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10 Dec, 2000

How Marketing Gurus Tap the Persuasive Power of Religious Conversion

Originally Published:  Dec 10, 2000

Research done in South Africa into why people convert from on religion to another is now being used by modern-day marketing gurus to get customers to switch from one product to another, or to remain loyal to one product.

Operating on the premise that any theory which one works in one environment can work in another, the research purports to prove that while there is NO link between being satisfied with a product and loyalty to it, there IS a link between being committed to a product and loyalty to it.

Hence, while some marketers try and build commitment to a product to retain customers, competing products try to snap that commitment in order to lure away customers to their products.

Developed by Dr Jan Hofmeyr in the mid-1980s, the system known simply as “the Conversion Model” was originally conceptualised as a psychological model that would help explain what makes a person change religious beliefs.

He first established the frameworks of elements that had to be in place for conversion to take place. In so doing, Dr Hofmeyr realised that this application was not only true for religion, but for anything in life that required one to make a fundamental change in what one had habitually been doing. Thus, the model was extended beyond the study of religious conversion to political research and now to the field of marketing.

This research revealed that while people may prescribe to one religion, they may not necessarily be either satisfied with it, or committed to it and hence were ripe for an approach that may encourage conversion.

In the business world, customer satisfaction research is based on the theory that there is a smooth link between satisfaction and loyalty — and that as satisfaction increases, so will loyalty.

Now, religious research shows that what people do just isn’t smoothly linked to what makes them satisfied, and that one has to strongly care about one”s religion in order to develop a strong, involved relationship with it, and hence rebuff overtures to defect.

In business, one frequently asked question is: Do you care about your job? If the answer is ‘yes’, then the likelihood when things go wrong is that you will try to fix the relationship with the employer rather than start looking for another job. This shows that if things go wrong in a relationship people care about, they delay defection in favour of trying to fix things.

It takes a lot more dissatisfaction to cause defection. But if a person doesn’t care, he or she can abandon a relationship even when quite satisfied. If they care, they stay. If they don’t, they go.

In business, researchers cite the example of Coca-Cola, which is nothing more than caramelised, carbonated water with sugar and caffeine in it. In blind taste tests, Coke drinkers are unable to recognise it and frequently choose it’s competitor, Pepsi, as the preferred drink. Yet, they remain committed to Coke. When Coke changed its formula in the mid-1980’s, committed Coke drinkers insisted that it revert to the old formula.

Hence, the extent to which people are emotionally involved in a brand (or religion) plays a fundamental role in the likelihood that they will be loyal. To measure loyalty, it’s essential to understand the nature of the relationship between involvement and loyalty, and to measure the extent of emotional involvement.

The religious researchers found that people will be uncommitted if they are unhappy, that is, if they have felt let down by its key needs/values, or if they just don’t care, or if they rate a competing religion as being better. The same principles are now being adopted by market research.

Some of the claimed findings border on the outrageous. In one industrialised major country, for example, it was found that women are more likely to change their husbands than their tomato ketchup. On the other hand, people stay in marriages even though they are unhappy. Researchers proved that more people get divorced after kids leave home as the reason to stay together has disappeared.

Business dogma says that in order to retain customers, a company has to undertake a complete analysis of that brand”s position and the factors contributing to what makes people committed to it. Against this, companies have to do an equally complete analysis of the competitors” product, identifying especially their vulnerability to attack.

Then, the appropriate strategies have to be followed, depending on whether a company is trying to retain its own customers, or win someone else”s. In theory, the same applies in the religious experience, too.

The business model, which has grown in sophistication over the years, tries to identify how vulnerable the potential targets are, and to what extent they can be persuaded. It leaves out those people who are seen as “entrenched” and focuses only on those who are seen to be “convertible,” or “available.”

Detailed forecasting strategies are available to show how that brand could be further open to attacks by competitors and what it could mean for that brand in future.

At a time when religious proselytising is becoming a highly controversial issue, and even flaring into violence in some countries, there are a number of lessons to be drawn from this “conversion model”.

In many parts of the world, people profess to be adherents to one religion or another, but do not follow its fundamental precepts. Hence, they may be on paper satisfied with it, but do not have enough commitment or emotional involvement to care about following it.

Those people described somewhat callously by the media as being fundamentalists or religious zealots take the issue to the other extreme, whereby they become so hard-line that they shut themselves off to any other overtures.

In the business world, it”s all about market share. Ditto, in the religious world. Neither a religion nor a brand likes to “lose customers” but the reality of it is that unless both work hard to ensure commitment, they”re going to lose that client.

World-wide, there is a growing drift towards spirituality, thanks largely to swirling insecurities and an exponential growth in factors beyond the control of the average human. Many fears emerge because people either don”t understand their own religion, or misunderstand it, or because they misunderstand someone else”s religion.

Business, like sport, is often referred to as war by another means, a war for market share, profits and survival. But in the religious sense, such bunfights trigger conflict, which go against what religions are supposed to do in the first place, viz., build peace and harmony.

Going forward, the world has little choice except to turn this conversion model philosophy on its head and tone down territorial bunfights over religious market share. Rather than trying to pick up “available” defectors, religious leaders need to work harder at “retaining customers” even while becoming gently tolerant and understanding of other faiths.