Monday, May 4, 2009

Brand Fervor: Applying the Language of Religion to Consumerism

Over the past few years, it has become commonplace to refer to customers whose zeal for a company seems unbounded as evangelists. These customers may or may not necessarily be your best customers, but they can be counted on to act as influencers. They spread the word via word of mouth, on blogs, or in customer review sections of your websites about your products. When enthusiastically happy about your company, their opinions can help skyrocket sales. When unhappy, watch out. You might end up in Dell Hell.

Martin Lindstrom in his ground-breaking work Buyology used fMRI and SST technology to analyze the brain activity of 2081 volunteers over a four year period from 2004-2008. In one of his studies, he examined the correlation between electric brain activity stimulated by religious imagery and commercial brands. Summarizing the work really does it an injustice. The book is a very good read. The point here is that “smashable brands”—those brands that retain their identity, especially among brand zealots, even if you smash them apart (Apple, Coke, Harley Davidson, etc.)—elicit a similar response in brand-loyal folks as religious iconography does when viewed by people of faith.

After extensive interviews with religious and spiritual leaders to determine the 10 pillars of all religions, he concludes that iconographic brands share the same characteristics as the great religions, namely: a sense of belonging, a clear vision, power over enemies, sensory appeal, storytelling, grandeur, evangelism, symbols, mystery, and rituals. I should add that he makes this association not to denigrate religion, but simply to point out that a similar kind of fervor develops among brand-loyalists.

In a similar vein, Stanley Fish, noted author and educator, wrote an editorial in the New York Times today entitled “God Talk.” The editorial is actually a review of British critic Terry Eagleton’s newest book Reason, Faith and Revolution. Again risking oversimplification, Eagleton thinks that we have begun to exact from science what we previously thought to derive from religion. He believes that “faith and knowledge are not antithetical but “interwoven.” If we demand from science answers to the eternal questions of life, we will come up empty. And if we try to seek an understanding of the material world from a religious point of view, we will similarly be at a loss.

Pointing out that those who adhere to “Progress” as an article of faith might be accused of believing in “superstition” to the same degree religious adherents have been, Fish quotes and summarizes Eagleton as follows: “’The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy,’ all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value.”

The application of the language of religion to consumerism points out, I believe, an underlying social need: A search for Value—material and spiritual—in an otherwise compromised world.

1 comment:

Bruce Sanders said...

One of the elements you include in your catalog of pillars of religions is rituals. BBDO Worldwide applied the label "fortress brands" to those brands which win our deep allegiance by becoming highly integrated into daily rituals, even quite mundane routines. Brushing my teeth doesn't feel just right unless the taste of the paste and the look and feel of the tube are familiar.
The same sort of reasoning applies to the settings in which we buy those branded products. Store-based retailers expect a certain number of customers to always kick the tires, even when the product being considered for purchase looks nothing like a car.
I agree with you, Carolyn, that this sort of analysis risks trivializing the significant role religion serves for many people. But it also helps us develop ideas for earning the fervent allegiance of customers. Then, too, certain bricks-and-mortar and many electronic-format religious groups have turned the metaphor around: They've found ways to use brand marketing techniques to fill the pews and the collection plates. That also risks trivializing the proper role of religion.