Strategy & Marketing

Branding Thoughts from the Religious World

With the release of my book “Unique“, and the more I study branding as it relates to non-profits, churches, and ministries, the more I’m drawn back to religion itself. Over and over, branding experts point to religious faith as the template for real branding. Here’s a few interesting insights from Martin Lindstrom on the religious context of branding. I’d be curious about your thoughts on the issue…

Brand inspirations from the religious world

My father always said not to talk about religion, politics and money. So right here and now I’m going to break the first rule by revealing some of my most fascinating revelations by placing branding in dare I say, a religious context.
By Martin Lindstrom.

How can a brand hope to achieve the ultimate? Just two weeks ago, on the streets of Tokyo I got the answer. Walking down the road were two girls dressed from top to toe in Hello Kitty items. Nothing was left ‘unbranded’. Apart from their dresses, shoes and handbags, they had Hello Kitty nails and Hello Kitty earrings, and Hello Kitty phones.

This form of brand admiration taken to the max has emerged over the past decade. The first time I encountered it was in a pub in Sydney where I met a man with a Gucci barcode tattooed on his neck. I described the meeting in BRAND sense my latest book. We got talking, and introduced ourselves. When I asked what made him get the tattoo, he told me, ‘I simply love the brand.’

This left me pondering… What makes people go that far? What are the ingredients that make up such an extreme brand obsession? And ultimately, what can the world of advertising learn from this when setting out to build a brand?

The best answer to these tough questions seemed could be found in the controversial topic of religion. I embarked on a fascinating journey in an attempt to discover what is it about religion that creates such staunch devotees. I also wanted to know what are the ingredients that create steadfast and strong religious faith.

The exploration resulted in a list of 10 powerful criteria. As I was writing BRAND sense, I wanted to call this list the Ten Commandments, but my publisher felt that this was pushing it a little too far. What’s interesting about this list however is that the parallels between it and the world of branding are surprisingly strong.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not wish to imply that religion has learnt anything from branding, but branding has definitely been inspired by the world of religion. These were the 10 components that I found:

1. A sense of belonging
Think Weight Watchers, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. This amazing community of more than two million consumers is run almost exclusively on peer advice and support. Without a peer community Weight Watchers would not exist. Needless to say that sense of belonging is always a strong component of any religion.

2. A clear vision
Steve Jobs’s powerful vision for the Apple Company dates back to the mid-1980s. He said, ‘Man is the creator of change in this world. As such he should be above systems and structures, and not subordinate to them.’ This vision was referring to computers, but 20 years later and a few billion iPods later; it still applies, and will probably still be relevant in 20 years’ time.

3. Power from the enemy
If we play a game of association and I say Coke, more than likely you’ll say Pepsi. The rivalries gone on for so long, that it’s legendary. A former executive at Coke once stated that going to work was like going to war. In fact the chances are that Coke would not be what it is today if there was no Pepsi. The rivalry has forced both brands to grow and perpetually challenge one another for market leadership.

4. Authenticity
Authenticity is hard to define. Is Las Vegas or canned laughter authentic? Without thinking you may initially answer no, but a reconsidered answer might just be yes. Are the Olympics authentic? This answer to this is unambiguously yes, because it contains the four defining components of authenticity. It’s real, it’s relevant, and it has rituals and is part of a story. More and more brands are required to be authentic – just like religion.

5. Consistency
In world where everything is changing so quickly, consistency is the king. You know how to operate your Nokia phone; you know how to order a sandwich at Subway and how to navigate your Apple Mac. It has all become a branded routine, which, if changed, is likely to hurt the brand more than if the logo was to disappear. The fact is that more and more brands realize the importance of brand consistency, not only in terms of its graphics, but also in terms of every aspect that represents the brand.

6. Perfection
Google Harley-Davidson on the Internet and you’ll find 521 websites dedicated solely to the fine art of how to polish the engine. For most outsiders this would sound rather pedantic but for the true Harley-Davidson fan, this is a must. Perfection is the brand, just as Apple’s fine sense for details or Louis Vuitton’s extreme focus on quality has made the brands what they are today.

7. Symbols
As the market place becomes more and more crowded simple yet powerful symbols are taking over – a global language – an instant language. Apple was first to designing the famous trash can, and the greeting smiley when the computer was turned on. Every single Apple icons passes the ultimate test of being singularly associated with Apple, even when they stand alone.

8. Mystery
Have heard about KFC’s 11 secret spices? What about the secret Coca-Cola recipe? Are these stories true, or not? Regardless of the truth, these are good stories that create mystery, and add yet another dimension to the products.

9. Rituals
If you remove certain rituals from a small group of powerful brands you’ll soon notice their power disappearing. Take for example Corona beer and the lime in the bottle neck. How would the Olympic games fare without the flaming torch relay? The fact is not many brands leverage the power of ritual, yet so much of religion’s power is based on this very aspect.

10. Sensory appeal
Imagine for a moment walking into a temple, a church, a synagogue or a mosque. Each one offers a unique sensory experience. There is incense and bells, incantations and candles. The world of branding can learn a lot from this. Some brands get it right. A visit to Disneyland can quickly draw you in to another world. As flagship stores become more commonplace, the sensory appeal is becoming more prominent.

Whether we love it, or hate it, the world of branding is becoming increasingly inspired by the world of religion. Religion offer a powerful roadmap for how branding can evolve over the years to come. All it needs to do is look to the ancient ingredients that make up religious followings. In some cases this is so powerful that the brand becomes more than a brand, and it becomes a way of life.

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  1. Branding, even in its most subtle aspects can be a powerful draw.  I remember Lakewood Church in Houston.  It was branded, not like some cold drink, or hamburger, but with a simple promise.  It was called the "Oasis of Love".  What made Lakewood stand out of the crowded Chruch environment was that to those people who had attended the Church, they found it to be truely an Oasis of Love.  Ever faithful to that concept.  The ministry lived up to the promise of its branding.  

    Way back in the early 80's I was in a high level meeting with the President of CocaCola foods, the Minutemade brand.  He and his team were pitching their new advertising plan for Minutemade Orange Drink to the CocaCola Chairman.  They had cans all printed up in military camouflage and a strong military tough enough to take it attitude.  They made their presentation and all seemed to be very satisfied with what they had created.  I being the somewhat pessimistic person thought it all through and felt the urge to ask the advertizing executive if with all the news at that time about Agent Orange and its connection to all the Vietnam veterans, did they not think that this would come off as a bit of a stab at them connecting their orange drink to a military theme.  The exec stood there looking at me as if I was from another planet.  He was quite for a bit and then said, We have worked on this for months, and your the first to make that connection.  I never saw that campaign.  I doubt it was my input, but maybe a better plan was put forward.  In that sense, I see way too much bad Church branding by Ministers with egos bigger than their ministry.  Enough said..Don

  2. Your branding info is good. We've been trying to impliment most of what you've said…the art of media is more business than anything.

  3. The 10 component of an effective brand are interesting and a great template to apply to any desired brand.  But the formulation of the brand needs to take place in a somewhat different context. 

    Frist thing to remember – brands happen!  Whether or not we control the development of a brand is our choice, but every ministry, every minister, every organization, every company has a brand.  It is inevitable.  All too often brands are allowed to develop randomly containing a hodge-podge of information – thereby negating the impact of a well constructed brand.

    Secondly, real brand are based on reality! You can't brand something to be something is it not.  Ultimately the facade will crumble and all integrity and brand confidence will be lost.

    Thirdly, effective brand development is hard work.  Components like brand personaility, brand attirbutes, etc, need to be clearly defined. THEN – the work begins.  Every aspect of the entity needs to highlight that brand.  Customer service mist reflect the brand; sales must reflect the brand; product quality must reflect the brand, communication devices must reflect the brand; all with consistency, harmony and unity.

    Then – – overlay your brand woth these 10 components to maximize it impact.

  4. Branding is hard for the church. They have to know their history, present identity and furure vision at the same time. They must discern the best of all these things and formulate from there. They must commit fully with their heart, time, resources and money. This is HARD for the church with its present structure (business model).

    Also, branding starts at home…

    What kind of God-brand do YOU represent at home, neighborhood or workplace.

    We are ALL marketing HIM.


  5. I don't see branding as positive or negative per se.  It simply is an extension of human psychology tied into identity and the desire of human beings to be part of something bigger than themselves.

    As such it doesn't bother me to talk about its impact in the Church.  The Church is part and parcel of that branding and identification.  At the highest level, the cross, the dove of the holy spirit, the flames of pentecost etc. when presented in a meaningful context serve as a vehicle to send a message and they have for centuries.  We may raise the level of sophistication in how we attempt to understand and manipulate this dynamic but the fact remains, it is part of our common human experience and identifications.

    I like the final comment where the brand transends to a way of life. 

    Maybe we're looking at it backwards?

    It is the at the highest level of Christian Identification and belief that descends to something as common as a brand to give it meaning and motivate people within to aspire to that lofty standard and when it is consistent and sincere, to attract those outside to become a part of something bigger than themselves.

  6. You're on to something significant Bart.  While most marketers look at it from the outside in – how faith is similar to branding, in my book "Branding Faith" I take the opposite approach.  The truth is, outside of family, the church is the original community, and branding has copied these techniques from religious faith.  The problem is – the church has lost it's story, and we've forgotten just how good we used to be at providing identity and meaning for people's lives.  We have to get that back.

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