Brands & Religion

A while ago I wrote an essay for a course that I’m doing. The module was “The Role of Brands”, and the brief was to – unsurprisingly – to write about the role of brands in society (past, present & future).

I wrote about Brands & Religion, and how due to a number of macro reasons, brands are now able to enter a level in culture traditionally occupied by religion.

I thought it was a pretty interesting area, and I’m thinking of expanding on it for the forthcoming dissertation I’ve got to write. Any thoughts? Has it got legs…?

Below is an excerpt (apologies for the formal-ish style)….

In this think piece, I’m not going to argue that religion is dead. Nor that brands are superseding religious practices or beliefs. In fact, as I write, religion is as high in the public psyche as it has been for years. That a series of satirical cartoons in the Danish press can crystallise such a violent and wide-reaching reaction acutely demonstrates that religion still has the power to incite passion. Although it is a fact that fewer people are now actively engaging in religious practice, the capacity that spiritual belief has to affect each and every person on the planet cannot be underestimated.

I will argue, however, that as our traditional social markers continue to dissolve and become less relevant to large swathes of the population, brands have an opportunity to occupy the resulting gaps that appear, and in turn, operate at a “higher order cognitive state”, traditionally the realm of religion. When nurtured insightfully and carefully, brands, as “a set of ideas people live by” can provide stability, inspiration and guidance to the consumer, who in turn, will provide patronage and loyalty, and the creation of an enduring, iconic – and profitable – brand.

To truly elevate themselves above the commercial quagmire, brands need to recognise and exploit the opportunity that society today presents them with, and learn from the modus operandi of religion.

Brands originally developed to fulfil a rather prosaic function: to provide identification, and a guarantee of authenticity and consistency. Brands are, Paul Feldwick argues, “fundamentally a promise”. In the mire of pre-trademark consumerism, there was little to guarantee what was actually in the product being purchased, or how the experience would differ from one purchase to the next. The advent of branding revolutionised this: suddenly you could be assured that if you bought a branded product on more than one occasion, the quality would be consistent. This, of course, was highly valued by consumers, and manufacturers soon realised that a promise equalled a premium. The first age of branding formed many of the core qualities that we still associate with branded products; including authenticity, quality and trust, which endure as prerequisites for any successful brand.

We find ourselves today in a society saturated by products, brands and commercial messages. Indeed, it can be argued that “logos, by the force of ubiquity, have become the closest thing that we have to an international language”. It is no longer enough for brands to simply guarantee quality; consumers are acutely aware that own-label products are manufactured by the same factories that supply branded goods, and it is unusual to find a genuinely substandard consumer product. To continue to justify their existence (and their price premium), brands have to work harder than ever to engage and excite the public.

Today, brands have a multitude of roles that they need to fill to succeed. As Scott Bedbury succinctly states: “great brands need to define themselves in terms that transcend the product or service and resonate with consumers on a more personal and emotional level”. Badges are no longer enough.

Religion, as the sociologist Emile Durkheim observed, is an innate product of society which helps provide structure, order and purpose. Regardless of your personal perspective on the actual origins and theological validity of faith systems, it is an undeniable truth that religion provides order, a set of guidelines, values and aspirations for the believer that transcend the physical (colour, age, class, language, gender and intellect etc.). Is it not also true, however, that brands can meet these criteria, and in doing so transcend the product?

Consider further: the religious experience is at its most concentrated and pure when encountered and witnessed as part of a group. Additionally, religion can invoke intense passion; both positive and negative, a polarisation encapsulated at the Nike Run London event. Whilst thousands of devotees live the brand values by pounding the streets of London, the inevitable and vociferous anti-capitalist activists use the event as a forum to simultaneously vent their anger at the corporation. Alongside this, a (non-running) pro-Nike contingent sported ironic banners such as “You Sweat, We Shop” and “Sweatshops Rock!” Within the space of one hundred yards, the gamut of emotions invoked by Nike was played out by all protagonists, eager to state that their way was the right way.

The transcendence of brands to quasi-religious levels is a modern issue, rendered possible in recent years by social and technological trends. Up until around the 1970s, we lived in an ordered world where traditional demographics ruled. Identifying yourself by your gender, your class, your age or your place really mattered. Much of your life was mapped out from birth, based on what gender you were and what class you were born into. Today, nothing is certain. Social boundaries continue to topple and thus, the ‘traditional’ rules need not apply.

Whilst empowering the individual, the changes now mean that we don’t have a set path to follow. Life is what we want to make it. However, with empowerment comes uncertainty. Psychologically, certainty and stability are important to us, and when we do not feel fulfilled in these areas, we will look out for constants that can address these deficiencies. Religion can provide this, and so can brands……


2 Responses to “Brands & Religion”

  1. John Grant Says:

    I met someone recently who is writing a dissertation on Brand Sprituality. Slightly disappointingly they mean something like values/new age/no logo (rather than the proper numinous sense of awe behind notions like “icon”). Anyway you guys should talk, I would think – do email me if interested.

    Also Alex Wipperfurth wrote up a project he and I did on the marketing principles of cult religions (it’s in his book brand hijack). I have lots of views on this too, almost posted on it a while back; am sure to join the debate if you make this a regular theme


  2. Doug Says:

    Great, thanks John, I’ll drop you an email on that.

    It’s an area I’m pretty interested in (and one that’s rich for debate) so I imagine this will crop up again shortly on here somewhere

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