Brands are like organized religion

It’s not surprising that savvy marketers have figured out that they can use some of the same basic principles to connect with their customers


Organized religion has shaped virtually every aspect of human behaviour for thousands of years. Some historians have even argued that religion was integral to human survival. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that savvy marketers have figured out that they can use some of the same basic principles to connect with their customers—and that brands have taken on such importance to consumers.

And yet the narrowly formulated, self-serving, and consumption-focused beliefs and values, rituals, and communities provided by brands usually have little to offer beyond the boundaries of their products and services. Thoughtful marketers should have an understanding of how this is shaking out—how some brands are adopting the characteristics of organized religion – so they can think critically about if this is something they want to do.

Scholars have found that every organized religion offers three key benefits to its followers, a) a set of core beliefs and values, b) symbols, myths, and rituals, and c) relationships with members of a like-minded community. Here are few ways in which brands are using these elements to create “congregants,” not just customers:

Core beliefs and values: The essence of any religion lies in a set of beliefs and moral values. Just consider how fully many of us embrace precepts such as “Impossible is nothing,” “Challenge everything,” or “Make the most of now.” Each of these slogans sounds inherently good, worth adopting and even building our lives around. Yet their origin is not some divine revelation or millennia-old discourse, but the minds of clever copywriters. Also common to every religion is belief in a divine, benevolent, supreme being. And today, figures like Jeff Bezos and the late Steve Jobs have been described as our “saviors” in how they’re portrayed. For instance, when Bezos purchased the Washington Post in August 2013, media experts called him “journalism’s savior.” And the international edition of Fortune recently depicted Bezos as the Hindu god Vishnu on its cover. Stories about the larger-than-life founders of Amazon and Apple provide a rich mythology that draws consumers to these brands.

Symbols, myths, and rituals: Rituals are repeated behaviours that follow a script and possess symbolic meaning. Over centuries, people have practiced religious rituals to mark rites of passage such as birth, marriage, and death, to mark certain times of each year like the end of the harvest season, to please divine powers, and to ward off misfortunes. While we continue to follow many rituals established by religion ― wedding vows or the Thanksgiving meal, for instance―we have also adopted many rituals associated with brands. Activities like a particular way of eating an Oreo cookie (twist, lick, then dunk), participating in the “VW wave” (waving to another Volkswagen Beetle driver to say hello and signal solidarity), or using special, made-up words like “Venti” or “Frappuccino” at a Starbucks store every morning provide some of the same benefits as religious rituals do. Consumer psychologists have shown that creating new rituals for customers is a great way to heighten their enjoyment and to build strong brands.

Relationship with a community: Through the ages, religious life and social life went hand in hand. People belonged to the same religious congregation their entire lives, and relied on fellow members for companionship, financial assistance, and social support. Today, brand communities, fan clubs, and social networks provide many of these same benefits. Many motorcycle enthusiasts spend their weekends and vacations with their Harley Owners Group at rides and rallies. In user forums and chatrooms of companies like Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and Texas Instruments, tech enthusiasts devote hours helping others solve their problems without pay. Brands like Jeep, the Russian camera maker Lomo, and Samuel Adams organize “Brandfests” to bring together customers for enjoyable and educational experiences. In such venues provided and managed by brands, people socialize, form friendships, and even romantic relationships.

On one hand, it’s easy to see why these powerful tactics would appeal to marketers. On the other, as consumers, worshipping an iPhone or a Tesla cannot teach us to be happy or content with our lives. Nor can a Harley Owners Group necessarily provide us with the genuine friendship and intimacy that a caring spouse, life-long friend, or neighbour can. So as shoppers, we may be best served by enjoying the benefits that brands provide, yet acknowledging there are limits. And as marketers, we might want to ask ourselves if the value of what we’re selling lives up to our power to sell it.

Utpal M. Dholakia is the George R. Brown Professor of Marketing at Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business.

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