Ambi Parameswaran has spent a large part of his 35-year working career in advertising at Draftfcb+Ulka, where he rose to be Executive Director and CEO.
Parameswaran has authored/co-authored six books on topics ranging from Brand Building and Advertising to Consumer Behaviour. In an exclusive conversation with exchange4media, Parameswaran talks about his new book ‘For God Sake’, the seventh book to his credit. He talks about his journey of writing the book, religious customers being more demanding, an Islamic insurance policy needed for Muslim consumers, need for religious education as part of MBA curriculum and more...
‘For God’s Sake’ is distinctly different and at the same time catchy. How did you arrive at the name? How has the journey of ‘For God’s Sake’ been?
I had in mind a title called ‘In God we Trust’, however, my publisher did not think it was catchy enough. I was crossing the road in San Francisco, we were at the Mission District, when my wife asked me “what about ‘For God’s Sake’?” I thought it was a good title, and so did my publisher. Incidentally, Mission District is where Spanish priests set up the first Christian mission in the West world of America. The book actually derives inspiration from the PHD work I had done, so in reality the book has been five years in the making; but physically it got made in 3-4 months. I wanted to do 20 chapters, but the publisher wanted to do 10; I wrote 20 and left it up to him. Interestingly, he came back and said it gets better in the second half.
Do you think religious connotations are used/ misused in advertising?
Advertising derives its inspiration from popular culture and religion. There are enough ads that have used religious totems – whether it is a pooja, or saat phere or sindoor – we use a lot of that. I have a theory that there is nothing like use or misuse for commercial purposes, I think Indian consumers are quite happy seeing religious symbols in commercial messages, partly because our religion actually celebrates wealth. There is at least 10 per cent to 15 per cent vestige of religion in advertising.
Many advertisers have used Karwa Chauth and Akshya Tritiya, the truth is people are looking for occasions to buy and you give them one. A lot of time religion is in the sub-text, such as mangal sutra is religion, but you don’t see it that way. People perceive religion as a way of life.
We speak about cross-platform advertising; your book seems to raise the belief that marketers should also look at cross-cultural/ cross-traditional marketing. How important is this?
We as marketers tend to understand the culture we come from, majority of us may be from one culture, that is Hinduism. We don’t understand anything about Islam or Christianity; I think there is a benefit in understanding other religions. In another 30-40 years, Muslims are going to constitute one-fifth of the population and customers, the earlier we start doing this the better it is. In my book I have also said that we should have religious education as part of the MBA curriculum. For example, Muslims don’t buy life insurance; so, should the insurance industry figure out an Islamic insurance policy that makes them feel more comfortable? We need to get more culturally sensitive in marketing and advertising – that is what I am saying.
With increasing westernisation, how does a marketer maintain the balance between western ‘aspirations’ and traditional sentiments?
Except for maybe the top 10 per cent of urban India, the rest of India is very much rooted in customs and beliefs. Even in the top 10 per cent, there is a strong cultural ethos – if they meet elders, they touch their feet, when they cross a temple, they will do pranam, even the most liberated houses have religious symbols; some of the religious symbols are coming as art forms.
What are some of the Interesting learnings in your journey of writing ‘For God’s Sake’?
When I started my PHD, I wanted to know if Hindu, Muslim, and Christian consumers are different in evaluating criteria, to pick a durable do they look at it differently? They don’t. What I found was that there was a difference in more religious customers and the less religious customer. Very curiously, the more religious the customer was, the more demanding he was. Inversely, in America research says that the more religious customer is, the less demanding he is. If you observe, a religious customer in India is also demanding more from God all the time.
What is the key message of the book?
The book celebrates the way we Indians embrace consumerism and religion. We can use religion as a positive force rather than a divisive negative force.
What are your favourite chapters?
The chapter on MBA education, Muslim consumer, Sari and Bindi.