The new religion

Those rare brands that attract the most devoted of fans create similar brain stimulation as religious triggers, Martin Lindstrom's Project Buyology reveals.

Mark couldn't wait for the opening. It was one of those events that had kept him awake for nights. Most days at home he'd been preparing for the big day. And it had cost him his entire fortune. Of course, most of his bedroom was stuffed with his collection. As a true Apple fan, Mark now anticipated the opening of the new Apple Store in Sydney, Australia.


Mark isn't just any kid. He's an especially devoted Apple fan. He'd flown to Sydney from his home town - Palo Alto in California. A 15-hour flight to Australia to attend the opening of Apple's latest store. And this wasn't the first time he'd gone to such lengths to be there on an opening day. As he excitedly waited in the queue of 4,000 other people, many of whom, like Mark, had camped out overnight to be at the head of the queue, he told me that he'd also flown to Tokyo for the Apple Store opening in Japan's capital. But Sydney was extra special. This was the opening of 40th Apple Store, so Mark was sharing a special anniversary with the brand he loved. What did he expect to get out of this, I asked him, and he replied: "A T-shirt."

Coincidentally - or perhaps ironically - the opening of the Sydney Apple Store took place the week before World Youth Day and the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI. If you had just landed on Earth from somewhere in space, with no idea of what humans worship, you might easily draw comparisons between the thousands of Apple fans and the thousands of Catholics who were converging simultaneously on Sydney. Yes, the Catholics identified themselves as pilgrims. And Apple fans would describe themselves as loyal customers. But is this distinction merely a matter of semantics? Each group, in their way, are driven by the communities of faith of which they are a part. The Apple fans are just as excited about the day that left them with an iPod as the World Youth Day's pilgrims were to receive a souvenir commemorating WYD 2008.

So here's my question. Is there a correlation between brands and religion? Is the drive behind Mark's tour to Sydney the same as the motivation attracting some 100,000 Catholics from all around the world?


Having spent years talking with brand fans - from obsessed Harley-Davidson riders, to young Japanese Hello Kitty admirers (one of whom, incidentally, owns more than 12,000 pieces of Hello Kitty merchandise), to devoted Irish Guinness beer drinkers - I have, time after time, been struck by the apparent parallels between the power of religion and brands over followers. But, in reality, would such a claim possibly hold up? Is it possible that some brands have managed to create their own religion by, coincidentally or deliberately, adopting triggers and tactics from the world of religion? The question became an obsession for me.


In 2004, I embarked on a four-year quest to find out. But rather than initiating another classic market research study and asking thousands of people, in focus groups and through questionnaires, about their thoughts, I decided to pursue a methodology few have explored on a large scale.

I was interested in testing the effectiveness of a non-verbal research technique in revealing consumer thoughts. I turned to neuroscience and sought the expertise of neuroscientists versed in deploying the world's most sophisticated brain-scanning technology. Pursuing what became a neuromarketing project, uniting the expertise of neuroscience with marketing, we recruited hundreds of research subjects - volunteers from all over the world - who count themselves as Christians. My objective was to use neuroscience to examine whether the same brain activation evident in the devout Christian's brain, when exposed to faith-related triggers, was also evident in the brains of fans of emotionally powerful brands such as Apple, Harley- Davidson and Guinness when they were exposed to the iconography of their brand preferences.

In contrast to most quantitative or qualitative research projects, neuromarketing research cannot be accomplished overnight. From the project's beginning, when we planned the test procedures, hypotheses and test stimuli, to the completion of this portion of the study's brain scanning, took an intensive six months.

Project: Buyology, as the research project is called, has delivered the foundations for my forthcoming book and was based on fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging technology. Project Buyology made use of the most advanced and expensive brain- imaging technology in the world to shed light on the truth and lies about why we buy. Project Buyology aimed to examine our consumer desires.

So, testing the possible correlation between branding and religion was one aspect of this research. The Christian test volunteers were both hopeful and concerned as they arrived at the neuroimaging laboratory near Oxford. "Will they be able to read my thoughts?" "Can they detect my religious belief?" "Will I lose my faith after all this?" These were among the questions our volunteers posed to each other as they gathered at the lab.

Three months later, I received the results of the tests. My suspicions were confirmed. It turned out that, when exposed to faith-based triggers, the Christian volunteers' brains evinced activity in the same region of the brain as that activated in the brains of brand fans exposed to brand stimuli. In contrast, brands that don't fall among the rarefied group of highly emotional brands revealed almost the opposite brain response. Brands such as BP and KFC provoked less brain activity and engaged fewer brain regions than brands with fan bases. Project Buyology delivered hard scientific evidence of some correlation between emotionally engaging brands and religion.

Project: Buyology also interviewed 14 religious leaders from across the world with the intention of establishing an ingredients list for a powerfully engaging religion. This part of the study revealed agreement among these faith leaders about most religions' communication components. Let's explore the building blocks that were revealed by this research.

The ingredients

First, a clear vision. This is the cornerstone of religion. It can inspire great actions and firm convictions. But how does this translate to a brand? L'Oreal provides a clue in the wording of its brand mission: "We sell hope." Then there's Apple's 1982 vision: "Man is the creator of change in this world. As such, he should be above systems and structures, and not subordinate to them." These are examples of brand convictions that, more than 20 years on, are as relevant as ever. These visions drive and guide these companies.

Next, a sense of belonging. What do Tupperware, Harley-Davidson, Lego and Apple have in common? They're all based on communities. Once a Lego fan - always a Lego fan. I'm one of them and I have been since I was 12. Or younger. Considering Lego's considerable brand equity, you'd think the company's marketing budget would count in the billions. Not so. In fact, it is so modest that if I recorded it here, you'd think it was a typo. Lego doesn't do the talking. The brand lets its fans do it - their Lego Maniacs, or pilgrims, perhaps. Without them, no Lego.

Then there's power from enemies. Imagine playing a football game without an opponent, or playing draughts without white counters. Imagine Pepsi without Coke. Impossible, right? A brand's enemy, or competitor, is a valuable foil. Yet almost no brands advertise their enemies. As a French novelist once said: an enemy defines who you're not. It makes things black and white, creates a well-defined line in the sand. A clear brand competitor unites a company from within and, most importantly, pushes the brand's boundaries. But few brands have understood that an enemy is just as essential for a brand's success as its logo and all other identity signals. The enemy shapes the brand.

Sensory experience and the story

Now, sensory appeal. Close your eyes and come with me into a church - or a mosque - or a synagogue. The cool environment, the quietude, the smells and sounds would tell you where you were before you opened your eyes. Places of worship seduce the senses: the bells ring, the organs rumble around you, the incense ... Again, most brands are lacking here. Visit any supermarket, retail chain or store and you'll struggle to experience any sensory stimuli, other than visual, that tell you, uniquely, about where you are. And isn't shopping all about a holistic experience?

Storytelling. Don't get me started. The Bible, The Koran, The Torah ... the world's holy texts are built on oral traditions. The power of word-of-mouth has ensured stories have been, and continue to be, passed from generation to generation. Storytelling has driven faith and religious practice, keeping them alive for millennia. Some brands understand the power of storytelling. Disney is one.

But few brands have taken the storytelling tool to its extreme to test its power. Just as every vessel, piece of furniture, hymn, window and scent that you encounter in a Catholic church, say, is linked to an all-embracing story, brands have the potential to build identity holistically. And the ones that do engage consumers and truly stand out.

Consider grandeur

It's all about thinking big - really big. Moses parted the waters. Jesus walked on water. Cathedrals are massive in scale. The propaganda to inspire awe seems to be working. Today, building regulations in Rome forbid the erection of any building that exceeds the heights of St Peter's dome. Not even a flagpole can stretch into the heavens beyond the height of the cupola. And, in the world of brands, this attribute is particularly relevant and, perhaps, more accessible that the other religion-related characteristics. Think about the Fifth Avenue Apple Store in New York, the latest Prada store in Tokyo, or Burj Al Arab - the world's first seven-star hotel. It's been so expensive to build that the hotel will, apparently, not break even until 2121.

How about evangelism? This phenomenon has lived offline for centuries and has moved online. But in the world of branding, it takes place in chatrooms, and through viral videos. I don't think anyone disputes word-of-mouth power. It's trusted, engaging and cheap. Yet still, in 2008, few brands make use of the power of evangelism and the inclination of consumers to be convinced by friends.

The Brazilian brand Natura and Vodafone in India have mastered the potential of evangelism. By knocking on new doors, both brands have, in record time, established vibrant networks of brand supporters - or pilgrims, perhaps believers. People who don't argue over price, but who converse about the spirit of the brand.

Then there is the small matter of symbols. Let's imagine a smashed stained-glass church window, a page loosed from a Bible, a snippet of choral singing ... Would you recognise where any fragment of those elements came from? Most likely. Few brands, however, reflect this consistency. Not many can stand alone and be recognised without their logos. Apple's iPhone can. Examine it and discover that you'll have problems finding the logo. Yet, its design is so in tune with the brand's identity, and is so unambiguously original, that you know an iPhone when you see it and feel it. Hold it in your hand and its identity is revealed in the tactile experience. Use it and the iPhone declares itself in its navigation, colour and graphics. Ronald McDonald is also distinctive, in his every part: red shoes and hair, red-and-white stripes. McDonald's also makes use of symbols to express the brand.

Mystery and ritual

What about mystery? Many years ago, the story goes, Unilever released a shampoo in India. During production, the copywriter's mock-up text was, mistakenly, printed as the final copy on the label. Millions of bottles entered the market stating that the shampoo contained "the secret X7 factor". No-one knew if it was true, or what it was - so they left it there. The mistake wasn't really picked up until the label supply ran out. The new labels were corrected, without the "secret formula". Sales plummeted. Complaints arrived in the hundreds, all demanding to know what had happened to the secret X7 factor. Apparently, consumers believed that the identical product wasn't as effective as before. The great success of the secret X7 factor indicated that Unilever was on a good thing. So the secret X7 factor was reinstated.

Rituals. What more can I say? No rituals, no religion. And, the same holds true for brands. Rituals build brands. How about the Corona beer ritual - a wedge of lime in the bottle neck helps sell those beers. And where does this ritual come from? It was invented by two bartenders in California to see how fast a ritual can spread across the world.

By now, you'll understand why I believe there is a correlation between emotionally engaging branding and religions. Mark was willing to wait in the queue for 48 hours, after a 15-hour flight. For him, the product expresses more than a brand. The brand has become a focus of his faith. And this isn't some empty claim. Project Buyology's neuroscientific research proves that powerful brands can become much more than logos or products. They can become life journeys for people. They can be seductive, believed in. They can be the objects of aspiration and inspiration. For marketers, Project Buyology has thrown out another challenge. It has identified our own "Buyology" and exposed the truth and lies about why we buy.

- Martin Lindstrom is the author of Buyology, BRAND sense and BRANDchild. www.MartinLindstrom.com.