How Modern Marketing Prays on Insecurity and Why Long-Term Success Centers on Culture


You might be familiar with the acronym FOMO or fear of missing out. There's a version of it that tries to flip the feeling. JOMO, or joy of missing out is about finding balance in life.

The JOMO journey began in 2012 when tech entrepreneur Anil Dash coined the term 'the joy of missing out' on his blog. It happened on my birthday, so I noticed. But FOMO had deeper cultural roots and hooks into our lizard brain. Hence why it perseveres.

Modern marketing has capitalized on human insecurities. But if you think it's a recent development of modern society, think again. You can reliably go all the way back to the lower Middle Ages to find the origins of corporate marketing and communications. They've been accumulating energy for hundreds of years.

That's why they still work. How do they work and why do we owe long-term success to culture?


Why vision and mission statements are powerful

Francis of Assisi was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone. His father was a prosperous silk merchant. His French mother a noblewoman. Though he was baptized Giovanni after his birth in Assisi in his father's absence, he was later called Francesco because of his French origin.

How did a handsome, witty, gallant wealthy young man who delighted in fine clothes and spending money lavishly end up a saint? A keen observer, he noticed the plight of beggars early in life. After being taken captive in a battle near Perugia—something fairly routine for medieval wealthy young men to partake in—he spent a year in captivity.

Recovering from an illness led to re-evaluating his life. Wanting to turn a new leaf after a spiritual vision, he tried to finance repairs in a local church in San Damiato. The priest wouldn't have his ill-gained coins. But his father was even more upset about the gesture, beating him and locking him up after recovering the gold coins.

To make a long story short, in the midst of legal proceedings to force him to forego his inheritance as restitution, Francis renounced his father's wealth. Eventually, Francis founded the men's Order of Friars Minor, the women's Order of Saint Clare, the Third Order of Saint Francis and the Custody of the Holy Land.

He became one of the most venerated religious figures in Christianity. Pope Gregory IX canonized Francis on 16 July 1228. Along with Saint Catherine of Siena, he was designated Patron saint of Italy.

There are several versions of Francis biography, so the details are a bit fuzzy. But the many biographies, three alone by Tommaso Da Celano and many redacted by others later are a useful clue of the power of the founder's myth. Centuries before Walter Isaacson wrote Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader, biographies were big business.

While today we may think we can learn a lot from the lives of others, at the time of the founding of religious orders in the lower Middle Ages, they were fantastic promotional tools. They drilled the myth of the visionary founder into culture.

Why the many biographies of Saint Francis of Assisi? That was to overlook his human warts and emphasize the Order's key messaging by way of rooting it into the vision and mission of its founder.


The origins of positioning

If Saint Francis of Assisi provides the best example of the myth of the founder to create a halo effect around an organization's vision and mission statements, religious orders in general can tell us about the origins of positioning.

All orders began as startups, with an incredible initial success. Some of these organizations were growing at an 80 percent rate per year. We're talking serious numbers of monks joining. More boots on the ground meant greater collection power from people in search of salvation.

Religious orders like the Order of Saint Francis spread quickly from one region to others, one country to another energized by fervor and attracting new members by promising a purposeful life.

The lower Middle Ages were a time of great opportunity in Italy and many parts of Europe. Merchants were thriving, people started living in cities. Italian city-states were places of great exchange of ideas and discourse. There was this sense that the established centers of religious power were losing control of the masses.

New independent preachers began going from city to city. People were starting to listen to different points of view on salvation. The Church needed a new organization to take control of the masses again. An organization that could talk to people and connect with them. Hence the Dominicans were founded as preachers.

The Franciscans found room because the masses were too poor and the Church was seen as too rich. It needed an order that could stay with the people on their level. Hence the vow of poverty by Franciscans.

But soon orders had to specialize to attract new followers. Because the Dominicans' mission was to preach, the order wanted people who had studied and could talk. That's why you had to have serious studies listed on your curriculum to gain entrance. At some point, the Dominicans wouldn't admit anyone who didn't have a higher degree in theology.

Saint Francis decided to do the exact opposite. They didn't want anyone who had studied. Learned people become conceited and arrogant and lose touch with common people. Francis idea was they had to be very visible throughout the territory.

Positioning became necessary to attract followers and members. Some orders channeled the energy into battle to conquer the Holy Land. When the spiritual salvation space became too crowded, specialization became critical. The orders that could not position to appeal to a specific market segment of the time disappeared.


Value of symbols and production methods to positioning

Insecurity and uncertainty about future salvation were the tools of the marketing trade the various religious groups used to position their Order in the Middle Ages. Each needed to attract enough people to get a start and keep going. People needed a short-hand to know where they belonged. A match made in Heaven, if there ever was one!

When going into battle, it's critical to know competitors. Crusades provided  an opportunity to refine symbols. Several orders were started to conquer the Holy Land: the Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller, and Teutonic Knights, emerged at around the same time. They acted on a necessary mission by the Latin Church.

How to tell them apart? The Knights Templar wore a white mantle with a red cross, the Knights Hospitaller a black mantle with a white cross, and the Teutonic Order a white mantle with a hooked black Prussian cross. Their white mantle meant they were possibly infringing on copyright. The hooked back cross symbol has a longer history.

Initially, Franciscans wore a coarse sack made of jute tied to the waist with a simple chord and a pointy hood, eschewing the rounded hood of city gentry. But then at some point, the frock became softer and made of fabric, the hood more rounded. However, a group faithful to the original principles broke away and kept the pointy hood. These more radical poor became known as Capuchins, literally meaning pointy hats.

If the Church financed the knights and orders going into battle to conquer the Holy Land well, people were willing to pay for prayers. The orders organized their communities to be able to produce prayers 24/7. They looked at the continuous production cycle of water mills as models. Monks and friars took turns to pray.

They literally created prayer mills. To keep money pumping into the church's coffers, the religious orders also invented loyalty programs. The names of donors were inscribed on a big book kept in the monastery where they would receive prayers for eternity. They even invented name days to celebrate by connecting the names of saints to those of people on specific days of the calendar.

The counter reformation in the late Middle Ages opened an opportunity for yet another order. Founded by Ignatius of Loyola in Paris and made official in Rome, the Society of Jesus or Jesuits took on education and the training of the management class.

Their success was due to their chosen niche segment, associated methods of diffusion and symbols. The Jesuits built a valuable brand that spread all over the world.


Why some orders endured through time

It's easy to see how the orders born to fight the Crusades would cease to have a valid purpose. After two centuries of fighting, the Holy Land was lost in 1291. The Crusades were finished. But the orders wanted to hold on.

They had received huge financing and accumulated enormous riches through years of fighting. Even if people started criticizing them for running the organization with a heavy overhead — some even said a ratio of 9 administrators burning through cash in European offices to 1 fighting in the Holy Land — they had built a strong network of locations.

This is something that happened for churches as well. Once the city proper was saturated by one main church per order, they started building in the suburbs. You should think of medieval cities as quite small, hence why so many Italian cities have so many churches of different denominations today. Each was built at the same distance from its main church in the center of the city.

Location, location, location is partly why some of the orders endured through time. But it was the ability to convert and spread all over that created longevity. Each church survived that could build a loyal group of followers. Because followers and patrons provided the ongoing funds to sustain it. Frescoes were soon commissioned and dedicated to noble people who financed them (and the church) in exchange for salvation.

What about the overhead for the fighting orders? They met and decided to get together to reduce it and save. But the European nobility and kings thought they have too much power (and riches). With the help of the Pope, who had a vested interest in controlling the funds, they decided to disband them.

Phillip IV of France, nicknamed il Bello for his good looks, took matters in his own hands by having all fighting Knights Templar in the kingdom arrested on the same day and accusing them of heresy, thus destroying the order and sequestering the riches accumulated. The Teutonic Knights managed to escape by going to fight Slavs in Prussia.

The Knights Hospitaller pivoted with change, going to the sea. They became first the Knights of Rhodes, then the Knights of Malta who are still active today. The Teutonic Knights became a purely religious order in 1810. The Teutonic Order still confers limited honorary knighthoods and continues to perform charitable work.

Pope Gregory IX appointed the Franciscans, along with the Dominicans, as Inquisitors. They had great authority in that role. Then survived that nefarious past in different ways. The Franciscans had already split into smaller, niche groups. Other minor groups emerged over time that survive today. The Dominican Order went through several iterations. In 2017, it counted a membership of 5,742 (4,302 priests among them).

The later Jesuits founded in 1540 with the noble mandate to educate the management class count 16,378 members the same year. Loyola, himself a nobleman, had a strong vision from the very beginning. The opening lines of the founding document declared that the society was founded for “whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine.”

The orders that adapted to the changes that weaved their way through culture survived. Those that tapped into the energy of culture to operate at higher levels or above board as times where changing thrived.


Origins of company marketing?

Medieval professor Alessandro Barbero shared some of the key ideas that inspired this article in a talk he gave a few years ago.# The provocative title read: “the religious orders of the Middle Ages at the origins of corporate communication.”

But I rather think the orders quickly discovered the power of understanding human needs and desires and the members' adept practice at observing behavior allowed them to capitalize on it. This translates well into modern marketing.

Vision and mission stemmed from the myth of the founding father. Positioning quickly became a necessity. Because the successful growth of the first orders opened a new market, more groups flocked into the business.

Symbols in the form of dress code first, then specific colors and and marks, created a short hand for what each order stood for to be recognized quickly and keep competitors at bay. The orders used mortality and salvation insecurity to sell their message in the same ways modern marketing does.

Loyalty programs in the form of lofty promises it doesn't come any grander than eternal salvation kept customers hooked to each “brand.” New orders sprung up and succeeded by identifying an unmet need and fulfilling it. Opulence won some over, simplicity others. When the Church needed a way to take control of the masses again, it used preaching, an emerging method people liked, to create a new order.

Aren't these all methods of modern marketing? Technology changes, people don't. Because we still have a hard time knowing how to evaluate value with clarity, companies that know how we value things that cost us continue to try and win us over.

Yet, as I said in that article: cost and price are not the same. Cost is more like prize, as Steve Jobs alluded to in his keynote as returning Apple CEO in 1997. Something we earn through work, participation, and what we stand for, because we act on our beliefs.

Companies that endure build strength and longevity by tapping into culture.

Some marketers do it by tapping into insecurities to incentivize new behaviors and turn them into habits, and those into culture. Edward Bernays did that for the American Tobacco Company in 1928. Bernays was a pioneer in the field of propaganda.

Like the religious orders, he understood people are not rational agents. He leveraged emotional levers to create culture as he did to encourage women to start smoking by associating it with a positive emotional experience. Sigmund Freud's nephew knew how to leverage people's insecurities to make them buy. But Freud wasn't the first to understand this. Religious orders in the lower Middle Ages were.

Although it works and the effects can last a long time, companies that metastasize this kind of conversation into culture are into growth at any cost. They're using the same strategy as the cancer cell to grow money into more money and not to invest into capitals of higher value: like human capital.

Companies that do the opposite and tap into the energy accumulated in culture over time have a chance to convert money into capitals that have higher value: intelligence, human work, social connection. The very same capitals enduring orders that kept going put front and center. They used money as a means to further their mission and vision with self-interest, and not an end in itself.

Barbero spoke of an interesting parallel between business and religious order: vision 2050. When he searched for the term, he found two organizations: that of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)#, and that of the Young Members and Volunteers of the Order of Malta.#

Business organization and religious order use the same language. Who's imitating whom and to what ends?

Culture is a deep store of energy. When you're exposed to an energy-dense environment, your creativity and productivity go way up. Creating culture just to convert higher forms of value into lower ones—human energy into money for the sake of more money—prays on insecurity and has shorter shelf life.

Creating culture to pray on insecurity is the equivalent of FOMO. Tapping into culture to energize value as the ability to create positive change that of JOMO. We're used to the first, the second takes better discipline and focus.

We can do better. If we want to have long-term success, we should.


I've been sharing ideas and perspectives about business and culture in my weekly email to nearly 1,000 new subscribers and growing. I organize issues by theme to minimize overwhelm. Subscribe here, if you're curious about reframing and rethinking business and ideas.

, ,