By understanding the fundamental principles that underpin all major world religions, and by applying them to their own cause, brands can ascend to a religious level in the lives of consumers.
"A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things ... beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them."1
You awake on the Sabbath. You join the congregation, where the minister evangelises about the benefits of being a believer. All around you, like-minded people are sharing the same experience, hypnotised by what they are witnessing; people from all walks of life, all races and ages, bound together by the common desire to be a part of the collective experience. Once the speaker has finished espousing the virtues of faith and belonging, the collection plate comes around. But you're a believer, and the experience was good, so you happily part with your hard-earned cash. Enlightened, you leave the Apple Genius Bar2 with your new purchase.
And lo, it was good.
Although throughout my life I've veered from agnostic to atheist, I've always found the multifarious world of faith and religion incomparably fascinating. From a child being awed by the swashbuckling stories of ancient Norse and Greek lore, through to an adulthood interest in the unparalleled psychological power of religion, it is an area of limitless complexity; the study of which for me holds intrinsic appeal.
It is within the role of religion in society that both my most intense interest resides and the inspiration for this work was sprung. Religion has the power to divide nations and drive people to commit unspeakable acts against fellow humans. Yet for the overwhelming majority of devotees, it provides meaning and guidance in day-to-day life, a sense of purpose and moral guidelines by which to live.
In this dissertation, I will examine the structural and psychological elements of religion that have allowed it to motivate and capture the hearts and minds of society since the dawn of civilisation. I will also look to tackle the oft-posed question "what is a brand?" and discuss the opportunities that face brands in the post-modern world. By distilling the essence of religion and understanding what its key structural elements are, I will propose a framework that I believe, if followed, will allow brands to elevate themselves above the commercial quagmire in which they currently exist to become stand-out, iconic, enduring and ultimately profitable entities.
As a final note before we begin, the role of this work is not to question the validity or truth of religion, and neither is it to debate the merits of one faith system over another. In this sense, I have tried to adopt a completely neutral, agnostic stance when citing religious references.
Brands in the modern world
There are numerous published definitions of what constitutes "a brand", and the reader will undoubtedly have a personal view, too. Therein lies the fundamental and universal truism of brands as a concept - they are uniquely personal and individual entities. As Jeremy Bullmore points out: "a brand is a subjective thing. No two people, however similar, hold precisely the same view of the same brand."3
Brands originally developed to fulfil a rather prosaic function: to provide identification, and a guarantee of authenticity and consistency.
Brands are, Paul Feldwick argues, "fundamentally a promise".4 In the mire of pre-trademark consumerism, there was little to guarantee what was actually in the product being purchased, or how the experience would differ from one purchase to the next. The advent of branding revolutionised this; suddenly you could be assured that if you bought a branded product on more than one occasion, the quality would be consistent. This, of course, was highly valued by consumers, and manufacturers soon realised that a promise equalled a premium. The first age of branding5 formed many of the core virtues that we still associate with branded products, including consistency, quality and trust, which endure as prerequisites for any successful brand.
We find ourselves today in a society saturated by products, brands and commercial messages, and, as such, there is increasing resistance to commercial messages ("people are tiring of ads in every form"6), compounded by the unprecedented power consumers now have to edit paid-for communications out of their lives. As Naomi Klein states in her polemic No Logo: "logos, by the force of ubiquity, have become the closest thing that we have to an international language".7 It is no longer enough for brands to simply guarantee quality; consumers are acutely aware that own-label products are manufactured by the same factories that supply branded goods, and it is unusual to find a genuinely substandard consumer product. To continue to justify their existence (and their price premium), brands have to work harder than ever to engage and excite the public.
But just how can brands work harder? Obviously, they have to deliver against all of the promises that they made during the "trademark" age of branding, but, in isolation, increasingly this isn't enough. In the face of anti-consumerism, mass consumer choice and cheaper, unbranded rivals, brands have to offer more than functional and one-dimensional emotional benefits. So what is the key?
I believe that it's about transcending the physical product, and adding genuine, life-affirming value to people. It's about helping address the issues that modern life throws at you, and about navigating the world in which we live. It's about making a statement, and showing others who you are. It's about being part of the community, conversing with others who share your outlook. It's about being indispensable to a consumer. But just how is this achievable?
The opportunity for brands
It could be argued that some brands have already managed to elevate themselves into positions of almost religious adoration, and, indeed, this is true. However, I believe that, often, brands have found themselves in this position as much through luck as judgment. Of course, brand guardians have meticulously planned for their protectorate's success through traditional marketing methods, but few, if any, have closely studied the modus operandi of religion to understand the impact it has on people and, in turn, how that can be leveraged for commercial success with a brand.
We live today in a post-modern society, and it is within this reordering of our perceived norms that the potential role for brands becomes magnified. Historically, it was your gender, your class, your age or your place that defined you. Much of your life was mapped out from birth, based on what gender you were and what class you were born into.8 Today, nothing is certain. Social boundaries continue to topple and, thus, the "traditional" rules need not apply.
We are no longer restricted by pre-ordained, society-imposed rules that may have shackled generations before us. Gender, age, race and other such "definers" are rapidly decreasing in relevance. The formulaic and rigid rules of yore no longer apply. We have increased levels of opportunity and, within Western society at least, we are presented with almost infinite choice and options.
While empowering the individual, the changes mean that we don't have a set path to follow. Life is what we want to make it. However, with empowerment comes uncertainty. Psychologically, certainty and stability are important to us,9 and when we do not feel fulfilled in these areas, we will look out for constants - points of reliability, familiarity, focus and guidance - that can address these deficiencies.
Religion, of course, will continue to fulfil this role in the lives of many consumers. However, we live - in the UK at least - in an increasingly secular society, and some sources suggest that many people no longer actively engage in religious organisations or embrace a faith system as part of their lives, especially younger generations. BMRB data from 2006 shows us that, in the UK, only 25 per cent of people under 35 see "faith as an important part of my life" (with an index versus the UK average of 82) compared with over 33 per cent for the over-35s (index 108).10
But can brands also sate these requirements? As consumer choice proliferates, and we get richer and more savvy,11 we expect and demand more of the brands we choose to engage with. We live in a society that (on the whole) prizes material gain12 and welcomes commercial entities into our lives. Put simply, Western society is primed to allow brands to assume a more central role in daily life.
In the eight years since John Grant described brands as "a set of ideas people live by",13 the technological and social changes that helped define the "third age" of branding have developed at such a pace that, today, brands stand in a position of potential power and relevance that has never before been possible. I firmly believe that as our societal waypoints erode and become less relevant to large swathes of the population, brands have an opportunity to occupy the resulting gaps that appear, and, in turn, operate at a "higher order cognitive state".14
We can now begin to glimpse brands' potential as something much larger and more powerful than many of the more prosaic and practical descriptions would have you believe. Brands as multi-dimensional "living, breathing entities"15 that help shape how you live your life, what you do, what people think about you and what type of person you are. This is getting closer to the area that religion has traditionally occupied.
Religion: a sociologist's perspective
There are, of course, a multitude of classifications as to what defines a religion, which are often very personal and diverse. Common themes are evident, however - almost all agree that religion provides social cohesion (leading to a sense of community), a set of guidelines by which to live your life, leadership, purpose and definition. All of these, I believe, are areas where, in the right conditions and if carefully nurtured, brands can also operate and add value to people's lives.
Religion in its various guises is evident among nearly all societies on Earth throughout recorded history. From primitive Animism,16 right up to modern, marketed religions such as Scientology, the presence of religion (whether that term has been embraced or not) has had a defining influence upon probably every single human being who has ever lived, regardless of whether or not they see themselves as a "believer".
At a time when many cultural and philosophical figures claim "God is dead", while, simultaneously, sociologists predict a rise in religiosity (largely down to some of the macro-social trends discussed above), it remains a truism - whichever school of thought is proven correct - that faith systems and religious beliefs are still enormously powerful motivators and structures of focus, inspiration and, as Marx said, control in people's lives.
Sociologists have had perhaps more to say on the subject of religion from a humanist perspective than any other discipline - unsurprising given their raison d'etre: that is, the systematic study of the development, structure, interaction and collective behaviour of organised groups of human beings.17 It is also unsurprising, therefore, that sociology should be a key area of focus and analysis when trying to understand how we can apply the power of religion to the world of brands.
I started this essay with a classic summary of religion from Emile Durkheim:
"A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things ... beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them."
This is a more eloquent, succinct and relevant definition than anything I'd be able to muster, and perfectly captures the essence of the hidden connection and similarities between the two worlds of brands and religion. Durkheim never stipulated precisely what he categorised as "sacred things" - other sociologists have gone so far as to include nationality, political activists and professional sports18 within this phrase - and, as such, I believe one would find it very difficult to argue a case for brands being excluded from this definition.
Durkheim also described religion as a socially constructed reality: "an expression of our collective consciousness, which is the fusion of all of our individual consciousnesses, which then creates a reality of its own";19 that religion is essentially an innate product of society, a product of human nature, our fundamental desire to be part of the herd and our metaphysical need to find meaning within the complexity of life. While societal structures and technology may have developed immeasurably since Durkheim's day, the human condition and our innate wants and needs have not (Maslow's hierarchy of needs remains, for the time being at least, intact).
We are, after all, herd animals,20 we still yearn to be part of a community, we still require structure, familiarity and security in our lives21 (perhaps more so than ever in the post-modern world in which we now live). We will always seek to sate these requirements, whether it be through religion, or via another vehicle that can meet the requisite criteria (as, I shall go on to argue, carefully nurtured brands can).
Regardless of your personal perspective on the actual origins and theological validity of faith systems, it is an undeniable truth that religion provides order, a set of guidelines, values and aspirations for the believer that transcend the physical (colour, age, class, language, gender and intellect, etc). Is it not also true, however, that brands can meet these criteria, and, in doing so, transcend the product?
The modus operandi of religion ... A blueprint for brands?
It is evident that religion provides structure to society and inspiration and comfort in people's lives. But how does it achieve this? What are the composite elements that help create the effect that it does? What role does each play?
Religions, regardless of when and how they formed, all have universal commonalities that create "the experience" for the adherent or devotee. As we begin to explore exactly what brands can learn from religion, we need to understand what these universalities are and what their role is within the overall religious framework.
There are at least six "elements" that all religions will adopt, to a greater or lesser extent. These are practised and exercised in varying ways, dependent on how mature the religion is, its size, its background and, of course, the wider culture in which it exists. The core elements are:
2. Sacred text (containing either God's word and/or a set of guidelines to live by).
3. Semiotics (iconography and symbolism).
While undoubtedly differing enormously by each group, these themes (in whatever guise) do appear to be defining in uniting social movements under the umbrella of "religion". Therefore, I believe that these are also the tenets which a brand should seek to build if it is to truly occupy a unique position in the minds of consumers.
In exploring each of these areas, I have tried to analyse why each is important, and the role that it plays in the overall religious construct. I have selected some examples from the field of religion to illustrate each, as well as, where applicable, exploring the implications for brands.
The concept of leadership - be it guidance from an inspired mortal or the recorded word of a deity - is central to any entity that purports to be a religious organisation. From the anthropological curios of South Pacific cargo cults (ranging from the worship of the enigmatic "John Frum", through to the slightly more familiar Prince Philip22) to the major Abrahamic23 religions (in their worship of one God), every faith system ever recorded has had one or more figures of perceived divine ordinance whose word forms the very ethos of the movement.
There are often a multitude of positions of "leadership" in an organised religion. There is almost always a god or god-like figure (or in the case of polytheistic faiths, more than one god), but beneath this, there are often sacred prophets or apostles, who hold a semi-divine position, right through to living representatives of the religion who hold a position of authority (for example, the Catholic Pope, through to the Muslim Shi'a Ayatollah Ozma, or Great Sign of God). Common among all of these figures is the role of example-setter - being a paragon of the faith for others to seek focus, inspiration and direction from.
The idea of a businessperson or company representative as a type of "divine leader" has a long heritage in brands and marketing. The archetypal examples are, of course, Richard Branson and Steve Jobs, of Virgin and Apple respectively. They are physical embodiments of their brands, their companies infused with their own personality and ethos. Inspiring, passionate, seemingly benevolent and often (amazing considering the personal wealth of both) with a whiff of the underdog about them, both have evangelism skills outstripping the vast majority of religious preachers.
It could also be argued, however, that the position of commercial "god" need not be a person. If the aura around a brand is strong enough (or could be built to do so), it is entirely possible for the brand itself to assume this role. Think for a moment about Nike. Although many would automatically claim Nike to be akin to a religion (and indeed, they may be correct), could it also not be as accurately described as a god? If the role of a "leader" in religion is to provide focus, guidance and inspiration, isn't this exactly what Nike offers amateur sportsmen around the globe, through its passion for running, technology to aid the athlete24 and events such as Run London?
The criteria for success here is that the brand has something to stand for, an issue that is both relevant and motivating, and one that the brand can link with credibly. If achievable and delivered effectively, the common issue can provide a strong focal point, which, if realised across other areas of the business, could certainly assume a position of "leadership".
2. SACRED TEXT
A sacred text is often central to the culture and philosophy of a religion. From the Torah in Judaism,25 through to the Scientologist Dianetics, the axioms by which adherents live their lives are captured within a core set of writings that usually have their roots in the leader of ancient founders of the movement.
As well as the words and principles of the sacred text being revered by adherents, often physical manifestations of the text will also hold a sacrosanct position within the religion. For example, worn-out copies of the Qur'an will be respectfully burnt or buried by Muslims, rather than simply discarded or recycled, as one may do with other books.
It is the role of the sacred text (and what it contains) that is important to us in this context. All religions must provide a set of guidelines by which an adherent will - to a greater or lesser extent - live life. While many will veer away from the path from time to time, or choose to interpret the often ancient words within a modern or liberal context, the guidelines will still remain an important structural element of any religious organisation.
As mentioned earlier, the concept of "brands as a set of ideas to live by"26 suggests that perhaps these ideas should be recorded somewhere, in a way perhaps that the great religious texts record their dictum. Unusual and odd as it may seem for brands to physically script how their users should lead their lives (something that would seem slightly incongruous with the world of the modern, liberated and empowered consumer), the concept of adopting a certain tone of voice and conveying a set of values in their communication is certainly something brands do on a regular basis. To go back to Virgin, its communications are usually quite explicit in conveying the essence of the brand, traits that reflect the public personality of its god, Branson. By, in effect, communicating "The Word of Branson" (albeit indirectly) through its brand communication (at every level - PR, advertising, point of sale, etc), one could argue that every piece of messaging that Virgin Enterprises runs is consistent with the idea of a sacred text.
Another very recent example of an advertiser publishing "an agenda" or "their word" is Marks & Spencer, which ran a recent campaign highlighting its ethical policy in a very simple, honest and straightforward way. This is also consistent with a sacred text in the sense that it is laying clear a set of defined rules (or perhaps guidelines), and is placing them "on the record" - that is, to be lived by.
Renowned semiotician Marcel Danesi defined two of the major "meaning of signs" as the icon and the symbol.27 An icon is essentially like the thing it represents; for example, the murti (figures of gods usually in a human-like form) as worshipped by Hindus. (It is worth noting that this type of worship does not apply across all religions, with the worship of icons receiving accusations of idolatry from many.)
Symbolism is defined as a sign that represents or alludes to something else - for example, the Christian Ichthys, the Taoist Taiji or the Jewish Star of David, all of which are immensely powerful immediate signifiers of historical events, ethics, culture and, of course, religiosity.
The roles of iconography and symbolism vary from religion to religion, and operate sometimes in very separate areas, and sometimes overlapping (the areas of semiotics are not mutually exclusive). From a sociological perspective, both serve important roles in the development, maintenance and identity of the group. "Inwardly" (for the direct benefit of the individual or the close-knit group), they can serve as a point of focus and reverence, ranging from day-to-day reminders of their faith, through to glittering celebrations of the culture and belief system to which they subscribe. "Outwardly" (appealing to others), they are identifiers, "badges" that immediately indicate the group to which they belong, allowing others to draw from their own experiences, opinions and cultural references to instantaneously form a set of opinions about that person without meeting them.28
Semiotics and branding are inextricably linked. As we covered earlier, the earliest brands were guarantees of quality and authenticity: a promise that you were buying what you thought you were buying, and the hallmark of a brand, or the "logo" (to use the marketing parlance) was a simple semiotic shortcut to making this promise. The oft-cited "Bass Red Triangle" of the mid-nineteenth century is an early and archetypal example of this - the first major recorded instance of creating a simple image to represent a physical product.
Sociologists argue that "rituals can aid in creating a firm sense of group identity", and that "humans have used rituals to create social bonds and even to nourish interpersonal relationships",29 both of which are fundamentally important in the formation, maintenance and development of a religious community.
There are two major areas of "ritual", and both serve equally important, yet often very different, roles within a community. Broadly speaking, there are "functional" rituals (eg. those which serve a tangible purpose within a group, usually transmitted through a group generation to generation, the roots of which can be traced to a functional task or requirement), and there are "mystical" rituals (those which have their roots in myth or magic).
Functional rituals: The Sikh Langar is a good example of a "functional" ritual. It is a "free kitchen": a meal open to anyone, with every member sitting as equals, designed to promote "the ethics of sharing, community, inclusiveness and oneness of all humankind".30 Introduced by Guru Nanak in the 15th century, the Langar was intended to dissolve parts of the divisive caste system of India prevalent across previous generations.
Mystical rituals: John Grant defines rituals as "formatted sequences of human behaviour designed to produce a psychological, physical and (in old belief systems) magical or metaphysical result,31 a statement that perfectly captures the essence of the "mystical" ritual. An extreme example of this type of ritual in religion would be sacrifice among ancient Shamanistic religions, often undertaken to purge the community of a perceived bad spirit or other malevolent force.
Ritualistic behaviour, both functional and mystical, is prevalent in our daily interaction with brands. The perceived perfection achieved by pouring a pint of Guinness "just so" (119.5 seconds of carefully crafted beer theatre involving six key steps32) is a classic example of functional ritual. Thanks to this ideal preparation technique being purported through advertising, word-of-mouth and skilled bar people around the world, the consumer expects their pint to be poured in adherence to the ritual. Of course, a pint poured carefully, but not in strict observance of the technique is likely to taste as good (as tested in my own research group with friends at the local pub), but this would still be unacceptable to the Guinness connoisseur (or devotee).
Brand rituals purporting to elicit a metaphysical outcome are also common, and some advertisers have taken this search for a magical result as a central focus for their brands. The leitmotif of Lynx's brand communication is the notion of superlative sexual attraction in a can ("spray more, get more"), and this is intended to lead to a ritualistic use of the brand, essentially: "use Lynx before you go out and you'll be a female magnet". Although there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the ritual will have the desired effect, the belief that it will is sufficient enough to encode this faith into a behavioural effect.
The realm of myth is one that is intrinsically linked with religion (as it is also with brands). Myths are memes: by their very nature vague, polysemous and propagated only as transient cultural exchanges. It is, however, within these ambiguities that much of the magic of religion exists, to both the follower and the external observer.
Myths, as the eminent philosopher and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss argued, are essentially language, because they have to be told to be continued33, and it is within this definition that we can glimpse their pivotal role for religion (and, it could be argued, any community or organised body). Myths are essential to the ongoing success, recruitment and development of a religion: they are alluring, interesting, inspiring (often containing one or more archetypes) and mystical.
The origins of many ancient religious myths can be traced back to an attempt to try to explain seemingly mystical or supernatural occurrences: freak weather, disease and origins of life, for instance. This is characterised especially vividly in pagan religions such as early Norse faiths (with deities such as Odin, Thor and Frigg all deemed responsible for various forces majeures).
In fact, myths form the very backbone of religious development. After all, it is via language (myth) that "culture is transmitted, thinking develops and learning occurs."34 The stories that are passed down from generation to generation form the cultural essence of a religion, units of cultural currency imbued with both the experience and beliefs of current devotees, as well as previous generations.
Douglas Holt describes the commercial building of a brand myth in his paper What Becomes an Icon Most?35 when he discusses the ascent of the soft-drink Mountain Dew to iconic status in the American market. Holt proffers the following description of the role of commercial myth: "simple stories that help people deal with tensions in their lives".36 The route to achieving this, he argues, is (among others) to build myths that "target national contradictions", that "lead culture" and "draw on cultural knowledge".
In Mountain Dew's case, it was during the 80s, a time when the media was awash with yuppie stories, with a small number of young execs earning fortunes, making everyday working men feel inferior and angry at the yuppie way of life (the working man was community-focused and patriotic, while the city exec was self-centred and willing to outsource work abroad on a whim). Mountain Dew built a myth around the country idyll, that "virile guys live to play dangerously, not to sweat it out in the office",37 conveyed through all of their communication, running completely counter to the prevailing city culture of wealth accumulation and self-aggrandising. As Holt puts it: "Mountain Dew championed the wild man against the emasculation of corporate work ... by asserting physical toughness and derring-do over the flaccid cowboys of Wall Street."38 A simple myth, based upon a potent cultural insight, carried the brand to enormous success - enough to rival the cola behemoths of Coke and Pepsi.
Whether it is a physical gathering accommodated by an actual structure such as a synagogue, mosque or church, or a virtual congregation bound together by their common beliefs, the concept of community is fundamental in fulfilling the social cohesion role of religion discussed earlier.
As well as fulfilling a cohesive function, the interaction that occurs is also an important aspect of building the culture of a religion: the theory of "social interactionism" asserts that the core development of the group (culturally, intellectually, etc) are driven by peer-to-peer interaction: learners constructing their own knowledge and understanding through participation and engagement with others.
As well as being vital for the nourishment of the wider group, the religious community also has an extremely important function on an individual level. Individual experience is magnified when encountered as part of the group,39 and, paradoxically, this can lead to a purer, more condensed experience when part of the collective than when witnessed alone. An example of this is the famous Ardh Kumbh festival, where up to 70 million Hindus descend upon Allahabad in India to bathe in the river Ganges, in an effort to purge themselves of sin.
In the world of brand communication, the word "community" is likely to crop up in just about any conversation with anybody who is active in this field. In the networked world, consumers are free to build links with anyone else, with communities springing up around every subject, mindset or ethos imaginable.
Digital brands such as eBay, Last.fm and MySpace are masters at fostering and developing a sense of community among their users (one could even argue that the major account planning bloggers - such as Russell Davies, John Grant and Richard Huntington40 - are now themselves digital brands fulfilling a similar role). Matching people of similar tastes or outlook, communities can develop at the click of a button, unrestricted by physical limitations. However, building a brand community is not limited to the digital sphere: indeed many offline brands have spent years carefully crafting and nurturing their community of users.
Harley-Davidson and Apple are probably the two classic exemplars of brands that have a defined sense of community around them, with both exuding a set of clear, unifying principles that binds their users (in short, the idea of "freedom and rebellion" for Harley, and the idea of "liberation of creativity" for Apple). There are, of course, others. Innocent, Nike and even Paneristi41 can be seen to be building such communities. The commonalities between all of them, and other "offline" brands that already have a clear community of users, seem to be:42
- The brand uniquely differentiates its users from the population/peers.
- The brand has mechanisms which enable consumers to engage in a public experience.
Communities are also incredibly important to brands, as they have the capability to offer that most powerful of communication channels: word- of-mouth advocacy. Proven to deliver business gains (the London School of Economics reported in 2005 that a 7 per cent increase in word-of-mouth advocacy around a company unlocks 1 per cent additional growth),43 it is clear that, in the modern, networked world, harnessing consumer advocacy is more important than ever.
BUILDING A BRAND NEW RELIGION
"A great brand raises the bar - it adds a greater sense of purpose to the experience."44
I believe that to create successful, indispensable brands in today's society, modern marketers need to understand how they can elevate their protectorates above the competition; and it is by embracing the shifts in societal structure that we see today, and by adopting the framework proffered by religion, that this position is achievable.
It is evident that many brands utilise some of the areas that religions embrace, but it is extremely unusual for a brand to actively progress each area by design to engineer a religious-like devotion from their consumers. I believe, however, that with a rigorous understanding of the potential audience, placing the activity within a relevant cultural context, and by carefully nurturing each area, it is possible for brands to ascend to a religious level in the lives of their consumers.
To achieve a "higher order cognitive state" akin to religion, a brand must deliver in all six key areas.
To test my hypothesis, and to demonstrate how this would work if adopted in its entirety, I have taken an example brand and explored how the framework might guide the brand planning and development.
For the purposes of this exercise, I have chosen American Express. Although a well-known brand in the UK with a long-standing heritage of service and quality, one might argue that it's a perennial underachiever, failing to make an impact in the market befitting of its status in the US and other territories. Could the religious blueprint convert this awareness into adoration?
Leadership Above all, Amex needs to ensure that it has a clear, culturally relevant ethos45 in the UK, and that this is imbued within the (consumer-facing) leadership that it chooses to issue. A clear agenda is required - one that is in tune with potential customers and that is espoused vigorously by the leadership.
An interesting angle for Amex to explore would be that of "green" issues ("American Express: the card that will save the planet"). This perfectly captures the consumer zeitgeist, and would be a surprising route for the brand to take. Instead of "piggy-backing" on another brand's efforts in the arena of corporate social responsibility (as one may argue happened with RED, thus diluting its effect), Amex needs to set the agenda, and drive the issue, not follow it.
As we have discussed earlier, to really bring this to life, Amex would ideally find an individual who could adopt a credible role as the primary brand evangelist, espousing the benefits and virtues of following the "American Express Way". This is clearly a step removed from Amex's previous "My Life, My Card" advertising, which has featured a galaxy of talent from sports (eg. Tiger Woods and Andy Roddick) through to cinema (eg. Martin Scorsese and M Night Shyamalan). The problem with using a multitude of different talents is that the overall effect becomes diluted by a feeling of "they've been paid to that", as opposed to "they really believe in the brand". If Amex were to consider a green angle, perhaps a face such as Al Gore might be more appropriate (who is credible, charismatic and a wonderful orator - surely vital components of an inspirational leader?).
Sacred text Rather than running incongruous messaging flitting between brand and product, Amex would need to adopt a consistent approach that encapsulated the new green positioning. A manifesto-style communication would have to be produced, and the tone of voice then retained - consistently - throughout all other communication.
As well as being written on every card issue, an innovative way to capture the manifesto permanently might be to commission a celebrated and like-minded artist to create a piece of modern eco-art that either actually listed or abstractly interpreted the new way. Produced, for example, through recycled materials and displayed prominently in public, a creative iteration of a "set of ideas to live by" would be impactful and resonant with the type of consumer that is likely to be appealed by such a positioning. Furthermore, if the work was strong enough, it would be respected, revered and studied, much in the same way that a religious sacred text often is.
Semiotics The Amex "blue box" logo is already world-famous, and instantly conjures associations with many around wealth, (selfish?) capitalism46 and Americanism. These associations, admittedly to different degrees depending on with whom you speak, are slightly incongruous with public feeling and opinion, and are certainly at odds with any potential "green" associations.
There are already a plethora of semiotic triggers associated with the field of environmentalism (not least the colour green itself), and these could easily be leveraged as part of American Express' marketing approach.
Amex could fuse the two areas: by combining the logo that is currently recognised the world over with a key signifier that represented the company philosophy (change of colour, image of tree or leaf, depiction of planet, etc), the resulting hybrid would be an ethos-driven emblem that retained the current semiotic strengths held by the current logo. Immediately recognisable and understood, it would become a badge of honour, a statement of intent yielded proudly by consumers who share the ideals that it represents.
Ritual The objective here is to make a transactional experience felt somehow "better" by virtue of choosing to use your Amex card over and above another method of payment. The age-old tactic of issuing reward points could work here to help programme repeat behaviour - however, the "reward" would be environmental, not personal. Perhaps where RED fell down on this was to not explicitly visualise what the reward was providing - in this instance, for example, we might issue an "environmental benefits" statement electronically with the regular statement, clearly outlining exactly what impact your use has had.
Myth Creating a myth by design is inherently difficult, although something that has been made markedly easier by the networked society in which we live. A myth, as a meme, requires peer-to-peer communication to propagate it, and whereas historically this relied on face-to-face verbal or physical written exchanges, the spread of ideas and stories today is limited only by the boundaries of our interest and the technology on which we rely.
It seems logical that commercial myth creation today should involve the internet, and that a multi-layered, interlinked and challenging model should be adopted:47 something that's interesting and rewarding (stimulating word of mouth), rather than shallow and simple. This could be, for example, an ARG48 that revolves around green issues, incorporating multiple hidden plotlines all stemming from a central semi-mystical idea - perhaps around an area such as deforestation, and the impact that this has on indigenous tribes and the balance of nature. As the game progresses, more areas are revealed, giving tantalising hints as to what the central myth is (borrowing heavily from the Lost model).
Community Amex must facilitate the creation and development of a core community of "devotees" that will share opinion and espouse the brand virtues to potential new recruits. As well as providing the cohesive (sociological) function as discussed earlier (and acting as a magnifying lens for all of the above areas), the community in this instance would serve a number of incremental purposes:
- Crowd sourcing - the sharing of green ideas and concepts that could be adopted by Amex.
- Harnessing the power of the many - leveraging the critical mass of devotees to the greater good, perhaps via pooled buying for green/ethical products, or by allowing third-party organisations with a similar ethos to engage with the social network that has been created.
- Consumer loyalty and advocacy - by building a powerful social network system, bound around a brand with clear and motivating ethos, a strong sense of brand warmness and attraction can be developed and maintained.
As befitting the modern communications world, any such community would need to have its hub online, taking cues from other successful networking models created by other web successes. Amex could also, potentially, consider creating physical "churches" where members can congregate, see speakers, share thoughts and mix with like-minded individuals (as demonstrated by Russell Davies' Coffee Morning phenomenon: if a digital network does glue around a motivating common ground, there is often an eventual movement to congregate offline as well).49 These need not be permanent structures, but may be a more amorphous concept, facilitating physical interaction in a more fluid and flexible way (a less extreme version of "flash clubbing", for example).
By embracing these six areas, and exploring the opportunities that each tenet presents, I believe American Express can convert its undoubted awareness into adoration and thus improve its position in the UK market, transcending the functional card benefits and occupying a unique and powerful position in the mind of consumers.
I believe that:
- Humans have an innate set of needs and wants that have remained constant regardless of social and cultural changes.
- Brands have an unparalleled opportunity to transcend the product/service and operate at a "higher order cognitive state".
- Analysing the modus operandi of religion yields a blueprint that can provide a framework for the building of indispensable and enduring brands.
In a world of brand secularism, with competition fierce, consumers empowered and in control, and with much of our marketing communications activity completely out of our power, it is now incumbent upon brand guardians to seek ways in which they can elevate their brands above and beyond the morass of commercialism in which they currently reside.
I believe that by learning from the fundamental ways in which religion operates, and applying those principles to brands, we can do just that.
I am not advocating that brands will replace, or even become religions. Religion, in its traditional sense, has always been, and probably will remain, a cornerstone of human communities. It is within this role, however, that lies its intrinsic power and value to people, and it is from this that I believe brands can learn to their distinct (and long-term) financial advantage.
Final note: All reference to religion and religious practices are written from an agnostic perspective, and all due care has been taken to ensure that they have been correctly interpreted and represented within this work.
Books Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Bullmore, Posh Spice and Persil. Feldwick, What is Brand Equity Anyway? Grant, The New Marketing Manifesto. Klein, No Logo. De Botton, Status Anxiety. Harris, The End of Faith. Earls, Herd. Danesi, Messages and Meaning: An Introduction to Semiotics. Jamieson, Visual Communication: More than Meets the Eye. Levi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning. Pachler, Theories of Learning - and their implications for ICT use. Holt, What Becomes an Icon Most? Wolf, The Experience Economy. Wipperfurth, Brand Hijack: Marketing Without Marketing. James, Affluenza. Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You.
Electronic Apple.com Economist.com Wikipedia.org Socialpsychology.org M-W.com Sikh-history.com BBC.com Brandtarot.com/blog LSE.ac.uk Russelldavies.typepad.com/planning
1. Quotation from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life by Emile Durkheim, 1912.
2. Apple Genius Bar. Taking "retailtainment" to the next level, these stores offer lectures, seminars, one-to-one consultations with an Apple "genius". Apple devotees can meet up, experiment with the latest equipment and discuss technical issues with experts. Some also run in-store Apple Summer Camps, where children are not taught about technology or computers, but are encouraged to explore and develop their creativity (www.apple.com/uk/retail/camp).
3. Quotation from Posh Spice and Persil by Jeremy Bullmore (2001).
4. Quotation from What is Brand Equity Anyway? by Paul Feldwick (1991).
5. In The New Marketing Manifesto, John Grant proposes that there are three clear ages of branding, the trademark, aspiration, and brands as emotional constructs which guide consumers. These ages, Grant argues, are reflected in both wider commercial and social trends.
6. Quotation from The Economist (26 June, 2004).
7. Quotation from No Logo by Naomi Klein (2001).
8. The New Marketing Manifesto, by John Grant (1999).
9. Various Needs Theorists (among many other schools of psychology) argue that consistency and stability is a fundamental human desire. Source (among others): www.socialpsychology.org.
10. Source: BMRB/TGI 2006.
11. The success of companies such as TripAdvisor, uSwitch, MoneySupermarket (and other such aggregator sites) are testament to our increasing savviness as consumers.
12. Source: Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton (2005). De Botton states that money is imbued with an almost ethical quality, and that "success" is judged via accumulation of wealth.
13. Quotation from The New Marketing Manifesto by John Grant (1999).
14. Quotation from The End of Faith: Religion, Terror & The Future of Reason by Sam Harris (2004).
15. Quotation from The New Marketing Manifesto by John Grant (1999).
16. In this instance, I have classed Animism as the most primitive form of religion to demonstrate the breadth of religious development over time. However, for the purposes of balance, it is important to note that some commentators do not actually see Animism as a religion at all, arguing that it is a philosophy instead. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animism#Differences_between_animism_and_rel igion for more.
17. Definition taken from Merriam Webster: http://184.108.40.206/dictionary/sociology.
18. Later sociologists of religion (than Durkheim) - notably Robert Bellah - have extended Durkheimian insights to talk about notions of civil religion, or the religion of a state. American civil religion, for example, might be said to have its own set of sacred "things". Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociology_of_religion.
19. Quotation from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life by Emile Durkheim (1912).
20. Source: Herd by Mark Earls (2007).
21. Abraham Maslow's seminal Hierarchy of Needs is so well known that it does not require covering here. For further information, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Maslow.
22. Cargo cults are a fascinating anthropological phenomenon. They are "unorthodox religious movements appearing in tribal societies in the wake of Western impact, especially in New Guinea and Melanesia. Cargo cults sometimes maintain that manufactured Western goods ("cargo") have been created by divine spirits and are intended for the local indigenous people, but that white people have unfairly gained control of these objects". (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult#_note-0).
23. In the field of comparative religion, Islam, Judaism and Christianity are the three Abrahamic religions. Source: Introduction to World Religions by Montgomery Watt (2005).
24. See http://www.apple.com/ipod/nike/ for more information.
25. Torah is a Hebrew word meaning "teaching", "instruction" or "law". It refers primarily to the Five Books of Moses, also known as the Law of Moses or the Pentateuch (Greek for "five containers", which refers to the scroll cases in which books were being kept). Source: Wikipedia.
26. Quotation from The New Marketing Manifesto by John Grant (1999).
27. Source: Messages and Meaning: An Introduction to Semiotics by Marcel Danesi (1993).
28. Source: Visual Communication: More than Meets the Eye by Harry Jamieson (2007).
29. Quotation from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ritual.
30. Quotation from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Langar.
31. Quotation from John Grant's Brand Tarot blog, source: http://www.brandtarot.com/blog/?p=500.
32. According to the Guinness brewmaster Fergal Murray, the six elements that have to be right to achieve the perfect pint are: the glass, the angle, the pour, the settle, the top-up and the presentation. Source: http://www.igniterealtime.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2007/03/ guinness-pouring-guide.pdf.
33. Source: Myth and Meaning by Claude Levi-Strauss (2001).
34. Quotation from Theories of Learning - and their implications for ICT use by Dr N Pachler, University of London.
35. Source: What Becomes an Icon Most? by Douglas B Holt (2003).
36. Quotation from What Becomes an Icon Most? by Douglas B Holt (2003).
37. Quotation from What Becomes an Icon Most? by Douglas B Holt (2003).
38. Quotation from What Becomes an Icon Most? by Douglas B Holt (2003).
39. Source: The Experience Economy by Michael J Wolf (1999).
40. See: www.russelldavies.com/planning, www.brandtarot.com/blog and www.adliterate.com respectively.
41. Paneristi is a super-premium luxury watch brand with a devoted group of consumers.
42. Source: Brand Communities, Marketing and Media by David M Kalman (2001).
43. Source: London School of Economics: The Economics of Buzz - http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/pressAndInformationOffice/newsAndEvents /archives/2005/Word_ofMouth.htm.
44. Quotation from Scott Bedbury, VP Marketing, Starbucks (as cited in No Logo, Klein).
45. Source: Brand Hijack: Marketing Without Marketing by Alex Wipperfurth (2005).
46. Source: Affluenza by Oliver James (2006). In this book, James proposes the term Selfish Capitalism to describe the baseless, relentless pursuit of material gain in 21st century Western societies.
47. Reference: Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson (2006). In the book, Johnson argues that many aspects of popular culture are actually making us brighter, and that, contrary to general opinion, we are being "dumbed-up". A multi-layered consumer message that requires an element of challenge and intrigue (think Lost) is inherently more appealing and likely to be passed on (a prerequisite of a successful myth).
48. ARG (alternate reality game): an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants' ideas or actions. The form is typified by intense player involvement with a story that takes place in real-time and evolves according to participants' responses, and characters that are actively controlled by the game's designers, as opposed to being controlled by artificial intelligence as in a computer or console video game. Players interact directly with characters in the game, solve plot-based challenges and puzzles, and often work together with a community to analyse the story and co-ordinate real-life and online activities. ARGs generally use multiple media (such as telephones, e-mail, and mail), but rely on the internet as the central binding medium (from Wikipedia).
49. Organised by the ex-Wieden & Kennedy and Nike planning director Russell Davies, the "Coffee Morning" movement began by Davies inviting readers of his blog to meet for coffee and chat in Soho. This has developed into an almost-fortnightly event, and the concept has spread with advertising bloggers around the world, with satellite coffee mornings (sharing the same raison d'etre) springing up around the world, spread as far as the US, Australia and Thailand. See russelldavies.typepad.com/planning for more details.