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October 11, 2006
Brandism; A New Religion?

In the blog www.brandsoapbox.typepad.com, it was written that brands could learn from how religions capture the hearts and minds of people and keep them loyal, even when times are bad and the “brand” has let them down. We as marketers should look to other areas of people’s lives and study how, over time, their connection to “lifestyle brands” goes beyond what most corporate brands could ever hope to achieve — whether that’s religion, politics, a sports team, or their country. The study of brand loyalty always seems to come back to the discussion of religion and how that religion, whether Catholicism, Islam, Methodism, Judaism, or Buddhism, penetrates into a person’s psyche and stays there forever.

On dictionary.com, the primary definition of religion goes this way: a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. Yes, it actually says that it can be created by a superhuman agency or agencies — I didn’t make that up.

Brands, like religions, utilize many of the same devices to connect deeply into a person’s fabric and not just rationally. As a matter of fact, some would say that people’s belief in religion is not rational — but purely emotional and abstract. Most religions leverage various multi-sensory devices to create a “total and integrated experience” for the person it’s intending to target — doesn’t that sound familiar?

Here are some parallels and scary similarities between religion and the current incarnation of brands:

  • spiritual leaders (Steve Jobs, priest, Phil Knight, rabbi)
  • brand marks and icons (cross, Buddha, Nike Swoosh, Star of David, etc.)
  • a brand guide (Bible, Koran, etc.)
  • the brand community (congregation, temple, yoga)
  • a brand promise (eternal life, a clean soul, 72 virgins, etc.)
  • multi-sensory (Incense, candles)
  • brand feedback (confession)


But to compare the current state of brands in our world with religion is premature. A person would be hard-pressed to think of a brand that has captured the kind of loyalty that religions enjoy. Outside an Elmo T.M.X. these days, I can’t think of a brand as compared to a religious belief that somebody would kill or die for. Some of us agency folk may argue Starbucks, Manolo Blahnik, or Apple but only facetiously. Some may consider going to the Church of Apple, but would you go the Church of Dell? Or, how about the Temple of Nike or the Synagogue of Budweiser?

The holy grail of branding (intentional pun) is to capture the total imagination and soul of people when they think about your brand. To become such an integral part of their lives that the line of separation blurs between their beliefs and your brand — the brand essentially becomes part of them. Many people define themselves by their religious choices, by their guiding beliefs. Their religion is who they are down to the core. For a brand to occupy that same space, it takes the building of faith. The faith that the brand will always be there for them, even when things are rough. That the brand will always deliver on the core promise and will never change — even as the times do. People must feel that they would be incomplete without having that brand as part of their lives. Tapping this inner core for a brand takes time and a core message that is so authentic and so real that it hits on many of the triggers mentioned earlier. It isn’t just a well-designed mark, cool packaging, or some slick ad campaign. Its elements must all exist to help people feel as if they were a part of something larger than themselves — a movement.

Brands that have probably come the closest to achieving this sense of tribalism and loyalty are ones that are talked about regularly — Saturn, Harley-Davidson, and Apple. These brands have created multi-sensory experiences that go beyond the product and deliver a promise in belonging to something bigger than the individual.

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Paul Marobella is the managing director of the very cool, innovative marketing agency in Chicago called Wirestone. He's spent his career finding new ways for brands to have more meaningful relationships with people -- iconic brands such as IBM, The Home Depot, Jim Beam, Motorola, and many more you know and love. Read his blog.

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