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Lessons in Maverick Marketing from Scientology

March 2022


We take a tap-dance through the Scientology brand, re-enact its development, ponder Jesus on TikTok, and ask whether L Ron Hubbard was actually the marketing guru we all need right now.

With the recent release of Top Gun: Maverick in cinemas, comes the inevitable focus on the Church that the world’s most famous action hobbit, Tom Cruise, is a high-profile member of.

For the unfamiliar, Scientology is a religion invented by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard. It essentially posits that humans are immortal beings who need to shed their past traumas in order to experience reality as it really is.

But Hubbard understood that to build a successful religion, you can’t just trot out any old standard reincarnation-ist fare. You need a really bloody good marketing strategy in place. And boy did Ron have a good strategy.

In the spirit of segmentation, he took a penetratingly long stare at the market, saw an opportunity in the underserved segment of insecure rich superstars, and targeted the shit out of them.

There was some minor competition in Kaballah, but the fallen Madonna with the big boobies would prove no match for the Hollywood elite they would ultimately go after, and the only obvious benefit of that religion was a straggly red friendship bracelet your six-year-old niece could knock up with her eyes closed.

Scientology, by contrast, would offer up immortality and an eternity of limitless capabilities. And who doesn’t want a piece of that Positioning?

In addition, Ron claimed that the ‘problem’ of past-life traumas that Scientology would solve were actually the result of 75-million year-old disembodied brainwashed alien soul remnants, called thetans, clinging to human forms.

These thetans were created when Xenu, a despotic alien overlord, bought several billion of his species to Earth and promptly pulverised them with hydrogen bombs because – and you couldn’t make this up (unless you so obviously already had) - they weren’t going to vote for him in the forthcoming intergalactic elections.

You can only imagine the early religious development meetings...

“People’ll never go for it, Ron,” the Ops Director would have implored. “It’s fucking madness mate.”

But he ignored the naysayers, and in doing so delivered perhaps the most important lesson for modern-day marketers: the need to be conspicuous.

This is never an easy choice for anyone inventing a religion. The temptation to benchmark your competitors, err on the side of caution, and go with a slightly modified version of the main elements that make up many organised faiths today (e.g. one true God, Jerusalem, and a lot of really shit singing) would have been incredibly strong.

But Ron resisted.

He understood the importance of differentiation and distinctiveness. He went all out to disrupt the faith industry. He added the kind of layers and backstory that make the plot of Inception look like an episode of Paw Patrol. He knew it wouldn’t be for everyone, and he understood that neither should it be.

With a pretty compelling Product in place, it was time for Ron to turn his attention to the other tactical levers required for its delivery.

What followed was a series of masterstrokes - right up until the actual stroke that allowed him to "drop his body to continue his research on another planet’' (the words of an Official Scientology Spokesperson, not my own).

First off, the Pricing Model.

Somewhat conveniently for the coffers, Scientology isn’t a one-payment-and-you’re-done deal. Oh no. The truth can only be revealed to you after endless rounds of ‘auditing’ your traumas, in order to reach a ‘clear’ state.

It’s no surprise the main activity is an accounting term, and the ‘state’ is what your bank balance is once you’ve completed the course. $128,000 is the alleged cost for clarity, and there are still more learnings you can choose to undertake should your wallet be large and your intellect small.

And what of the brand extensions and merch opportunities? By the time of his death, Hubbard had spawned thousands of publications expanding on his initial teachings, and the Scientology gift catalogue was brim-full of the kind of hokum gadgetry that would make a QVC host wince to talk about it.

Let’s also not forget Place.

Most sacred establishments are cold, unwelcoming places that smell like a tramp’s sleeping bag. But Scientology could be accessed via a welcoming-looking shop front on your local high street. More like a Waterstones than a place of worship.

And as for Promotion...

Well, that was as simple as attracting some of the most famous people in the world and - hey presto - they had the kind of organic reach not even Jesus with a TikTok account could have dreamed of. 

Which is why, if the stats are to be believed (and, let’s face it, Scientologists will believe anything) by 2007, there were over 3.5 million Scientologists in America.

But, if the crucifixion taught us anything, it’s that what goes up must come down, and the church’s failure to keep up their early marketing brilliance has meant things have stalled more recently.

Yes, retention levels may be strong, but that’s largely because the only thing harder to get out of than Scientology is an Amazon Prime Membership.

Penetration – the life’s blood of any organisation that wants to grow – has been somewhat on the wane since claims of sexual battery, racketeering and conspiracy have been bought against the organisation.

Then there’s the lack of relevancy. The problem with a ‘fixed revelation’ religion is that it literally can’t move with the times. Scientology continues to take a very damning line on homosexuals, mental health practitioners, and anyone no longer wanting to be a Scientologist.

There’s an increased feeling that the value equation is slightly tilted in favour of the church, what with its $1.7bn of real estate. Catholicism might be the wealthiest religion in the world, but it need only cost you a few Hail Marys and a supermarket trolley coin in the collection plate every week, and you get wine and nibbles thrown in for that.

And as for any loyalists who decide to shop elsewhere for their brainwashing, they're treated with the kind of next-level harassment that perhaps even Xenu would have thought was a bit too much.

So what does the future hold?

Despite his record box-office opening as the ultimate Maverick, it’s unlikely even Tom will be able to save them; and he’s saved the world from nuclear attack, New York from giant war machines, and Katie Holmes from post Dawson’s Creek obscurity.

Perhaps it’s time for Scientology: The Movie.

Tom Cruise would be played by Tom Cruise. Elizabeth Moss would be played by Tom Cruise in a wig. And John Travolta would be played by Tom Cruise having swopped faces with the real John Travolta in a very early scene, thus allowing Tom Cruise to play John Travolta as Tom Cruise for the rest of the film.

And because he does all his own stunts, he’d have to learn how to withstand being blown up by a hydrogen bomb.

Mission Impossible? Maybe.

But stranger things have happened.... 

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