Getting the Religion of Brands

Photo by William White on Unsplash

Brands, in many ways, are new religions.

Not all brands reach “religion” status, but many try. Just think about any brand you’ve heard referred to as having “cult” status?

If you’ve read or watched Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or the film Dogma, or read any of the many articles written on this topic, you know I’m not the first to think about this. But I may be the first ordained Kohenet, who also happens to be a professional marketing strategist to explore this as in insider on both sides of the conversation.

With the exception of one HBR article, it makes me wonder if brands or marketers truly understood the potential of their power and subsequent responsibility. Because as the wise Jewish sage Stan Lee once wrote, “with great power there must also come — great responsibility.”

Too many companies seem to only believe they are responsible to their shareholders. Too many marketers are just focused on the dollars and growth for growth’s sake too.

As we’re living in an era where people often trust companies more than the government, and the people who lead major businesses are starting to recognize that they need to have an actual function in society that is beyond dollars — it seems worth while to explore how businesses, business leaders, and marketers can utilize their religion status in a positive way.

First we have to look at what the role of religion is, or should be. We’ll use these definitions of religion from Merriam Webster to get us started:

  • a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
  • a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

But that doesn’t really say what the components of a religion are. In his HBR article, Utpal M. Dholakia shares that every organized religion contains three key components:

  1. Core beliefs and values
  2. Symbols, myths, and rituals
  3. Relationship with a community

But I think this list compresses the concepts to tightly — as it comes from a scholarly perspective and not from an insider perspective. There is an unpacking of this list necessary, to get to the heart of the matter. And yes, I’m intentionally keeping any concept of GOD, G-d, G!d/dess or other concepts of the supernatural out of this conversation.

Core beliefs and values

  • Worldview
  • Central Tentant / Core Belief
  • Ethics & Moral Code
  • Sacred time, space, objects

Symbols, myths, and rituals

  • Mythic truths
  • Sacred stories
  • Ritual to acknowledge the stories and sacred time, space, objects
  • Material expression and artifacts

Relationship with community

  • Definition of community (who is in/who is out)
  • Responsibility to community
  • Responsibility of community
  • Responsibilities beyond “community”

That’s a lot to unpack, so let’s now think of this in terms of four questions you can ask yourself about any brand or company. Why four? Because I’m Jewish and there’s nothing we like more than four questions.

  1. What benefit to or function in society does this brand fulfill?
  2. What are their core beliefs and values?
  3. To whom does this company see it self as responsible to (for) and what is asked of those people in return?
  4. What are the sacred symbols, stories, and rituals that this company has created to engage with their community and reinforce their core beliefs and values?

That third question is one I really hope you’ll chew on. Because if you are just thinking “customers” — then we have a problem. Because what about how a company treats it’s employees, vendors, land around their headquarters, etc?

And if your only answer to the first question is MONEY. Well, that is sad. To paraphrase the legendary Peter Drucker (thinker, writer, consultant): profit is not the purpose of a business, it’s proof that it’s working.

I’ll wrap this up here, for now, and leave you with three recommended reads to start expanding how you think about religion, brands, and brand religion:

  1. The Regenerative Business by Carol Sanford
    This book and business model is tailor made for people looking to create companies truly worthy of “religion” status.
  2. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
    This book which explores the interconnection of western science and indigenous world-views, is a great way to expand your thinking about religion, world-views, and especially concepts of reciprocity. I highly recommend the audiobook, which is narrated by the author.
  3. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
    I find that fiction is sometimes the best way to wrap your head around a concept. This classic book by Octavia Butler is not only a great “how to survive the apocalypse” but in our case a great “how religions are created” guide book as well.

Bonus reads: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor and/or Walkaway: a Novel by Cory Doctorow. Binti will help expand your thinking around sacred time, space, place and ritual/material expression. Walkaway will help expand your thinking around reciprocity and concepts of “profit.” And both are just great fiction that I highly recommend.

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