Sacred Brands: Consumerism as Modern Religion

With increasing numbers of people being married at Disney World and buried in Harley Davidson coffins, brands as modern religion may not be all that implausible.
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The cover of Steve Bruce's book, God is Dead: Secularization in the West, features a busy West Yorkshire street corner where a shuttered church sports the sign "Mike's Carpets." An iconic metaphor for our times: Religion retreating in the face of a relentless consumerist onslaught. With increasing numbers of people being married at Disney World and buried in Harley Davidson coffins, brands as modern religion may not be all that implausible.

In a 2001 Financial Times article, the global advertising firm Young & Rubicam declared that "Brands are the new religion. People turn to them for meaning." They went on to argue that the ad man is the equivalent of a modern missionary. Their pronouncement was not without foundation. Researchers have documented how Macintosh users bear an eerie resemblance to a religious cult: a tight-knit network of emotionally committed adherents, faith in a "savior" figure (Steve Jobs), and a generalized hostility toward an external "evil" (Microsoft, IBM, etc.). At the risk of piling on Apple Inc., another study focusing on Newton users (the now discontinued digital personal assistant) demonstrated how five key religious mythological themes were present among them: tales of persecution, tales of faith being rewarded, tales of survival, tales of miraculous recovery and tales of resurrection. Finally, marketing researchers have noted that relative to the devout, nominally religious people tend to make trendier consumer choices, place greater importance on brand labels and show a greater willingness to try novel products. All of this provides a background suggesting that consumer behavior and brand loyalty may be functioning psychologically in a manner similar to religion.

To test this idea, researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Duke University School of Business did a series of studies exploring the idea that religion and brand reliance (investing subjective worth or value in a name brand) serve a similar psychological need -- the need to publically express one's self-worth (Marketing Science). The researchers open with a rough but suggestive field observation: In geographical regions dense in religious congregations and high in self-reported church attendance, the frequency of brand-name stores such as Apple, Macy's or Gap is relatively low. This relationship held even when other demographic variables such as income level, education and degree of urbanization were controlled for statistically. This suggests that where religion is popular, brand names find a smaller market, and vice-versa.

The researchers then did a series of experimental manipulations where they reminded subjects of religious concepts and measured the degree to which this affected their consumer choices. For example, in one study a group of subjects was asked to write an essay on "what your religion means to you personally," while another group was asked to write an essay on "a couple of routine activities that you typically do on an average day." After this, both groups were told to imagine that they were shopping and to pick the product that they would normally buy. They were given a choice between a national name brand product and a store brand product (such as Ralph Lauren vs. Target brand sunglasses). Furthermore, the products represented either self-expressive ones (such as sunglasses) or purely functional ones (Energizer vs. CVS brand batteries). The results showed that subjects who wrote about religion were significantly less likely to choose the prestigious national brand. This difference, however, held only for the self-expressive products, not the functional ones. So if you had religion on your mind while you were choosing between Ralph Lauren sunglasses and Target sunglasses, you chose Target. If you didn't, you chose Ralph Lauren. Religion made no difference, however, if you had to choose between batteries.

This same effect was found when comparing self-reported devoutly religious subjects from those who reported being either less religious or not religious at all. This was done by measuring subjects' religiosity using the Religious Commitment Inventory, a 10-item questionnaire assessing "the degree to which a person adheres to his or her religious values, beliefs, and practices and uses them in daily living." As expected, those high in religiosity were once again significantly less likely to choose name brands but only for "self-expressive" products.

In an attempt to isolate the self-expressive variable, the researchers conducted another manipulation where prior to having subjects make their consumer choices they were asked to think about either the self-worth aspects of religion or the security aspects. In other words, both groups of subjects were thinking about religion, but only one group was thinking about religion's relevance to one's self-worth. The results were as expected: subjects asked to think about religion in terms of self-worth were significantly less likely to choose name brands. Not so for those who thought about religion in terms of personal security. Once again, however, this difference was only found for self-expressive products not functional ones.

I'm sympathetic to the view that humans will, either by design or default, end up worshipping some god, if by god we mean "that to which we willing offer service and sacrifice in exchange for a sense of meaning and purpose." For some, a life without religion is an improvement for them and those around them. Atheists and agnostics can proudly count among their ranks many thoughtful, compassionate people. But human nature being what it is, I suspect that most who drop religion simply move into the ranks of lazy ex-religious people. Sunday mornings formerly spent at church are traded for more sleep or television. The money once earmarked for church coffers now pay green fees. I remain to be convinced that the world is a better place if increasing numbers of people bow at the altar of Gucci, Gap and Lexus rather than Jesus, Allah and Vishnu.

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