You are on page 1of 5


Brands Are Behaving Like

Organized Religions
by Utpal M. Dholakia
FEBRUARY 18, 2016

Organized religion has shaped virtually every aspect of human behavior for thousands of
years. Some historians have even argued that religion was integral to human
survival.Perhaps its not surprising, then, that savvy marketers have figured out that they can
use some of the same basic principles to connect with their customers and that brands have
taken on such importance to consumers.

And yet the narrowly formulated, self-serving, and consumption-focused beliefs and values,
rituals, and communities provided by brands usually have little to offer beyond the
boundaries of their products and services. Thoughtful marketers should have an
understanding of how this is shaking out how some brands are adopting the characteristics
of organized religion so they can think critically about whether this is something they want
to do.

Scholars have found that every organized religion offers three key benefits to its followers, a)
a set of core beliefs and values, b) symbols, myths, and rituals, and c) relationships with
members of a like-minded community. Here are a few of the ways in which brands have
begun using these elements to create congregants, not just customers:

Core beliefs and values. The essence of any religion lies in a set of beliefs and moral values.
Just consider how fully many of us embrace precepts such as Impossible is nothing,
Challenge everything, or Make the most of now. Each of these slogans sounds
inherently good, worth adopting and even building our lives around. Yet their origin is not
some divine revelation or millennia-old discourse, but the minds of clever copywriters.
Also common to every religion is belief in a divine, benevolent, supreme being. And today,
figures like Jeff Bezos and the late Steve Jobs have been described asour saviors in how
theyre portrayed. For instance, when Mr. Bezos purchased the Washington Post in August
2013, many media experts called him journalisms savior. And the international edition
of Fortune magazine recently depicted Bezos as the Hindu god Vishnu on its cover. Stories
about themagnetic, larger-than-life founders of Amazon and Apple provide a rich
mythology that draws consumers to these brands.
Symbols, myths, and rituals. Rituals are repeated behaviors that follow a script and possess
symbolic meaning. Over centuries, people have practiced religious rituals to mark rites of
passage such as birth, marriage, and death, to mark certain times of each year like the end
of the harvest season, to please divine powers, and to ward off misfortunes. Rituals impose
order and structure to our lives, and assure us about our place in the scheme of things.
While we continue to follow many rituals established by religion wedding vows or the
Thanksgiving meal, for instancewe have also adopted many rituals associated with

brands. Activities like aparticular way of eating an Oreo cookie (twist, lick, then dunk),
participating in the VW wave (waving to another Volkswagen Beetle driver to say hello
and signal solidarity), or using special, made-up words like Venti or Frappuccino at a
Starbucks store every morning provide some ofthe same benefits asreligious rituals do.
Consumer psychologists have shown that creating new rituals for customers is a great way
to heighten their enjoyment and to build strong brands.
Relationship with a community. Through the ages, religious life and social life went hand
in hand. People belonged to the same religious congregation their entire lives, and relied on
fellow members for companionship, financial assistance, and social support. The found
their friends, well-wishers, andspouse, and socialized their children there. Today, brand
communities, fan clubs, and social networks provide many of these same benefits. Many
motorcycle enthusiasts spend their weekends and vacations with their Harley Owners
Group at rides and rallies. In user forums and chatrooms of companies like Hewlett
Packard, Microsoft and Texas Instruments, tech enthusiasts devote hours upon hours
helping others solve their problems without pay. Brands like Jeep, the Russian camera
maker Lomo, and Samuel Adams organize Brandfests to bring together customers for
enjoyable and educational experiences. In such venues provided and managed by brands,
people socialize, form friendships, and even romantic relationships.

On one hand, its easy to see why these powerful tactics would appeal to marketers. On the
other, as consumers, worshipping an iPhone or a Tesla cannot teach us to be happy or content
with our lives. Nor can a Harley Owners Group necessarily provide us with the genuine
friendship and intimacy that a caring spouse, life-long friend, or neighbor can. So as shoppers,
we may be best served by enjoying the benefits that brands provide, yet acknowledging there
are limits. And as marketers, we might want to ask ourselves if the value of what were selling
lives up to our power to sell it.

Utpal M. Dholakia is the George R. Brown Professor of Marketing at Rice Universitys Jesse H. Jones
Graduate School of Business.

This article is about BRANDING



Leave a Comment




36 minutes ago

Overall, I think that this essay highlights some important considerations about brands and marketing. I think
one ontological weakness I see here is whether religion teaches us to be happy. Does it purport to? Definitely.
But I would argue that it isn't 100% successful either.



We hope the conversations that take place on will be energetic, constructive, and thought-provoking. To comment, readers must sign
in or register. And to ensure the quality of the discussion, our moderating team will review all comments and may edit them for clarity, length,
and relevance. Comments that are overly promotional, mean-spirited, or off-topic may be deleted per the moderators' judgment. All postings

become the property of Harvard Business Publishing.