What Bolsters the Bottom Line? Selfless Marketing

Why Leveraging Non-Religious Spirituality Pays Dividends

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August Turak
August Turak
"Megatrends 2010" and a host of other best-selling business books argue persuasively that spirituality is going to be the defining trend of the 21st century. If true, the marketing challenge is leveraging this trend without "going religious." As Don Draper says in a pitch to Eastman Kodak in an episode of "Mad Men," using spirituality to create a "deeper bond" with the consumer without going religious is "delicate." But it is possible, and as that episode demonstrates, it is indeed "potent."

Actually this 21st-century trend toward spirituality is well under way. Hollywood films such as "The Truman Show," "The Matrix," "Avatar" and even "The Devil Wears Prada" all are based on Joseph Campbell's seminal work on the hero's journey toward spiritual transformation. These films grossed billions of dollars, and besides a few on the far religious right, the spiritual overtones have alienated no one. Consumers are validating with dollar votes a non-religious, non-sectarian spirituality. Not only are these films a proof of concept, but they supply a marketing template for cutting-edge advertisers and brand managers.

All human motivation can be described as an urge to transform, and this applies to purchase decisions as well. But there are three types of transformation: transforming condition, transforming circumstances and transforming being.

It is the universal human longing for a transformation of being that lies at the heart of Campbell's thesis, explains the success of all these Campbell-inspired movies and offers a useful yet non-religious definition for how to market spirituality.

Consider the evolution of soft-drink advertising. Initially, Pepsi was positioned as a refreshing thirst quencher offering consumers a transformation of condition. Later Pepsi made a quantum leap by introducing the "Now It's Pepsi for Those Who Think Young" campaign. Suddenly Pepsi became a cool lifestyle offering consumers a transformation of circumstance.

Today we are on the threshold of another quantum leap: a quantum leap that creative marketers will make by linking products and brands to a transformation of being.

Coke's campaign to "Teach the world to sing in perfect harmony" actually anticipated this transformational mega trend many years ago. This probably explains why everyone who saw it still remembers it. However, while drinking Coke or Pepsi can quench our thirst (transformation of condition), or make us cool people (transformation of circumstances), drinking Coke didn't transform us into more peaceful people (transformation of being). As a result, Coke's transformational appeal was inauthentic and illustrates why the current trend toward authentic brands is so important.

In light of Hollywood's box-office success, perhaps Coke should consider reviving that super-successful campaign while linking it to ways that Coke is sincerely investing in peace. Coke could tap into the nostalgia we all have for that campaign, reach a whole new audience that doesn't remember it, and follow through with real-world examples of how Coke is "making a difference" for world peace. If Coke is authentic in its effort, perhaps the Dalai Lama, Bono or even our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president would sign on.

Of course this raises the legitimate question of how leveraging a non-religious spirituality differs from environmentalism, sustainability, philanthropy and corporate responsibility.

The difference is that a transformation of being means changing people from the inside out. Mr. Scrooge's transformation is a change of heart rather than a change of mind. Tapping into this emergent trend doesn't mean Coke invests in peace initiatives that imply political solutions. Albert Einstein said that no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it, and this implies that world peace will never emerge from politics alone. Instead we need processes and methodologies like Campbell's that transform us from the inside out.

This is a fine but critical distinction. A new recruit does not learn to be a Marine. He becomes a Marine. A new recruit is transformed by boot camp and the Marine Corps culture. Offering this transformation is the only marketing the Marines do, yet they consistently exceed recruiting targets. Other services offer bonuses, education and vocational skills yet often have a harder time getting recruits. This demonstrates that marketing a transformation of being can be more effective than marketing a transformation of circumstances. As for brand loyalty and word of mouth, "Once a Marine, always a Marine" becomes the indelible identity of a lifetime.

Sustainability, environmentalism and philanthropy are really transformations of circumstances if they only change the outside world. If so, these efforts are actually examples of the old paradigm that predicts that if you change people's environment (circumstances) people will change. Circumstances do matter, but the emerging paradigm argues that transformed people naturally better their environment. Campbell outlines a transformational journey from selfishness to selflessness, and the benefits to our worldly circumstances fallout from that. What is needed socially, economically, in business and in marketing is a change of heart encapsulating the simple truth that it is in our own self interest to forget our self interest.

Selfless marketing means forgetting about the bottom line, our products, and personal ambitions by fanatically serving our customer's needs. When we do we create great products, these products move, the bottom line explodes and we get a fat bonus. Acting consistently on this simple insight remains marketing's greatest challenge. But it is an example of how a spiritual value of selflessly serving others ends up serving us if we have enough faith to heroically practice what we preach.

August Turak is an entrepreneur and consultant and has been an executive with a variety of companies like MTV Networks, A&E Networks, United Press International and Bell Atlantic. He can be reached via augustturak.com.
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