Who are the greatest marketing geniuses?

As I write, it is August 28, the feast day of Saint Augustine who, in my opinion, was the greatest marketing genius in history. My other two nominations are George Gallup and Tim Berners-Lee.

Here’s the thinking behind my three choices: Saint Augustine invented the first loyalty program which helped grow the most successful human organisation in history; George Gallup invented market research and delivered ultimate power to the customer; Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and the opportunity for global e- commerce, 24/7.


On the Vatican website, I found the following announcement:

A Plenary Indulgence is conceded on the usual conditions (sacramental Confession, Eucharistic Communion and prayers for the Supreme Pontiff’s intentions) to members of the faithful who, in a spirit of total detachment from any sin, will take part attentively and devoutly in some of the celebrations for the 20th World Youth Day in Cologne.

Just in case, like myself, you’re not a member of the faithful, the announcement above means that those members who qualify are guaranteed to get into heaven when they die. This is a very big offer for any member of the faithful. It’s called a plenary indulgence.

A plenary indulgence is a guarantee that you will receive enough frequent flyer points – divine grace – to go directly to heaven when you die. Like any other loyalty program there are rules and conditions and the Vatican lays these out from time to time. In this particular case, to qualify for a plenary indulgence a member must have gone to confession, taken communion, prayed for the Pope and attended the 20th World Youth Day in Cologne. Those members who observed these conditions are guaranteed by the Vatican to receive a sufficient allotment of grace to be admitted into Civitas Dei, the City of God – aka heaven.

The popularity of books like The Da Vinci Code reveals the fascination that the Vatican holds for many people – members and non-members alike – and I have always thought that the offer of VIP passes into Heaven is one of the cleverest ever invented. The evidence of history has shown how well it has worked. It continues to do so today. This particular invention was created by Saint Augustine.

For any loyalty system to be successful you need several things:

Currency. Some kind of points system.
Rewards and punishments. Rules for getting points and for losing them.
Destination. A desirable destination that motivates members to play.

Saint Augustine invented the idea of ‘original sin’ which meant that all members of the faithful arrived into the world with debit points – just for being born!

Prior to Augustine a newborn baby might be expected to go straight to heaven. After Augustine, babies already had debit points in their heaven account. These debit points had to be wiped out first and then further points were needed to get into heaven. This meant that playing the loyalty game was no longer an option to members. After Augustine you had to play the game because your account was already in the red.

How do you remit your sins and collect the heaven points, the grace needed to get into heaven?

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/31YwSO8bI0L._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis is where the Vatican comes in. The Curia devised a scheme where points were awarded for a wide range of Vatican- approved activities. For example, members have been able to earn points by praying at certain times in certain formats, by attending Vatican-approved sacraments and events. By doing certain good works. By making donations, or raising an army for the Pope or leaving property to the church when you die.

In 1343, Pope Clement VI confirmed that the Catholic Church can grant remission of sin through indulgences:

Upon the altar of the Cross Christ shed of His blood not merely a drop, though this would have sufficed, by reason of the union with the Word, to redeem the whole human race, but a copious torrent . . . thereby laying up an infinite treasure for mankind. This treasure He neither wrapped up in a napkin nor hid in a field, but entrusted to Blessed Peter, the key-bearer, and his successors, that they might, for just and reasonable causes, distribute it to the faithful in full or in partial remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.

Raffael 040 (crop).jpgLoyalty programs can backfire if they exploit their members. The best example of this was when Pope Leo X (born Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici) used the scheme to raise money for his lavish lifestyle and vast Vatican construction projects. Martin Luther blew the whistle on the Pope and the Vatican subsequently lost a big share of the market. This became known in history as the Reformation and led to the establishment of the Protestant churches who broke away from the Vatican because of its loyalty scheme. Commenting on the proceeds of the scheme Martin Luther wrote:

‘At the time I did not yet know who was to get the money. Then there appeared a booklet with the illustrious coat of arms of the Bishop of Magdeburg.’ Wider Hans Worst, 1541

The Vatican still uses the scheme which has been copied by many marketing organisations worldwide, especially in the travel industry. This is not surprising since Augustine’s original invention relied on a member’s belief in the premise that the Vatican was the official travel agent for the City of God.

For example, Virgin Blue airlines’ loyalty program called Velocity was promoted with headlines such as, ‘Isn’t it time loyalty programs redeemed themselves?’ The main benefit of Velocity over other loyalty programs is its ability to redeem your points sooner rather than later. This draws attention to the main drawback of the Vatican’s loyalty program: that you have to die before you can redeem your points.

–  Augustine of Hippo (page 160) from WOMBAT Selling by Michael Hewitt-Gleeson.
Published in Australia in 2006 by Hardie Grant Books