How Brands Mirror Religion

Emmanuel ProbstJuly 29, 20194 min

Our belief in a higher power, and the search for guidance and pilgrimage are shifting from sacred to secular. Brands and their spokespersons now play the role of churches and preachers.

“Google is not a search engine. Google is an atheist God. . . . Where do we pray? Where do we send information, hope there is divine intervention, and get a better answer back? Our new God: Google.” — Scott Galloway, Founder & Chairman, L2

We confide our most intimate secrets and questions to search engines such as Google. They provide us with an immediate answer, unlike at church where we must have faith the answer will come one day. This is one of the reasons why America is becoming increasingly secular and church attendance across the country keeps decreasing. The number of people rejecting any religious affiliation rose from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among millennials, the figure is 35 percent. Yet Google searches increase. Although churches are becoming deserted, 70 percent of unaffiliated Americans believe in God or a universal spirit. These individuals have a more personal spiritual experience, rather than through a religious institution.

While traditional religious institutions struggle to attract new devotees, people turn to other institutions (and brands) to fulfill their quest for spirituality and belonging. Many brands claim to serve a higher purpose, establish rituals, gather their customers in sanctuaries and preach a new way of being, all by borrowing heavily from the sacred codes and terminology. Also, we will see how certain cultural gatherings and music festivals substitute for the rites of passage and pilgrimages traditionally offered by religious institutions. While not always obvious, the power of cult-like marketing is undeniable. It has contributed to the success of brands like Apple, Harley-Davidson, SoulCycle, and Yelp. Let’s take a closer look, in a non-judgmental way, at the meanings we seek (or once sought) from religion and the metaphors brands use to fulfill these meanings.

How Brands Borrow The Codes Of Religion

Cult-like brands provide their followers with a strong feeling of belonging to a group (almost a family) of like-minded people. From a marketer’s standpoint, these brands deliver a very high level of customer loyalty and a sense of ownership with the brand. Cult-like brands also don’t lose traction like fads do. It has been over 35 years since the inception of the first Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.). Today, H.O.G.s have over 1 million members worldwide, through 680 chapters in the U.S. and 700 chapters abroad. To attract followers and turn them into fanatics, brands borrow heavily on the premises and terminology of religion.

Serve A Higher Purpose

Brands have no sacred texts to rely on so they create texts of their own. “SoulCycle instructors guide riders through an inspirational, meditative fitness experience designed to benefit the body, mind and soul,” reads the company’s S1 filing. “We believe SoulCycle is more than a business, it’s a movement.” In this same document, SoulCycle promises a spiritually uplifting workout to visitors “inspired to open themselves to the possibility of change.” The workout pushes our limits with the aim of reaching transcendent and altered states.

Embody A Sense Of Belonging And Social Identity

One of the key tenets of a cult is that it unites members to oppose what they see as an illegitimate or oppressive mainstream culture. To that end, many brand communities have converted both customers and merchants into devotees. In 2004, the now-popular review-site Yelp was struggling to grow its business. To surface new ideas, it decided to gather about 100 power users. Then Yelp realized that people were motivated by other people like themselves, not by the businesses they were reviewing. The number of reviews grew exponentially afterward. The Yelp Elite Squad gathers the platform’s most active reviewers and “role models” and distinguishes members of the Squad with a colorful elite badge featured on their account profiles. Five years of being part of the squad grants you a Gold Elite Badge. After ten years, you’ll receive the much-coveted Black Elite Badge.

Sacred And Ritual Consumption

In its religious sense, sacred means “connected with God or a god or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration or regarded with great respect and reverence by a particular religion, group, or individual.” In marketing, sacred consumption refers to events and objects that are out of the ordinary and which we regard with the upmost respect. Rituals are patterns of behavior tied to events that we deem as important in our lives. These events often come from our cultures, religious background, and traditions. They often have some special symbolic meaning and are repeated regularly.

Ritual consumption is the consumption of goods and services that is tied to specific rituals. Artifacts are the items we use in a ritual. For brands, ritual consumption is the holy grail of loyalty. If we consume a product regularly and follow a ritual, we end up using a lot more of it and re-purchasing this same product without thinking twice about it. That’s why Olay tells us to use their facials everyday, Oreo teaches us to “twist, lick and dunk,” and Corona beer comes with a lime. Dunkin’ has become #1 in the coffee category by establishing its products as an artifact we use throughout the day: Dunkin’ is our all-day, everyday stop for coffee and baked goods.

You will find many more case studies and tips in my new book Brand Hacks: How to Grow your Brand by Fulfilling the Human Quest for Meaning.

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Emmanuel Probst

One comment

  • Jennifer

    July 30, 2019 at 11:57 am

    Hello, Mr. Probst, I’m new to BSI and just noticed this article on Linked In. Thank you, your article is thought-provoking. I would like to say that you have a nice collection of articles all worth consideration so I will do my best to read them all. I was compelled to share my opinion here. I feel strongly that brands and advertisers are considered by the public to have a position of authority regarding product value and relevance in the world. Unfortunately, I see many brands and advertisers exploiting their authority to promote falshoods, irrelevant products, and ideas.

    I apologize if I might seem more annoying than helpful. Regardless, I am idealistic so I feel disillusioned by much of marketing and advertising I see in the world today. There is too much shallow materialism, immorality, and fake values being promoted. What should matter most is meaningful relationships and having a relationship with God. There is nothing else that even comes close, food, hair color, beauty product, no cultural ritual, physical construct, political correctness, no thing.

    Truth is a powerful agent of disruption. God wanted to share his message with countless millions; he only told 12 people. If you build a house on sand won’t it collapse? I believe Truth is the foundation we should build upon, especially in advertising. In other words, people are actively searching for the truth. Deep down, everyone craves the truth. Eventually, people will find the truth despite any light show contrived to conceal it.

    I encourage anyone to read Matthew, Chapter 5, 6 and 7.

    “…And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it. And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Matthew 7: 26-29, King James Bible)

    Thanks again for sharing your insights,


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