The Church of Branding

Mark Busse – 9 Comments



Some time last year I began considering about the similarities between branding loyalty and belonging to a church after an interesting conversation with Rick Poyner, the design critic and founder of Eye Magazine, who said

“Religion is now just another lifestyle option fighting for survival with all the other brands in the chaos of the marketplace.”

After some research and multiple drafts I parked the article, fearing my ramblings too long, unfocused and potentially offensive to many people who take religion seriously.

Well, I seem to have procrastinated long enough and it’s not getting much better or clearer (or any shorter), so in the spirit of social media, I am posting the article here for all to read and comment on. This is an open call for opinions, input, examples and suggested edits. Let’s open source this thing and see what people think.

The church is the first big corporation – the first brand.

We’re often told not to talk about religion or politics with strangers or new friends for fear of offending someone. I never did understand why and often say things I probably shouldn’t. Recently I said to one of my design students “Brands are like new religions”. She seemed shocked by this, perhaps even a little offended but I think there is something valid to this, regardless of one’s faith or belief system.

The comparison of brands and religion is not a new idea. In fact, the whole branding discussion may be a tired subject to some. But I’m not convinced there has been a close enough look at the parallels between brand loyalty and religious devotion. Perhaps there has been fear to compare the secular act of building brand allegiance with consumers to the seemingly more sacred topics. After all, Nike or Starbucks can’t save your soul, can they?

When I compare what I do professionally now compared with my recollections of sermons and messages learned during a childhood spent in churches, youth groups and bible studies, I find them strikingly similar and wonder if there isn’t an opportunity to learn from religion; or at least objectively reflect on what it is that we do and whether there isn’t another perspective to consider. Mind you, these days I wear Parasuco jeans, ride a loud Harley-Davidson, read Macintosh and Communication Arts magazines and attend design and computer conferences. I haven’t read the Bible or been to church in years. So which is the more prevalent influence?

What do branding and religion have in common?

Looking beyond the issue of divinity and objectively examining the psychology and behavior of religious groups and comparing this to brand loyalists, we find parallels and lessons we can learn as marketing strategists and communication designers. Both passionate religious leaders and cunning marketers use carefully crafted icons and symbols to create visual references and identifiers for their particular group. Both groups rely heavily on the message, doctrine and ideology to create a feeling of like-mindedness in their followers. They each hand pick and elevate deacons or heroes for others to look up to and emulate. And perhaps most importantly, both groups use fear and play on emotions with their promise of salvation to elicit reaction and devotion from their particular tribe, creating a sense of belonging to a clear community. Patrick Hanlon, founder of Thinktopia and author of Primal Branding states that “a brand is a belief system,” though I don’t think consumers realize this often enough. A popular and overused term the last few years, branding is often used to describe a larger set of intangible perceptions that exist in the minds, hearts and guts of consumers.

There are many definitions, but similar to religion, branding is basically a belief system. A symbolic embodiment of all the information connected with a company, product or service, a brand typically includes a name, logo, and other visual elements such as images, fonts, color schemes, or symbols. But it also encompasses a set of expectations associated with the company, product or service, which typically arise in the minds of people. It’s a very valuable, yet vulnerable, corporate asset so hard to own because it has little to do with what the company says, but what the actual audience says a brand is. A brand is most often communicated using visual language with the intent to appeal to a particular audience, making them want to buy or be associated with a product or service – but it can also be the unintended messaging such as the way a receptionist answers the phone that is part of a brand. Have you called your local telephone company lately and spoken with that wonderful computerized operator voice? Feel agitated just thinking about it? That experience becomes part of their brand as much as their logo or billboard advertising.

My religion fits like an old pair of jeans.

Kevin Roberts’ best-seller about brand loyalty, Lovemarks – The Future of Brands, explores how products, trademarks and brands consumers truly trust (like Diesel, Adobe, iPod, Harley-Davidson, etc) can evolve, gathering respect and love throughout the world, essentially inspirational consumerism. Sounds like a religious movement, don’t you think? People have always wanted to belong to a community. It’s the natural human fear of being alone and desire for leadership. It’s always easier to clasp onto a philosophy or set of beliefs presented to you that seem somehow to fit you and provide meaning or identity. Douglas Atkins, author of The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers, is convinced that many people can find meaning and identity in cult groups such as Krishnas and Moonies just as easily as others might find comfort by being a devoted Apple user. Atkins will also tell you that there are significant differences between cults and religions, but for the purposes of this discussion we’ll only use the broader definition of religion as “a group of beliefs concerning the supernatural, sacred, or divine, and the moral codes, practices, values, institutions and rituals associated with such belief”.

The etymology of the word religion includes references to “binding together” or “concerning a gathering” of people as well as reverential meaning about the divine. If we swap the divine for revered brands, we find that brand allegiance similarly binds communities together around the proverbial campfires, like town hall meetings and church gatherings, which used to be quite popular in small towns. These small towns and churches have not disappeared; they’ve just changed appearance thanks to the modern communication age.

Logos are only wrapping paper.

The visual marks or logos so prevalent today become a big part of brands, though they are really only one element of a larger strategy. A logo may impact the initial appeal of a product, service or company, but it is really only decorative wrapping paper. Once the shiny, colourful paper is peeled away, a set of values or philosophy must exist to entice a consumer to desire association with that brand. To successfully build a brand, it takes many visual touch points to support this invitation to the audience to give them the trust and desire to belong to this new “tribe”.

Only after this trust in the identity has been earned does the logo take on powerful symbolic meaning for its loyalists. Just as a holy cross or a star of David become powerful symbols for their particular brand of faith, so too a Tommy Hilfiger logo or Mercedes Benz icon takes on powerful meaning and serves to differentiate and define who its loyalists are as individuals. Wearing a yarmulke or turban on your head doesn’t make you a better Jew or Sikh, but it does identify you as part of a specific tribe.

In fact, it’s safe to say that consumer brand choices, as with religious allegiances, are as much about belonging to a group or a community as they are about standing out as an individual. A recent ESPN sports poll found that 43% of American sports fans wear clothing branded by their favourite sports team logos. It not only identifies them as part of a committed group, but also sets them apart. They’re not fans of your team!

I’m not sure a Macintosh user gets the same satisfaction from not being a Windows PC user that a Jew gets from not being a Muslim, but you wouldn’t mistake the two, would you? Though many modern faith followers look just like you and I and perhaps not distinguishable, devote followers often go well out of their way to identify themselves as independent and recognizable through outward appearance. The young student I mentioned in the introduction is a proud punk rocker. Her need to be “different” had manifested itself in the piercings, clothes, music and behaviour that made up the majority of her outward persona. She had gone well out of her way to purchase and wear the hat, the boots, the lumberjack jacket, and the spiked wristbands – all the paraphernalia that demonstrated she belonged to a group of like-minded individuals.

This behaviour can easily be likened to the paraphernalia worn by extreme religious groups with unique garb such as headdresses, robes or jewelry. Unlike when an individual chooses a brand to wear or even a gang to belong to, many are born into a religious family and raised to subscribe to set of beliefs and behaviours. The way we are socialized leads to a predisposition for brand allegiance.

A consumer brand loyalty parallel can actually be found for this too. Have you ever heard people arguing over the best automobile brand saying “I will only drive a Chevy because Ford sucks!” just because their family had a good Chevy once and they became ‘a Chevy family’? It hardly makes sense or allows for tolerance, open-mindedness or rational thought, but it’s very common.

If you don’t own an iPod, you’re a heathen.

Many children are raised to disregard the faith of others and end up regarding them as lesser citizens because their beliefs are different than their own. I wonder how many PC users feel like blasphemers when they buy an iPod? Exactly none. They’re like devoted Catholics deriving sinful pleasure from admiring the beauty of a Buddhist temples and or secular idols.

The Apple versus PC conflict has gone on so long it’s become overused and cliché, rendered irrelevant these days with Apple having switched to Intel chips and allowing Windows to run on their hardware. However, the iPod is easily one of the greatest brand extension stories in the history of consumer products with sales of these little gadgets rising off the charts. Everyone in our studio owns at least one; some are on their third! Using your iPod in public has almost become a ubiquitous signal to those around you about the quality of your person. As soon as you’re seen with little white ear buds and cables hanging from your ears, you’ve expressed certain qualities about yourself, your community and your identity, like wearing a cross around your neck or pasting a fish sticker on your car’s bumper.

The fish sticker is actually an interesting example of brand identity. Similar to the way Apple demonized IBM users in their famous 1984 advertisement to further differentiate themselves and their tribe as a brand, many people paste parody fish stickers with the Darwin symbol <> to communicate to the world their beliefs on religion and evolution. A contentious issue for sure, one that many people would get angry and argue over, but still something many people feel strongly enough about to make this statement a part of their identity, their personal brand.

Tell me what your brand stands for.

The battle for consumers’ devotion rages on like a preacher’s sermon on a Sunday morning, desperate to convert heathens to their faith. Religious converts will almost always say that a particular doctrine appealed to them, just as many consumers will claim that a company’s ideology and values attracted them to their products more than features or price. You we often hear these conversations about a particular company, product or service and think little of it. When in fact, this is an important part of a brand cycle. People need to believe and trust those they align themselves with and will try to tell you about it too. They want to convert you, even if they don’t realize they’re doing it. They’re doing the PR legwork!

Some might say people are brainwashed and have been fooled by the marketers, but it’s an important part of the brand’s “story”, such as American Apparel‘s use of “sweatshop-free” labour or Google‘s “Do No Harm” philosophy. These are good stories to tell. Much like the need to belong to a community, people make choices based on how they understand a brand itself and the reflection it will have on them. Eager believers will explain the values and benefits of their faith in a bid to win you over to their team just as a trusted friend’s word of mouth endorsement for a product or company might serve as a powerful motivator for a consumer’s brand choice.

In his bestseller, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the various “Influencers” he calls Mavens, Connectors, Salesmen and Persuaders. These influencers are the types of people in social networks who spread the word with authentic personal communication, and in effect, act as evangelists spreading the message about companies, products, or services. Gladwell explores the notion of viral marketing and how a newsworthy product or service can take on a life of its own and spread quickly, causing a ‘tipping point’. The whole thing smacks of religious fervor and some have gone so far as to claim the power of PR has usurped traditional advertising altogether, such as Al & Laura Ries’s recent book The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR.

The idea that authentic communication is an effective PR mechanism is not a new concept, yet many major brands spend millions on ineffective advertising campaigns instead of focusing on innovative PR opportunities where they can spread their message like religious teachings. Much like the modern day small town church meeting in a local gymnasium, community-based strategies such as blogging can lead to brand loyalty through the creation of authentic moments where consumers get to know the company; its ideology, vision, and purpose.

You made my sneakers where?

On the other hand, ideology can derail a power brand quickly if not kept in check. When Nike admitted that their shoes were manufactured in sweatshops in Southeast Asia, sales plummeted with many loyal Nike fans becoming agitated and reacting emotionally, not because the products weren’t well made, but because the information revealed a breach in trust. It was about the ethics involved in taking advantage of poverty-stricken communities in order to increase corporate profits. Consumers who cared about fairness and treating people with respect turned against Nike and protested.

Nike has since spent millions on damage control to counter this perception and fixed many of these issues, but the negative impression will resonate with consumers for along time. The hypocrisy of the company’s actions was a direct breach of the trust established with their tribe and damaged the brand. A faction of “The Church of Nike” left for good, either substituting their shoes with another brand name choice or perhaps even going so far as to purchase Adbusters’ anti-logo Blackspot shoes < > made from organic hemp and recycled tires.

People are attracted to confidence like moths to fire.

The human animal tends to desire structure and leadership. To a fault many would argue. We can’t help it. As a result we create heroes to follow and worship in religious communities. To maximize this effect, brand strategists carefully choose and elevate well-known heroes as spokespeople for a brand. With fans that already look up to and emulate them, they become the strongest form of influencer. They become like the preachers, or deacons of a congregation, spreading the word and serving as the living embodiment of the ideology and brand values.

For a new or existing brand to make headway penetrating marketplaces, companies spend energy and resources training sales and service personnel to adopt a customer-attractive philosophy. This is really not much different than the way organized churches encourage, appoint and train members to become charismatic community leaders such as deacons or even senior spiritual advisors such as pastors or priests.

Religious groups obviously each have their own version of deity, be it Jehovah, Allah, Buddha, etc., but all religious communities elevate their leaders to icon status such as The Pope, the Dalai Lama or cult leaders with incredible powers of persuasion over their followers. Power brands engage in this same behaviour, elevating cultural heroes like Michael Jordan as their spokespeople and manifestation of the brand. Thereby imbuing the Nike product with attributes and characteristics people are attracted to and wish to be defined by.

People worship the Reverend Jordan. But does spending $130 on a pair of Air Jordans make you a better basketball player? Just because you like Jared on the TV commercials, will you lose weight and be healthier by eating at Subway? Of course not. One of Chrysler‘s best selling tools was the wildly popular Lee Iacocca. Consumer’s like the cut of Lee Iacocca‘s jib and trust him. They’ve even brought him back for recent TV commercials to help boost lagging sales although he hasn’t worked there for years He’s one of their prophets! This is the aspirational aspect of branding: suggesting to the audience that if you chose their product, your game, health or life in general will improve.

I don’t care what Martha did – she’s my Martha.

Canadian neurologist Donald Calne points out “the essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.” As a result, brand loyalty often goes beyond reason and leads to seemingly blind faith followers. An interesting modern example of this can be seen with Martha Stewart and her international power brand that has survived the worst possible PR maelstrom imaginable with her absolute crucifixion in the media, conviction of a crime and prison sentence. In many ways, it seems she betrayed the trust of her followers that held her on a pedestal as one of their own – a beautiful, intelligent, kind, homemaker. Something they would strive for in their own lives.

To discover that she is actually a filthy rich, manipulative elitist would surely cause her empire to crumble, right? Wrong! She’s back on top of her game, stronger than ever with new TV programs, products and publications for consumers to buy. Perhaps her marketing team brilliantly used her incarceration and criminal activity to actually put her back on top. She’s now a fallen, flawed Martha just like any of us. Now that’s a powerful brand with parallels rivaling über cults of the 70’s such as Jonestown. If Martha told her loyal tribe to drink the Kool-Aid, they’d ask what colour and drink up with a smile. As Martha Stewart might say “This is a good thing.” For her anyway.

On the other hand, most brands do not inspire the kind of loyalty often reserved for holy higher callings – many claim very little or no commitment at all. Loyalty is a measure of entrenched behaviour – not necessarily attitude. With exposure to thousands of brands daily (recent research suggests that North Americans see 6000+ logos each day) you may be a fan of a brand, but not committed to it. For instance, when standing in the cold beer and wine store, how much loyalty do you have to your favourite brand? What if the display of Stella Artois catches your attention first? Or Grolsch is on sale? Perhaps you worship at the church of European import beer rather than a particular brand? Some brands inspire fervent devotion, while others simple get switched on a whim? And then others again can lose followers in droves because of a bad PR moment that exposes and breach in the brand promise or unresolved ideological differences.

There are powerful examples of ideological differences causing backlash from a group of followers. Take the recent debacle caused by popular American religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and mass exodus from his camp. The founder of a number of Christian organizations, including the 700 Club and Christian Broadcasting Network, he was at one time so popular he made a bid for the White House in 1988. Since making public comments claiming Hurricane Katrina was God’s retribution on a sinful New Orleans, Ariel Sharon’s health problems were punishment from God and Islam was satanic, he now has been dropped from many of the organizations and boards he served on and has been criticized and shunned by religious groups. Even George Bush has distanced himself from his friend and former religious advisor.

We all just want to belong.

I think the most significant similarity between brand loyalty and faith devotion is the sense of community both create. Brand allegiance can set you apart and make you feel like you belong to a special group. I have a friend who is an avid collector of classic Datsun 2000 roadsters. It doesn’t matter where in the world the members of this group are physically; they regularly congregate online at websites, forums and blogs.

He proudly belongs to a well defined community of car worshipers that will gladly go to great lengths, spend thousands of dollars and drive thousands of miles to gather together and show each other their pride and joy; 30-40 year old cars. He and a handful of his fellow Datsun lovers even recently traveled to Japan for a car show with the kind of focus and commitment a Muslim might apply to a pilgrimage to Mecca for The Hajj.

If you doubt the loyalty of these “believers” of this obscure brand, consider that even faced with significant financial challenges in recent years, my friend never considered selling his “Pink Lady” as they are affectionately called amongst their tribe. Not a chance. That would be tantamount to a personal betrayal he’s just not willing to accept. That car is a part of his brand, his identity and his community. It defines him.

I belong to The Church of Motorcycles.

I grew up around motorcycles and have belonged to this group most of my life. I was born into a Harley-Davidson family and used to take ribbing from my uncles whenever I owned a Honda or any other non-Harley. Apparently they weren’t “real” bikes. For years I’ve ridden a bike called a Buell, which is a brand extension by Harley, a hybrid of old-school rumble and sport bike glamour.

Developing a powerful brand like Harley-Davidson is all about differentiating your product from your competitors, called positioning, so individuals identify with your product as their own – something they feel comfortable being associated with or defined by. Harley-Davidson became the longest surviving American motorcycle brand not by ingenious marketing efforts, but rather by embracing the “bad boy” rebellious behaviour of their consumers, creating one of the most powerful and recognizable brands in the world.

In a similar way that Nike employs the star power of Jordan, movies such as Easy Rider and Harley-Davidson and the Marlboro Man with their “bad boy” heroes have served to solidify the brand’s position in the American psyche. Recent statistics show that 90% of H-D owners are repeat buyers. Now that’s brand loyalty that rivals even the best religious groups.

I’ve never really been known as a “bad boy” necessarily, but as a Harley owner I do feel like I am part of a band of brothers who enjoy the idea of being associated with rebellion, freedom and adventure. I’m part of the tribe that defines itself by the kind of motorcycles we ride, and to some extent the clothes we wear. I think we’ve all seen the “brain bucket” beanies worn by Harley riders instead of the legally mandated, and far safer, full-face helmets. Don’t tell my mother, but I wear a beanie most of the time. I know it’s unsafe, but it’s part of my tribe’s uniform.

Even in “The Church of Motorcycles” where riders treat each other like brethren, nodding and waving to strangers on the road like old friends, there exist factions and denominations like religion. And as is true with religious break out groups with ideological differences that vilify “the others” as non-believers, I often get different treatment from the “crotch rocket” crew and the ardent Harley boys because I ride a Buell. My bike looks and handles like a sport bike, yet it roars and rides like a Harley-Davidson. Which “congregation” of believers do I belong to?

You see, sport bike riders don’t ride Harleys, and Harley guys don’t even talk to sport bike riders. Nope. Like a Protestant in a Catholic church, I’m not welcome. Different tribes man, different cults. I’ve even rolled into a Harley dealership for some service and had mechanics tell me “Sorry man, we only work on real Harleys here.” I will not claim to understand the underpinnings of the conflicts between various religious sects willing to kill each other over seemingly minute differences in hindsight, but I certainly see the similarities with how some brand loyalists treat each other for their choices as consumers.

My Volvo is safer than your Honda.

Perhaps the most significant reason people dedicate themselves to a religious group is the promise of a better future, or the salvation concept. It is a universal component to all religions and surprisingly not dissimilar to promises made by brand strategists. Much work is dedicated to creating a promise of a better life if you choose this product or that service. The problem in both of these scenarios is when that promise falls flat on its face.

Recently we were asked by management of a local franchisee of a large international restaurant chain to provide brand consultation services and create a campaign to drive increased traffic to their popular restaurant. Of course we jumped at the opportunity. Now this particular restaurant already has a well-known brand in the marketplace and makes grand claims about the experience one can expect in their dining room. It’s certainly not as grandiose a promise as salvation per se, but they do guarantee fun times, great food, good value and fabulous service if you chose them over the competition. As one of the initial steps in the research phase, members of our team visited the restaurant to sample the food and experience the ambiance for ourselves before getting to work on their campaign.

The experience was, shall we say, less than impressive. Having seen the parent organization’s comprehensive brand platform and marketing field guide, we were expecting to see a warm, relaxed pub-style restaurant with huge portions and friendly service. Sounds like many restaurants, doesn’t it? What we experienced was dazed wait staff, cluttered and noisy environment, overpriced menu, slow service and inadequately sized servings of cold, bland food. We weren’t regulars loyal to the restaurant, but as consumers in their target audience, we were quite turned off and would never go back. The brand promise had failed.

Remind you of religion? It does for me. I’ve met formerly religious people that now call themselves “recovered Catholics” or “reformed Krishna followers” who, like many deprogrammed cult members, eventually realized they had been misled or even brainwashed. Get them to open up and they’ll share with you how their religious community let them down in some significant way. Many describe it as betrayal, vowing never to return to the church again. Viewed from a marketing perspective, this is a hard thing to overcome indeed. How do you convince someone you so badly let down to give you another chance? That you’ve changed and can offer them a promise you’ll deliver on this time? Fat chance.

Nobody owns customers, we only borrow them.

Consumers appear to be increasingly fickle with both brands and religions these days. With celebrities serving as deacons endorsing “New Age” faiths such as L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology (rumoured to have been developed by the author as a bet with friend and fellow sci-fi writer Gene Roddenberry) or ancient faiths like Kabbalah <>, it’s starting to seem like more people are casually trading in their religions like they upgrade their cars.

This is an important trend to watch as communication and marketing strategists. We can work diligently to develop a product and carefully craft messaging to differentiate it from the myriad of competitors, only to watch it collapse in market with one failure to meet the brand promise or one negative customer experience. This should be a stern warning to any companies who treat consumers cavalierly. Be wary: you may be the brand of choice today with a fervent tribe of followers singing your praise, but just as a disappointed member of a church might leave in disgust never to return, so too might you lose critical market share with a mass exodus of customers for any number of reasons. Remember, a brand is not what you say it is. It’s what THEY say it is.

A serious of bad choices by the ownership and management of Harley-Davidson nearly destroyed the brand in the 1980s. Once ardent fans of the motorcycles were suddenly presented by terrible production quality and a series of product design choices like mini-bikes and scooters (insert better example/explanation). This weakened the brand so well known for big, strong expressions of freedom and adventure and buyers began more seriously considering the more reliable motorcycles coming from Japan. The juggernaut power-brand H-D very nearly went bankrupt with their followers making a beeline for the newly formed Church of Japanese Bikes.

We’re still developing a strategy with that restaurant mentioned above, but had to be honest with their management that bigger problems were at play than first presented. Merely running an advertising and DM campaign in their market was not going to solve their long-term problem of building their business through market share. While some immediate efforts might put bums in seats for the short term, we wouldn’t be able to assure any long-term growth until they solved the environment, service and food itself. Otherwise, people would leave disappointed and spread a negative message that could sink the place. Thankfully they listened to us, agreed and are making changes.

What does this have to do with my business or brand?

I think it’s important to recognize that people in the post-modern world, perhaps more in western nations, make choices in their secular lives as consumers for reasons very similar to those that might affect their loyalty to a church or faith group; community, belonging, identity, ideology, heroes and above all emotional reasons. This knowledge is important to recognize as we desperately try to understand our clients’ audiences and elicit responses from them as communication and marketing professionals.

On inspection, it appears religious groups encourage their followers to publicly display their allegiance using the group’s iconography and symbols much like brands use logos, spokespeople or fashion trends. Group affiliation demonstrated visually, is an effective way of sending a message, a brand message, to the world about who we are and what we stand for – even if totally false. Similarly, every person creates a personal brand message using the choices we make as consumers, such as the car we drive or clothes we wear, which can lead to totally false perception of who we are.

I live in a famously wealthy city where nearly everyone seems to drive a $100,000 car. However, I recently read a statistic that said that over 80% of the premium automobiles in Vancouver are leased. People are playing a game of show and tell, but what they’re not telling is that they can’t really afford the car in the first place. It’s all about their image, their brand. They belong to the church of Mercedes, Porsche, and BMW.

Will God punish me for being loyal to certain brands?

Perhaps my wise old Dad was right. Many people do squirm uncomfortably when you openly discuss spiritual beliefs or political viewpoints, but why is it also upsetting for many when you criticize the brands they love or praise those that have failed them? It’s as though you’re taking a shot at them personally it seems.

I am fascinated with the similarities between these two seemingly unrelated arenas. I believe lessons for both secular marketers and religious leaders can be gained by examining the issue objectively. These lessons can be learned without getting into heated, emotional debates about the existence of God or the evils of consumerism in the post modern age. If churches adopted some of the marketing strategies the way business build brands, they’d surely have higher numbers in their congregations. One website, examines this very issue with a keen look at the marketing of churches like real businesses.

I’m not passing judgments of any kind. I just think it’s time to recognize and respect the human animal at the centre of these two activities: building consumer brand loyalty and spreading religious fervor. Both provide us with some semblance of meaning. Not so much about what we don’t know empirically, but belief in something that helps us define the world. They provide us some structure.

On one hand, many people are much more cavalier than they used to be regarding life choices like brands, leading to the rise of the anti-brands with their own form of loyalism. They just don’t assign too much importance to the notion of loyalty to a particular company or product. In fact, they outright fear corporations and resist their influence. Let them down just once and you could lose them forever. Let’s borrow a phrase from religion and call them the “agnostics of branding”.

Nick Wreden, author of FusionBranding, says that the idea that brands can actually dictate our behavior is nonsense. “If it was that easy then we wouldn’t have so many failures,” he says, noting that studies by accounting firm Ernst & Young show that over 90 percent of products try and fail to become brands. “US$ 1.4 trillion is spent worldwide on advertising and marketing. With that amount of money and such smart people in the industry, why is there such a high failure rate? If there was any element of control or influence there wouldn’t be that kind of failure rate.” Wreden argues that what people really fear is the power of the corporations behind the brands. “Government has pulled back on funding of arts and schools, etc. So how do these institutions get their money? They turn to corporations. Now business is everywhere, and people feel that it is intrusive.”

On the other, we still find examples of fundamentalism everywhere, in politics, religious and elsewhere. Fanatics seem to be commonplace today, and these audience are resistant to attempts at persuasion and will resist even the most sincere marketing messages. Either way, we must consider carefully who our target audiences are before applying old methods to build brands.

So take head friends, designers and marketers: our audiences have changed and don’t have the kind of loyalties we may think. Without authentic brands that truly demonstrate ethics, sustainability and integrity in their actions it doesn’t matter how many parallels to religion or politics exist. People don’t care. As a consumer myself, I find myself curiously turning away from many brands that use design and marketing ploys as a promise of quality and consistency, only to let me down.

google_religion.jpgIn the end, we’re all just searching for something to fill the voids in our lives and to help give meaning to our existence. Something to help define our identity. Something to believe in. This could easily be a warning about the evils of consumerism unchecked. I’ll leave that to publications like AdBusters with their contention that “advertising is mind-fucking” as they raise awareness of the media’s role and help give a voice to the previously oft ignored culture jammers and detourners. Perhaps too this diatribe can serve as a reminder that religion too can be a dangerous device that makes people do drastic acts in the name of their faith. I suggest it’s time we consider our role as communicators and designers more carefully as we create the current zeitgeist. That will become our legacy. We have an obligation to ourselves and our children to consider the need to fill the voids in our lives, either at the altar or in the check-out line.

Couldn’t we find a better way?

The other warning is this: the roots of religion and branding may both be intrinsically married to the human condition itself, sincere expressions of religious devotion runs much deeper with longer lasting implications than brand choices. There are few companies, product and services that truly make the world a better place and live up to the promise of a better tomorrow, so be careful making implications to the contrary. However, it leaves me wondering if there aren’t more opportunities for us in this blood-thirsty business to find those authentic brands, those companies with integrity and those products that DO make the world a better place?

I think a key real lesson here is that target audiences have changed. While some say a a cultural shift is occurring, I’d argue it has already happened. In this post-post-modern world of immediate information access, consumers are less interested in being human billboards with a product’s logo emblazoned across their chest. Rather they are looking to commit to something that has the same values they do (or aspire to have) and they want to be rewarded and recognized for showing that commitment. In this regard, brands and religions are both founded on similar principles.

SIDEBAR: A Design Manifesto
Perhaps this whole is issue put into clearest focus by Mr. Poynor himself in introductory comments to the reissue of Ken Garland‘s Design Manifesto:

“It is no exaggeration to say that designers are engaged in nothing less than the manufacture of contemporary reality. Today, we live and breathe design. Few of the experiences we value at home, at leisure, in the city or the mall are free of its alchemical touch. We have absorbed design so deeply into ourselves that we no longer recognise the myriad ways in which it prompts, cajoles, disturbs, and excites us. It’s completely natural. It’s just the way things are.”

We, the undersigned, are graphic designers, art directors and visual communicators who have been raised in a world in which the techniques and apparatus of advertising have persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable use of our talents. Many design teachers and mentors promote this belief; the market rewards it; a tide of books and publications reinforces it.

Encouraged in this direction, designers then apply their skill and imagination to sell dog biscuits, designer coffee, diamonds, detergents, hair gel, cigarettes, credit cards, sneakers, butt toners, light beer and heavy-duty recreational vehicles. Commercial work has always paid the bills, but many graphic designers have now let it become, in large measure, what graphic designers do. This, in turn, is how the world perceives design. The profession’s time and energy is used up manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best.

Many of us have grown increasingly uncomfortable with this view of design. Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact. To some extent we are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse.

There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention. Many cultural interventions, social marketing campaigns, books, magazines, exhibitions, educational tools, television programs, films, charitable causes and other information design projects urgently require our expertise and help.

We propose a reversal of priorities in favor of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication – a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning. The scope of debate is shrinking; it must expand. Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design.

In 1964, 22 visual communicators signed the original call for our skills to be put to worthwhile use. With the explosive growth of global commercial culture, their message has only grown more urgent. Today, we renew their manifesto in expectation that no more decades will pass before it is taken to heart.

SIDEBAR 2: Remember my student?

When I first mentioned that my student became so passionate about the topic of consumerism, brand loyalty and the similarities to the fanatical devotion of cult or religious followers, she based her graduation project film on branding, grilling me on camera for an interview. Called Branding and The Human Billboard, the film was an interesting exploration of consumerism and the role of brands relating to personal identity. For her first documentary, I think the film turned out well, but could have done without the chubby guy holding the Power Puff Girls mug. What does that say about his brand?