Building brand Scientology

Vicki DunstanBelieve in them or not, The Church of Scientology is an interesting, if controversial, brand that uses social media, publishing, celebrity, high-quality video production and helping the disadvantaged to spread its message and grow its follower base in Asia.

In this interview, Scientology’s Asia Pacific president Vicki Dunstan talks to Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks about the religion’s uneasy relationship with the media, the value of celebrity and how controversy has helped build its brand.

How important is marketing to the Church of Scientology?

We live in a consumer society that sells the false hope that material possessions will bring us happiness and a better life. Scientology’s vital message is that you are a spirit and you can know yourself and your fellow man. So we believe communicating this message of hope and understanding is important.

This Scientology ad has run around the Super Bowl in the US and in Australia, and the Church plans to market itself in Taiwan and Japan.

You are president of the Church of Scientology in Asia. How much of your role do you see yourself as a marketer and guardian of Scientology’s image?

Scientology's logo

Scientology’s logo

To understand my role I first need to explain Scientology briefly. Scientology means “knowing how to know “. The first Church of Scientology was established In Los Angeles in 1954, and today there are more than 4,300 churches, missions and groups around the world.

Scientology comprises a body of knowledge, which extends from certain fundamental truths. Prime among these are: man is an immortal spiritual being, his experience extends well beyond a single lifetime, his capabilities are unlimited, even if not presently realised.

We believe man to be basically good, not evil. It is man’s experiences that have led him to commit evil deeds, not his nature. Often, he mistakenly seeks to solve his problems by considering only his own interests, which then causes trouble for both himself and others.

Further we believe that man advances to the degree that he preserves his spiritual integrity and values and remains honest and decent. Indeed, he deteriorates to the degree that he abandons these qualities.

But because man is basically good, he is capable of spiritual betterment. And it is the goal of Scientology to bring him to a point where he is capable of sorting out the factors in his own life and solving his own problems.

L. Ron Hubbard is the founder of Scientology and the author of the Scientology scriptures. His research on the spirit, the mind and life is recorded in the tens of millions of words that comprise the religious philosophy.

His works cover subjects as diverse as drug rehabilitation, education, marriage and family, success at work, administration, art and many other aspects of life.

Personally, I consider my role a trust and a privilege. I work with other  senior Church members to promote Scientology and the good works the Church does in the fields of advancing human rights, anti-drug campaigns, improving literacy and assisting during natural disasters.

Watch Scientology’s video to highlight the dangers of using crack:

I don’t consider myself to be a guardian of an image as such. Although, obviously, promoting the benefits of our religion and the community work Scientologists do increase the general understanding of what Scientology is and demonstrates how Scientology can and does make the world a better place.

Scientologists consider we have a role in society to help build a better world.

Scientology has an uneasy relationship with the media in the West. How do you feel Scientology is portrayed by the media in Asia?

Generally we get a much fairer and more balanced run in the Asian media. Scientology is a new religion. There has been mystery, misunderstanding and a share of controversy that inevitably accompanies something new and different. This is not unique to Scientology.

With our current program opening new Churches in virtually every major city worldwide, we are continually increasing our outreach actions to let people know what we are and answer their questions. We aim to have an open door for everyone to tour our churches and find out for themselves.

These new Churches each contain multi-media exhibitions with dozens of films displaying our beliefs and social betterment programs. We have also produced numerous publications for the media and general public, including a large encyclopedic reference work that answers every possible question on the subject entitled What is Scientology? and have sent copies to all major media for their reference library. We have further established websites to provide information on the Internet.

What do you feel is the most effective way to spread the word (TV ads, PR, word of mouth, social media, etc)?

Word of mouth, people who practice Scientology tell others and they become interested. Marketing plays a part to the degree that it is letting people know who we are, what we believe in and the community programs we run.

We want people to find out for themselves and actually read a Scientology book. You can read all the commentary in the world and listen to the opinions of others, but to understand or know about something, you have to apply it to life and see that it works for you.

Who would you say is the sort of person Scientology is looking to join you?

That could only be summed up by saying the kind of person who is looking for answers to life, their own existence or purpose in life. Scientology attracts young and old, rich and poor and people of all races and creeds.

What would you say has been the most effective campaign Scientology has run to grow your following in Asia?

Scientology has never run a formal marketing campaign in Asia. It’s very much word-of-mouth.

How we work is to enlighten people to the subjects of Dianetics and Scientology through the books of L. Ron Hubbard, so we have these published in the different languages and get them into various countries. People read a book that starts the interest and from there it grows. People read it, they form groups and they learn about the subject. From there these groups become more formalized into Scientology Missions and Churches.

This action has been repeated all over the world, including parts of Asia  now [Scientology has a presence in Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, The Philippines, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Thailand, and now in Vietnam with the group’s treatment of agent orange victims from the American War].

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard wrote in English. Do you think there are parts of his message that are lost in translation in Asia?

Scientology books

We have a large translations project ongoing – L. Ron Hubbard is the world’s most translated author with his works available in 71 languages – up from his previous record of 65 languages, recorded in the Guinness Book of Records.

We have a brilliant translations team and they are trained in Scientology, so they know the subject very well. We have an exact formula that is followed for translations, which are mostly done in-house with hundreds of translators around the world and very high qualifications for this task, so the translations are as close to the English original as possible.

There’s another interesting aspect to your question which is that Scientology has its roots in Eastern philosophy and its message is perhaps more easily understood by Asian people as they already have an understanding through their own beliefs of what Scientology is teaching.

Scientology does not always enjoy a great reputation in the West. Do you feel the same image challenges exist in Asia?

There is a plethora of religious faiths and ideas across the world, but the East is generally more tolerant towards religious pluralism. They have religious philosophies that go back way beyond the Judeo Christian faiths in some instances and a large majority of the population of Asia believe in past lives.

In my experience we do not encounter the same discrimination in the East as the West.

What do you see as the big challenges in spreading the Scientology message in Asia?

The big challenge ahead is catering to the growing interest in the subject. To properly deliver all of our services requires established groups, Missions and Churches and trained staff to deliver them. Right now the Church has restructured itself around the world to address this issue so our Churches and groups can now deliver our church services and courses far better than ever before.

In the next few months we will be opening one of our largest Churches in the world, in Taiwan [Kaohsiung].

How seriously do you take how Scientology is portrayed in social media and other public forums, and how do you approach trying to ensure that what is said is positive?

In my opinion social media is like a window into peoples’ over-the-fence conversations, or discussions at the coffee shop, etc. Some of it might be wise, inspired and insightful, but a good portion of it lends itself to gossip and trivia. I have read some of the strangest views or claims about my religion in social media, which have no basis in fact at all.

In response we make our message easily found and available.

The Church regularly posts links on Twitter [the Church has 13,500 followers to its main Twitter feed] and other social media [the Scientologists have more than 23,000 fans of its Facebook page] pointing to information about Scientology and the work Scientologists do to help others in the community with our social betterment programs and our websites.

Scientology's tsunami relief efforts

Scientology’s tsunami relief efforts

Providing people with this information helps dispel rumour and gossip which has no basis in fact. Scientology was active in helping the recovery from the Asian tsunami in 2004.

How did those efforts help to raise the profile of Scientology in Asia?

I think it is important to understand that the reason we had volunteers working in those countries is because that is what we do as a group.

We had over 400 volunteers there for over six months and some skilled people moved there to continue the work of helping those communities. We have good friends and people we helped and who are grateful for our aid and who have asked us to return again. People see our Volunteer Ministers at work and recognize that they are there to bring help to those who need it. Our volunteers are very much in demand in some regions because of the work they do.

Scientologists are very active in the community and engage in various humanitarian programs in Asia and around the world.

Those programs include the world’s largest nongovernmental anti-drug campaign, reaching tens of millions of at-risk youth each year, the establishment of drug rehabilitation centers in more than 40 nations and the world’s largest nongovernmental human rights public information campaign.

Additionally, through the Citizens Commission on Human Rights Scientologists have spotlighted and worked to outlaw the enforced drugging of schoolchildren, the psychiatric brutalities of electric shock and lobotomy, and biological warfare experiments.

We work in alignment with the aims of Scientology and the dream of a “civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where Man is free to rise to greater heights.”

Some brands benefit from being controversial. Do you feel Scientology benefits from exposure in the media, even if it is not positive?

Yes, of course – people more often inquire into Scientology as a result. We find people are interested when a group that stands up for human rights and a spiritual approach to life can get attacked. The curious ask, now why are these guys being attacked?

When they look over the scene they find out that Scientology has challenged a number of things within our society, especially psychiatry and its efforts to control people through drugs and barbaric practices such as electro-shock therapy.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that challenging the psychiatric industry and major pharmaceutical companies who spend billions marketing and peddling psychiatric drugs is going to stir up trouble.

How many members do you have in Asia, and how does that compare to the rest of the world?

The first Scientology Mission in Taiwan opened in Taichung in 1989.

Today there are 14 Missions (smaller churches) across Taiwan alone: in the central region, including Taichung, Chang-Hua and Feng-Yuan; in the northern cities of Da-An, Dong-Chi, Taipei and Tao-Yuan; and to the south in Yung-Kang, Ping-Tung.

Other new churches have opened in recent years include Seattle, Washington; Los Angeles, Inglewood, Sacramento and San Francisco, California; Dallas, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; Tampa, Florida; Portland, Washington, Quebec City, Canada; Mexico City, London, Brussels, Moscow, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, Johannesburg and Melbourne.

In total 39 new Ideal Churches were established in the last 10 years throughout the world with 35 more scheduled to open within the next one to two years.

The up and coming new Church was necessitated by the meteoric growth of Scientology in Taiwan and it continues to grow.

Taiwan seems to be where many of Scientology’s followers are in Asia. How come Scientology is so popular in Taiwan?

Actually, we have parishioners in various parts of Asia, with many in Japan, Taiwan and Thailand. Japan has more Scientologists than Taiwan.

Taiwan is a democratic nation and like Japan, it is one of the gateways from the West to the East. Once the seeds of Scientology were sown in Taiwan people started becoming very active, very quickly. They have a real sense of community and coming together and I believe this has helped in this growth as well as for the reason of their underlying Buddhist faith which holds many similar principles to those of Scientology.

Marketers would argue that Scientology is a brand, just like Coca-Cola, Chevrolet or Catholicism. How would you describe the Scientology brand, what it stands for and why it is a better option than the other religions out there?

The idea of a brand is a commercial concept and over-simplified view of things, when the reality is much deeper than that. Scientology is an applied religious philosophy authored by its founder L. Ron Hubbard. It is now a global religious movement built of people who subscribe to spiritual self-betterment and want to create a better world.

Scientology has become a vital force in the world today.

Of all the world’s religions, which do you think is the best at marketing itself?

I don’t know to be honest. I’m too focused on being the president of the Church of Scientology APAC. However, Scientology holds in common many of the beliefs of other religions and philosophies. It considers Man to be a spiritual being with more to him than flesh and blood.

Tom CruiseScientology’s profile has benefited from celebrities, such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley. To grow scientology in Asia, how important is local celebrity endorsement?

Certainly there may be some celebrities in Asia who will want to talk about Scientology and what it has done for them, as a consequence of their having been helped by Scientology and they want to help others.

Interestingly Scientology does not require celebrity endorsement in order to grow and expand.

On the other hand some “celebrity endorsement” has been extremely misused by certain tabloid media (present and past) to spread all manner of rumour, gossip and false reports.

What do you want to achieve in Asia in terms of growing your audience?

Audience isn’t perhaps the right word, as that is usually associated with entertainment, which is not our field.

The religion of Scientology is uniquely addressed to the individual, the man and woman on the street. It is they who make up the world, and it is they who change it.

We are establishing a new church in Taiwan (and Japan) designed not only for spiritual services to Scientologists, but to also serve as a centre for the community with social activities.

Our new church will also serve as the national headquarters for the Scientology religion as well as being the headquarters for the Southeast Asia region on completion.

Scientology will continue to grow and expand throughout Asia and we predict at a very rapid rate given their underlying beliefs in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions which Mr Hubbard freely acknowledges as influential to his own religious writings.


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