On Brand and Religion Part 1


Brand and religion are two things I think about often. Branding is what I choose to do as a career, and religion helps me frame my faith. Not a day goes by when I don't think about these two subjects. However, it's not often that I think of them at the same time. Yet, these past weeks, I've been starting to wonder if the two have more in common than expected. Think about it. Far more than a product, you buy something you believe in. For instance, Nike promises victory. More significant than a shoe or its function, an idea persuades loyal buyers towards Nike products. How does it do it? Like religion, Nike has gods. While they're far from perfect, their stories always end in victory. Consider the recent narrative of Tiger Woods. He was pretty much down for the count after a period of self-inflicted turmoil in his personal life. Then he started to make a comeback. Then he won The Masters. It's practically a miracle. Nike's creative team was there to immediately broadcast a commercial of Tiger's metamorphosis. They weren't selling a product. No, it was a reminder that you can be faithful to Nike and its promise of victory no matter the situation. Sounds a bit like religion, right?

I can't speak for all religions, but in my faith tradition, there's quite the cast of characters. Each purposed, like Tiger, with reminding believers keep the faith. I think of King David (of David and Goliath). Here's a guy, like Woods, who couldn't control his desires and made colossal mistakes. Yet he lands in good graces. He even ends up with a king greater than all kings in his blood line. It's a reminder that kings are human too. That if David can be forgiven, then so can you.

A brands currency, like religion, is belief. If followers believe, they will buy. The problem with this, which also applies to religion, is that followers are often unaware of the power belief can have over them. Recently, I was talking to marketing students at Cincinnati Christian University about branding. I asked questions like what are your favorite brands? How do you relate to those brands? Are brands good, bad, or inevitable? The students had answers (some inherited brands from their parents, not unlike religion), but I recognized that it was not something that they think about often. They each had brands that they're loyal to, but it's more reflexive than reflective. Meaning, they're loyal, but they don't think about why. It reminds me of the story of the two fish who are approached by an elder fish who asks, "how's the water?" The two fish are confused and ask, "what's water?" Brands and religion are like water. Pools of ideologies and aspirations that drive the decisions people make, often unknowingly.

That's not true for all brands and religious expressions. Some aim to create more reflective believers. They're a lot like the elder fish who asks questions that lead to more inquiry, rather than involuntary (reflexive) behavior. I think of REI's Opt Outside campaign or the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius. The hero shot on the Opt Outside page leads with “There are questions that only the outdoors can answer.” The first paragraph on the Ignatian exercises says they’re meant to “help people deepen their relationship with God.” Both examples can lead to deep discovery and greater belief. But, it’s through the conscious efforts and consent (reflective choices) of the shopper/follower.

Beyond gods and men, brands, like religion, have many other approaches to building belief. I hope to write about more commonalities in the future. For now, I'll leave you with a question. Are you reflective or reflexive in your loyalty to brands (and religion)? Or, instead, how's the water?