God almighty PLC
Marketing expert Winston Fletcher analyses a world-beating strategy
Which is the oldest successful brand in the world? My own nomination for this coveted crown of thorns is the Catholic Church. (Protestantism is a toddler in comparison. Judaism is older but its branding has always been poor, which doubtless explains its lowly market share.) The Catholic Church is a simply divine example of great long-term marketing. From the start it recognised the importance of brand logos: first the fish (ichthus), later the ubiquitous crucifix. It would be unkind, but not untrue, to say the only other mass movement equally obsessed with its logo was Germany’s National Socialist party – indeed Hitler paid homage to the Vatican in Mein Kampf. Other religious and political movements have had logos too, of course, but none has employed them quite so remorselessly, all the time and everywhere.
Then there is the brand packaging – both human and architectural. From earliest times Catholic clerics and monks have dressed differently from other people. And the higher up the hierarchical ladder they climb, the greater the differences become until – at the very top – sits the Pope in his unique and unmistakable pack, with high balcony impact. Might this be happenstance? No way. It is inspired brand marketing. But it was not inspired by the deity. Nowhere does the Bible mention gilded cloaks or pointy mitres. The Popes chose that exceptionally pricey gear themselves (custom tailored from the finest fabrics by Ditta A Gammarelli of Rome since 1846). They chose it because they knew fine packaging differentiates an expensive brand from mere commodities (like you and me and other peasants). And the Pope is a very expensive brand indeed.
The same applies to their architectural packaging. The costs of building cathedrals ran sky-high. Economist Virginia Lee Owen has estimated that 2.5 per cent of the entire European workforce was involved in cathedral building between 1200 and 1328 (when they would all have been much better employed producing food – though admittedly we would now be bereft of their magnificent cathedrals). On the basis of contemporary hod-carrier wage rates – you’d better believe it – Robert A Scott has calculated that building Westminster Abbey cost £45,000, at a time when the annual GDP was only £35,000. Each gothic cathedral cost hundreds of millions of pounds at today’s prices.
Then there is the Unique Selling Proposition. Admittedly their USP – “Do as you’re told, or excommunication, damnation and get f***ed” – is not quite unique, but it has surely proved a terrific selling proposition. And, like all great USPs, throughout the ages the Catholic brand proposition has remained steady as a petrified rock (to coin a pontifical, if tautological, phrase). All that black and white smoke malarkey, the inquisitions, sanctifications, beatifications and occasional miracles have protected and enhanced the brand’s values far better than any mere ad campaign could.
So we are talking serious, cost-effective marketing here. But if this analysis sounds slightly distasteful, even to fully paid-up New Humanists, think again. Catholics have no problem at all with a businesslike view of their faith. In the Spectator, July 2005, Damian Thompson, editor of the Catholic Herald, wrote: “The Pope is a CEO, not a chairman, and as such has two priorities. The first is to make sure that staff and services bearing the label ‘Catholic’ are what they say they are ... [His] other priority is to improve the quality of the Church’s greatest service, the liturgy of the Eucharist.”
Thompson did not mention the Catholic CEO’s third priority, to keep his business in funds. The Catholic hierarchy – every religious hierarchy – has always known it cannot achieve its aims, cannot even keep afloat, without filthy lucre. It is not only mercenary Maharishis and crackpot American evangelists who milk their followers dry. Every religion, like all other economic organisations, must trade at a profit to survive. Running a top religion costs a packet, and unless revenue exceeds costs, assets soon dwindle away.
Nobody understood this better than Adam Smith. Smith discussed the economics of religion at length in The Wealth of Nations, and he saw through it all with a characteristically beady eye: “In the Church of Rome, the industry and zeal of the inferior [equals low-status] clergy are kept ... alive by the powerful motive of self-interest. The parochial clergy derive a very considerable part of their subsistence from the voluntary oblations of the people; a source of revenue which confession gives them many opportunities of improving. The mendicant orders derive their whole subsistence from such oblations. It is with them, as with the hussars and light infantry of some armies: no plunder, no pay ... They are obliged, therefore, to use every art which can animate the devotion of the common people”.
After Adam Smith, the study of the economics of religion fell into desuetude, though Karl Marx, Max Weber and RH Tawney touched on it indirectly – focusing not so much on the economics of religion as on the impact of religion on capitalist economics. It was not until 1975 that the subject was resurrected, by Corry Azzi and Ronald Ehrenberg, in their study of the economics of church-going. Azzi and Ehrenberg showed how religions that are less time-intensive grow faster than those that are more time-intensive, at least in the USA. (I doubt this would apply to Muslims – indeed I suspect the reverse.) This study had an important catalytic effect on other academic research into the economics of religion, which has burgeoned in recent years.
Economics is the study of the allocation of resources, built on supply and demand, buying and selling. This raises the fundamental question regarding the economics of religion: what is being bought and sold? Max Weber believed religion gave legitimacy to the pursuit of wealth and power: “The most general term for the service is legitimisation which religion has had to accomplish for the external and inner interests of all ruling men, the propertied, the victorious, the wealthy” (Major Features of World Religions).
Weber’s point is well made, but is obviously not the whole story. The most common view of economists is that the principal product religions sell is cerebral solace – by explaining existence and by providing an afterlife (preferably a glorious afterlife, but any old afterlife is better than none). This is the view of economists Ekelund, Hébert and Tollison in their recent book The Marketplace of Christianity. They write: “No urge, primal or modern, is more fundamental than the desire to explain existence.”
Religion, they argue, satisfies this primal desire. Once again the point is well made, but is far from the whole story. The selfish gene’s primal urges are the survival of self and the survival of the species. “Explaining existence” is an intellectual pastime in which Homo sapiens only indulges when it has sufficient food, shelter and sexual fulfilment to leave time for metaphysical musing. Nor is the belief in an afterlife a crucial aspect of religiosity. Several religions pay little or no heed to the existence of an afterlife – and Christians’ patent distaste for death suggests that few of them have much faith in it themselves.
That is why – however selfless and ascetic clerics like to portray themselves as being – few are content to rely solely on joy in the world hereafter. They want it now. That is why abbeys and monasteries are beautifully built in beautiful places. That is why senior clerics, in all religions, enjoy considerable privileges and live in grand houses, not to say palaces. That is why they need to keep the money rolling in, and that in turn is why they need to keep up their marketing – even if that word would be anathema to them.
Returning from Rome to home, last year the Church of England’s running costs totalled some £1,000 million – three-quarters of which came from members’ contributions. (They still know how to “animate the devotion of the common people”, in Adam Smith’s plangent phrase.) Most of the remainder came from the investments in the Church Commissioners’ immensely wealthy portfolio. The economics of religion are big business. And the CEOs of God Almighty PLC have never doubted it.