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Recently I attended a Baha’i devotional meeting along with several friends of the Faith. One of those friends, an entrepreneur married to a Baha’i, characterized Baha’i teaching activities as “marketing.”
Since I’m a Baha’i who works in marketing and sales, and is also a specialist in ethics, his comment struck me as untrue, making me want to explore the relationship between the teaching activities of Baha’is and commercial marketing.
Let’s start by defining our terms, beginning with “marketing.” One definition is “the process of making people interested in your product.”
Commercial marketing is geared toward growing businesses. In his program Magnetic Marketing, well-known marketing expert Dan Kennedy underscores the importance of marketing by saying, “Nothing happens in a business until someone is brought into the door.” An example he gives is “You don’t get to be a restaurant owner until someone walks in with an appetite and a wallet.” Marketing is therefore indispensable to the process of bringing customers to a business.
Kennedy also points out that we need a compelling message to attract the right people and make them say, “Hey, that product or service is right for me.” To do this, marketers start with a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) which answers the question: “Why should I do business with you versus any and every other option available to me in your category, including doing nothing?”
Getting people interested in our product or service is often accomplished through marketing processes such as:
- Research: Study the market and your potential customers.
- Segment: Divide your customers into different segments based on their characteristics.
- Strategy: Build a marketing strategy for each segment you want to target.
- Position: Define the distinguishing features of your product and highlight them in your marketing campaigns.
- Campaign: Create and run marketing campaigns.
- Performance: Measure the performance of your marketing campaigns.
- Fine-tune: Modify and fine-tune your marketing campaigns based on their performance.
The object of Baha’i teaching is simply to share the Baha’i message – not to manipulate or “sell” anyone. Since independent investigation of the truth is one of the core principles of the Baha’i Faith, people must develop their own relationship with God; and Baha’u’llah instructs all Baha’is to respect people’s autonomy.
This excludes proselytizing, defined as bringing undue pressure to bear upon someone to change his beliefs. Proselytizing also implies the making of threats or the offering of material benefits as an inducement to conversion. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, instructed the Baha’is to never proselytize:
Care, however, should, at all times, be exercised, lest in their eagerness to further the international interests of the Faith they frustrate their purpose, and turn away, through any act that might be misconstrued as an attempt to proselytize and bring undue pressure upon them, those whom they wish to win over to their Cause.
Naturally, it follows that in the Baha’i Faith the use of high-pressure tactics common to certain approaches to sales and marketing is also prohibited.
Of course, Baha’is are enthusiastic about Baha’u’llah’s teachings, and eagerly want to share them, which means that the democratically-elected Baha’i administration often organizes teaching campaigns designed to introduce interested spiritual seekers in the Baha’i Faith. These organized Baha’i teaching campaigns use systematic methods to make the Faith known to others – but Baha’is understand that such methods, though helpful, are ultimately insufficient in and of themselves. Shoghi Effendi cautioned the Baha’is that:
One thing and only one thing will unfailingly and alone secure the undoubted triumph of this sacred Cause, namely, the extent to which our own inner life and private character mirror forth in their manifold aspects the splendour of those eternal principles proclaimed by Baha’u’llah.
So since Baha’is have no clergy, and proselytizing is expressly forbidden, how does the Faith grow? Baha’is believe that the word of God, as expressed in the Baha’i writings, is sufficient to attract the souls of sincere spiritual seekers. That was certainly true for me – while I first studied the Baha’i Faith, I had no human contact with any members of the Baha’i community. All I had available to me were Baha’i books on loan from my college library. They were all I needed to convince me of the truth of the Baha’i revelation.
Baha’i Teaching and Commercial Marketing
Some Baha’i teaching endeavors may use many of the processes listed above: Research is done, both formally and informally; strategies are developed; campaigns are created and run; and results are measured. When certain areas or populations show heightened receptivity to the Baha’i teachings, priority may be placed on those areas. However, the target market of the Baha’i Faith is really the entire human race. Baha’u’llah said:
O ye children of men! The fundamental purpose animating the Faith of God and His Religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men.
So the major point of distinction between the Baha’i Faith and commercial marketing is that the development of a business widely varies from teaching the Baha’i Faith in several key ways.
First, marketing does not put emphasis on developing spiritual qualities. I have yet to discover a business marketing course that teaches that the ultimate guarantee of success of a marketing program relies on the inner life and private character of the marketer.
Second, another characteristic of marketing is the need to distinguish products or services from that of the competition. The Baha’i Faith teaches that all religions come from the same Divine Source. Since God does not compete with Himself, no competition exists. Baha’u’llah wrote “There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God.”
Third, another significant deviation between the spirit of Dan Kennedy’s marketing question and teaching the Baha’i Faith is that the responsibility for answering that question resides entirely with the seeker – and not with the Baha’i teacher – since determining the validity of and accepting the Baha’i Faith is a matter solely between the seeker and God.
Fourth, the Baha’i approach does not consider increased membership in the Faith to be a “deliverable” on the part of the Baha’i teacher. The success of the Baha’i teachings relies entirely on God, not on any one human being. However, the primary way in which individual Baha’is can positively influence the outcome is by the degree to which they live Baha’u’llah’s teachings – not merely by successful sales or marketing tactics or even implementation of teaching plans.
Although marketing and Baha’i teaching efforts have in common the goal of soliciting interest and some elements of process, it would be erroneous to conclude that because of those shared characteristics, commercial marketing and the promotion of the Baha’i Faith are essentially the same. Instead, the main difference resides in intentionality – particularly in the spiritual prerequisites absent in most marketing but indispensable in Baha’i teaching.