So you believe that you are not the ‘religious’ type and, especially, do not subscribe to many of the methods and rituals that religions resort to?
Even if your claim is right, you could be an unwitting follower of other surrogate religions, such as “brands”, if we go by what Martin Lindstrom says in his book, “buy-ology” that dwells on the subject of “ how everything we believe about why we buy is wrong”.
Almost every leading religion has ten common pillars underlying its foundation: a sense of belonging, a clear vision, power over enemies, sensory appeal, story telling, grandeur, evangelism, symbols, mystery and rituals.
But, what is not so well acknowledged is the fact that these pillars happen to have a great deal in common with our most beloved brands and products.
Religions were meant to create a sense of belonging and identity. Brands do the same thing to you. If you are a Harley-Davidson aficionado, the chances are you will feel a sense of belonging among other users of the bike- it’s like being a member of a club.
Like religion, successful brands have a clear sense of mission. “Man is the creator of change in this world. As such he should be above systems and structures and not subordinate to them” said Steve Jobs twenty years back. Apple mission continues to have its ardent devotees.
Sensory appeal is another key characteristic of religion. Light reflecting off the glass of the church, the tone of the bells ringing, the fragrance of the incense.. So it is with products and brands that evoke certain feelings and association based on how they look, feel or smell. The unmistakable Nokia ring tone. The leathery scent of a new Mercedes Benz car. Or the pleasing lines of an iPod.
Religions are propagated through story telling. Whether the New Testament or the Koran, every religion is built upon a heft of history and stories. Every brand similarly has stories connected to it. Think of Disney and the colourful characters that come to mind.
Most religions celebrate a sense of grandeur. Have you been to the Vatican? Among the vaulted ceilings and beautiful frescos and paintings, one comes away with the realization that all of us are mere mortals dwarfed by something far greater than ourselves. No building in Rome is permitted to be higher than the St.Peter’s Cathedral. Many companies, likewise, work to inspire feelings of awe and wonderment, from imperial banks to magnificent hotels and awesome flagship stores. All marketed to stir up notions of grandeur.
What about the power of evangelism- the power to reach out and secure new acolytes? Remember the devilishly shrewd way Google’s Gmail service started? By making the service available by invitation only. It became a virtual religion.
Symbols are ubiquitous in religions, as they are in brands. The cross, a dove, an angel – religions have their own icons. Brands have their logos that are instantly recognized. Think of the Apple icons. Think about Mcdonald’s Golden Arches or Nick’s signature swoosh.
Mystery is a powerful force in religion. The unknown can be as powerful as the known. For centuries, scholars have been pondering over the mysteries of the Bible or the Shroud of Turin. When it comes to brands, mystery can be just as effective. Coca Cola, for example, has drawn on a sense of mystery with its secret formula- a distinctive recipe of fruits, oils and spices that the company keeps in a safe deposit box in an Atlanta bank and guards zealously, to keep the aura alive.
And, of course, just as rituals are an integral part of any religion, they are quite extensively resorted to by brands as well. At Subway sandwich franchises, sandwiches are constructed in the same order each time, so customers know how to instruct the person behind the counter. Or the ritual of drinking Bacardi with Coke and a slice of lime. Clearly, rituals help us differentiate one brand from another.
To sum up, says Lindtrom,the emotions that we experience when we are exposed to iPods, Guinness and Ferrari sports cars are similar to the emotions generated by religious symbols such as crosses, Mother Teresa or the Bible. In fact, research work using brain scans on volunteers shows that the reactions are not merely similar; they are identical. Which is why marketers and advertisers have begun to borrow even more heavily from the world of religion to entice us to buy their products.
Glory be to the brand.