrimental to the brand is the fact that the actions of each person who subscribes to that brand come to represent the entire brand. Any Muslim who has lived through the last decade will tell you how a handful of men in September 2001 not only hijacked aeroplanes, but also hijacked the entire peaceful, justice-oriented, compassionate branding of Islam. No wonder Muslims round the world felt compelled to declare the words, “not in my name”, short for ‘not in the brand name of my Islam’.
As any brand manager will tell you, to spread positive messages about your brand, you need at least 13 customers to tell other people how good your brand is. To spread negative messages, it just takes one bad experience.
Religion – especially Islam – needs some emergency branding work. In re-asserting its global brand, Muslims face three challenges. First, what exactly are the brand values of Islam that Muslims agree on? With ongoing disputes around sectarian, political and social differences, this doesn’t seem likely to be answered anytime soon. But if Muslims want to reclaim the brand of Islam, they will have to fi nd some core common ground.
Second, the agreed values must be exhibited throughout all aspects of the brand. It’s not just a technical tick-box exercise to say “Islam is about equality”. People only believe brands when they have demonstrated the brand values over and over again. For example, it’s no good just saying that Islam believes in the rights of women, if women aren’t given those rights.
Finally, how will the brand values be patrolled? Unlike the case of commercial brands, you can’t force people to behave according to the brand values. Scholars will need to take the lead, but this has to be done through peer-to-peer influence and motivation, with a huge emphasis on individual responsibility.
Re-invigorating Islam’s brand cannot be a cynical superficial ploy. The most important value in building a brand is trust – trust that what the brand says about itself is what the brand will actually deliver. The key to this is engagement, communication and transparency. That is how trust will be re-established, and how Islam’s brand values of peace, compassion and justice will be re-built.
This piece was written on June 2010 by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, the author of Love in a Headscarf, and blogs at spirit21.co.uk.