The success of the Rapture, with lessons for your brand

Posted on May 22, 2011

The Rapture? A success?

Despite the flood of jokes about the failure of the Rapture to appear on time, bear this in mind: the radio evangelist who managed and promoted this Brand netted more than $70,000,000 for his efforts. A sum, it must be added, he is not about to refund to his followers.

$70 million dollars in his bank account is pretty good evidence of non-failure.

There are at least three practical lessons in this for brand holders, perspectives about brand promise, specificity, and narrative.

A brand is a promise. (That’s a cliché, but it became a cliché because it’s true.) And the power of a brand depends on how differentiated and urgent that promise is to your target audience. Eternal life is an old reliable, which when done effectively can make followers cash in their Airstream and leave the trailer park. Is the promise of your product/service/candidate/cause even half that big and emotional and relevant? We wrote a blog entry the other day about the empty promise of superior customer service, which every prospect expects as a matter of course, and which all your competitors also claim. A non-starter.

Second lesson: Specificity. The Rapture was going to happen on May 21, 2011, precisely at 6pm. That’s about as specific as you can get, and it separated the few fervent believers from the many amused skeptics. The world-is-ending-um-someday crowd might be much larger, but they won’t contribute $70 million because it just won’t seem that urgent. Will your toothpaste make my teeth whiter, or 43% whiter? Will your business book tell me keys to sales success, or the nine keys to sales success?

Third lesson: the brand narrative must be engaging to be credible … or even to be noticed. Not only did the Rapture promise eternal happiness, it added the emotional benefit of floating Up There slowly, so you could envision thumbing your nose at those astonished non-believers Left Behind, the smug ones who slammed their doors when you handed out tracts. You’d leave your pants on the sidewalk to mock their sorry selves, the single most powerful and lasting visual symbol of the event.

Be vividly visual: It is not enough to say your paper towel cleans up spills; we want to see the nasty spill, the guilty toddler, the resourceful mom, the happy denouement, all in 4.5 seconds.



  1. Vandy Young
    May 22, 2011

    I still wouldn’t recommend my clients go this route.

  2. Bob
    May 23, 2011

    The larcenous route?

  3. Gloria Zemer
    May 24, 2011

    Harold Camping made a promise he couldn’t and didn’t keep, again.
    Camping’s narrative may have been engaging but it was never credible.
    Raking in $70,000,000. at the cost of credibility and at the expense of those that supported you is not ethical, successful, or a sustainable practice.
    Exploiting the faith and fears of supporters is reprehensible.
    Neither Camping, nor his prediction are brands. One’s a fool and the other is a hype campaign that didn’t deliver.

  4. John
    May 24, 2011

    I bet he has an issue with Brand Loyalty now. No more than half will buy it again!

  5. Alan Beim
    May 24, 2011

    Sad to say that his got him a ton of listeners and press and as B&B said, “There is not such thing as bad press.” Not only that, but he did this in 1994 and got a whole lot of listeners then and recouped nicely from all of that when the date failed.. Now Howard just hiccuped and move the date till October. He will not parley all of that into another million more dumb followers.

  6. Demian Farnworth
    May 24, 2011

    Whoa, Bob, are you serious?

    I think Gloria said it all. But I’ll add this: of course he’s a success if your only measurement is how much money is in his bank account.

    Bernie Madoff was worth $823 million. Was his “brand” a success?

    No. We call that a scam.

    Besides, Bob, trying to draw a positive lesson for your profession from Camping is an insult to the people in the industry.

  7. Paul Burke
    May 25, 2011

    Looks like your provocative post succeeded in stirring up your more sensitive readership!
    I have no problem with learning lessons about branding from Camping, Madoff or even Lars Von Trier, but I would say that I find your analysis and recommendations more applicable to advertising campaign than to brand definition efforts.

  8. Vanessa Pasquini De Rose Ghilardi
    May 25, 2011

    Yep Bob, a lot about the rapture is also that people bought the EXPERIENCE OF THE MOMENT.
    Very interesting, although I wouldn’t ever give money to people
    that manipulate religious beliefs of others. But, it has been done for ages now, wtih huge success.
    ciao, Vanessa

  9. Give us this day | ucanews blogs
    May 25, 2011

    […] Bob Killian, a Chicago-based advertising guru, points out that Harold Camping, the evangelist who predicted the Rapture for that wasn’t, is thought to have leveraged a cool $70 million out of it. Killian describes the affair as an object lesson in branding and marketing. […]

  10. Arlene Teck
    May 25, 2011

    By the reasoning I’ve seen at the beginning of this piece, Hitler would have been a huge brand too.

    Also Robespierre, Rasputin, Satan

    And of course JC himself.

    However, I don’t believe we need to study scams and monsters in order to improve our branding strategies and techniques.

    I am holding back a ton of invective at this point.

  11. A. Olszewski
    May 25, 2011

    There is also a PR lesson here… such predictions take place every year. This one came at a time when a maniacal focus in the media meant that:
    1) less time was spent to discussing more important issues: unemployment, debt, unrest in the Middle East
    2) there was a grand opportunity to present Christians as a bunch of nuts


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