Are brand experiences substituting religious experiences?

4 April 2013 12:40

(updated: 21 December 2016 12:42)

Are brand experiences substituting religious experiences?

Those of you who’ve spent an evening in front of the TV recently might have come across the interesting BBC documentary, “Secret of the Superbrands” (also aired on NRK), on how Apple nurtures its loyal disciples.

We all remember the famous Economist front page,“The Book of Jobs” depicting the Savior (Jobs) presenting his Book (the iPad), clearly alluding to the religious-like atmosphere surrounding that brand.

The Apple Corporation is as mysterious, closed, secret, and admired as any religious sect. Apple flagship stores are designed using religious “designer tricks” and loyal Apple fans do in fact react similar as highly religious people do when confronted with their “holy objects”. In MR brain-scanning studies, when dedicated Apple fans are exposed to Apple products, their brain react in the same manner as when religious people are exposed to their sacred symbols and objects. Are brand experiences substituting religious experiences?

Practitioners and scholars have been intrigued by this possibility, but strong theory and empirical evidence supporting the existence of a relationship between brands and religion is scarce. However, in a fascinating paper published in Marketing Science (Shachar, Erdem, Cutright and Fitzimons, 2011), the authors do indeed demonstrate that religiosity is related to “brand reliance,” i.e.,the degree to which consumers prefer branded goods over unbranded goods. The paper theorizes that brands and religiosity may serve as substitutes for one another because both allow individuals to express their feelings of self-worth. They provide support for this substitution hypothesis with U.S. state-level data (field study) as well as individual-level data where religiosity is experimentally primed (study 1) or measured as a chronic individual difference (study 2). The studies demonstrate that the relationship between religiosity and brand reliance only exists in product categories in which brands enable consumers to express themselves (such as communication services, clothes, cellular phones etc. ). Two additional studies, studies 3 and 4, demonstrate that the expression of self-worth is an important factor underlying this negative relationship.

Needless to say, if all this is true, it might raise an ethical issue or two for service brands. Or as Shachar et al (2011) put it: “this may provide interesting insights for marketers and spiritual leaders alike in converting people from a brand to God or from God to a brand”.

Shachar et al.(2011): Brands: The Opiate of the Nonreligious Masses? Marketing Science, 30(1), pp. 92–110