How Brands are like Religion

In an article that Martin Lindstrom wrote for Ad Age about Brands and Religion, he questions whether “brands manage to create their own religion by coincidently or deliberately, adopting triggers and tactics from the world of religion”.

Lindstrom Partnered with a neuroscientist and used a MRI scanner to analyze brain function in response to both iconic brands as well as religious symbols. What he discovered was that the same regions of the brain were activated in Christians and powerful brand (Apple, Harley, Guinness) fans. Other less powerful brands did not produce the same effect.

To find out what it is that set these brands apart, he interviewed 14 religious leaders from around the world to determine what are the components behind these brands success.

This is what he found, all of the brands with fanatical followings have these common components:

1. A sense of belonging

Think Weight Watchers, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. This amazing community of more than two million consumers is run almost exclusively on peer advice and support. Without a peer community Weight Watchers would not exist. Needless to say that sense of belonging is always a strong component of any religion.

2. A clear vision

Steve Jobs’s powerful vision for the Apple Company dates back to the mid-1980s. He said, “Man is the creator of change in this world. As such he should be above systems and structures, and not subordinate to them.” This vision was referring to computers, but 20 years later and a few billion iPods later; it still applies, and will probably still be relevant in 20 years’ time.

3. Power from the enemy

If we play a game of association and I say Coke, more than likely you’ll say Pepsi. The rivalries gone on for so long, that it’s legendary. A former executive at Coke once stated that going to work was like going to war. In fact the chances are that Coke would not be what it is today if there was no Pepsi. The rivalry has forced both brands to grow and perpetually challenge one another for market leadership.

4. Authenticity

Authenticity is hard to define. Is Las Vegas or canned laughter authentic? Without thinking you may initially answer no, but a reconsidered answer might just be yes. Are the Olympics authentic? This answer to this is unambiguously yes, because it contains the four defining components of authenticity. It’s real, it’s relevant, and it has rituals and is part of a story. More and more brands are required to be authentic – just like religion.

5. Consistency

In world where everything is changing so quickly, consistency is the king. You know how to operate your Nokia phone; you know how to order a sandwich at Subway and how to navigate your Apple Mac. It has all become a branded routine, which, if changed, is likely to hurt the brand more than if the logo was to disappear. The fact is that more and more brands realize the importance of brand consistency, not only in terms of its graphics, but also in terms of every aspect that represents the brand.

6. Perfection

Google Harley-Davidson on the Internet and you’ll find 521 websites dedicated solely to the fine art of how to polish the engine. For most outsiders this would sound rather pedantic but for the true Harley-Davidson fan, this is a must. Perfection is the brand, just as Apple’s fine sense for details or Louis Vuitton’s extreme focus on quality has made the brands what they are today.

7. Symbols

As the market place becomes more and more crowded simple yet powerful symbols are taking over – a global language – an instant language. Apple was first to designing the famous trash can, and the greeting smiley when the computer was turned on. Every single Apple icons passes the ultimate test of being singularly associated with Apple, even when they stand-alone.

8. Mystery

Have heard about KFC’s 11 secret spices? What about the secret Coca-Cola recipe? Are these stories true, or not? Regardless of the truth, these are good stories that create mystery, and add yet another dimension to the products.

9. Rituals

If you remove certain rituals from a small group of powerful brands you’ll soon notice their power disappearing. Take for example Corona beer and the lime in the bottle neck. How would the Olympic games fare without the flaming torch relay? The fact is not many brands leverage the power of ritual, yet so much of religion’s power is based on this very aspect.

10. Sensory appeal

Imagine for a moment walking into a temple, a church, a synagogue or a mosque. Each one offers a unique sensory experience. There is incense and bells, incantations and candles. The world of branding can learn a lot from this. Some brands get it right. A visit to Disneyland can quickly draw you in to another world. As flagship stores become more commonplace, the sensory appeal is becoming more prominent.

For me, what’s missing and makes the difference in generating a “religious” following is the originality and creativity that each of these brands bring forward in the execution of their outstanding advertising and marketing components. At all consumer touch points these brands bring at least 7 of these elements into view to help mold the customer experience and view of the brand.

Whether we like it, or not, the world of branding is becoming increasingly inspired by the world of religion. Religion offers a powerful roadmap for how branding can evolve over the years to come. All we need to do is take a look at the ancient ingredients that make up religious followings. In some cases this is so powerful that the brand becomes more than a brand. It becomes a way of life.

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