The study looked at brands, which are a powerful form of self expression. People use brands to send signals about personality and wealth. Many people are, in a very real sense, defined by their brands.
Religion, too, provides a powerful sense of identity. When someone says they are a Catholic, or a Buddhist, they are saying a lot more about themselves than simply their other-worldly beliefs.
Maybe the two are interchangeable? It's a fairly old idea - the Branding Strategy blog put together an amusing (if pretty tenuous) list of parallels back in 2007. But now a team from the Fuqua Business School at Duke University have put some evidential meat on the bones.
First they showed that US States with a high number of branded stores (Macy's, Gap and Banana Republic) versus discount stores (Costco, K-Mart, Target, Wal-Mart and Sam’s) also have a low number of religious congregations. About half of this is explained by differences in average wealth. They dug around a bit more and found that education explains some more of it (educated States are suckers for branded goods), as did urbanization. But even after taking these into account the link persisted. It wasn't either that people in less religious states consumed less.
On its own that's not terribly convincing. But then they headed to the lab, and found that students who were primed to think about religion (by writing a short essay) were less likely to choose branded goods in a subsequent exercise.
In another study, they found that priming people to think about how religious beliefs and activities ‘provide you with a sense of self‐worth' made them less interested in brands than those primed to think about how religious beliefs ‘provide you with a sense of safety and security.’
They also polled individuals on their preference for branded goods - apparently they got their participants from some database of people who are into taking these sorts of surveys, but who are selected to be representative of the US populace at large. The least religious people were most likely to favour branded goods, and this was was particularly the case for goods that are important for self-expression (e.g. Ralph Lauren versus Target brand sunglasses) rather than more functional (e.g. Pepperidge Farm versus Kroger brand bread). [And no, I've never even heard of most of the brands they had to choose between!].
Now, none of this is particularly surprising. We know that people use brands as a badge of identity, and we know that, in this regard, religion is a particularly powerful brand. However, I don't agree with the pundits who try to take it further, and argue that brand identity is a kind of surrogate religion. For example, take a look a this, which is pulled from Schachar's Working Paper that he published back in 2007:
... Belk and Tumbat (2005) found that the Macintosh community is equivalent to a religion in many ways because it can be characterized by a strong faith in “savior” Steve Jobs and enmity towards a common “satanic” enemy. Similarly, Muniz and Schau (2005) found that the Newton community (centered around PDAs discontinued by Apple) reflects five key themes: (1) tales of persecution, (2) tales of faith being rewarded, (3) survival tales, (4) tales of miraculous recovery, and (5) tales of resurrection. The authors argued that these religious themes reflect the human need for community and religious affiliation.To me that sounds like 'just so' story telling - finding amusing parallels between a hobbyist group (one that just happens to have a focus on a brand) and a particular Western religion (Christianity). If those 5 themes are really what constitutes religion, then most people in the world are not religious!
Shachar, R., Erdem, T., Cutright, K., & Fitzsimons, G. (2010). Brands: The Opiate of the Nonreligious Masses? Marketing Science DOI: 10.1287/mksc.1100.0591
This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.