Gavan Fitzsimons: Are consumer brands replacing religion?

The marketing of brands has become so sophisticated that they can replace religious institutions by giving people a sense of community, identity and self-expression, says a consumer psychologist. This is a cautionary tale for Christian leaders seeking to grow the church.

Could those Tory Burch sandals be undermining your faith in God? Although most believers would adamantly deny it, recent studies indicate that they could well be.

FitzsimonsWorking with three other researchers, Gavan Fitzsimons of Duke University has conducted experiments to test the premise that brands and religiosity are good substitutes for one another because both allow individuals to express their feelings of self‐worth.

What they’ve found indicates that religiosity tends to reduce reliance on brands -- and that the reverse is also true: a focus on brands tends to reduce people’s reliance on religion.

“I think it’s certainly fair to say that we can shake or reduce their belief in God by activating brand,” Fitzsimons said.

“For eons, organized religion has provided a sense of community, has provided a way to say who we are to others, has provided a source of meaning in the world,” he said. “Brands, as they have evolved, have just moved into that exact same space with those exact same functions.”

Fitzsimons is the R. David Thomas Professor of Marketing and Psychology at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. He is a co-author of a study that looked at the connection between brands and religion.

He spoke to Faith & Leadership about the study, as well as newer research on the same topic. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You conducted this study with researchers who are Christian, Jewish and Muslim. I have to say, it sounds like the beginning of a joke. How did that come about?

It always sounds like a joke. That’s the setup. So the research team, there are four of us. We were at a conference, at a cocktail party, reception or something like that. We started chatting about our different religious backgrounds, because we’re all from different parts of the world.

I was born in Ireland, and I grew up Irish Catholic. Keisha M. Cutright was born in the U.S. and grew up African-American Baptist, and then we had an Israeli Jew [Ron Shachar] and a Turkish Muslim [Tülin Erdem]. So the four of us, several of us who have been friends for many, many years, were chatting about what our different religious backgrounds had meant to us as kids, and the commonalities and similarities.

We started talking about things like providing a sense of community and providing a means of self-expression to say who you were to other people, a sense of self-worth in the world, all these kinds of things.

And then at one point one of us said -- we were all marketing professors -- and one of us said, “It sounds as if we’re talking about brands.”

Because, of course, as brands have evolved over the last 100 years, it’s become more central to our sense of self. They’re our way to signal to others who we are and to self-express. They’ve provided a sense of community. Even when you’re alone, you have your brand community to feel a part of.

That was what prompted the initial idea for us to explore this relationship between religion and the degree to which we rely on brands in our lives.

Q: Well, I know to marketing professors this is fascinating, but it might be fascinating and horrifying to religious leaders.

Well, trust me: it’s fascinating and horrifying to those of us that are marketing professors as well.

So we looked to see whether “activating” religion led people to rely more or less on brands.

We would ask people to tell us a story about what religion means to them in their lives or to tell us a story about what a different community organization might mean in their lives. So in one case, we “activated” religion versus a control condition.

Then we put them in a situation where they made a series of choices between a store-brand -- like a CVS-brand -- product and a national-brand product. So we would have them choose a drugstore brand of sunglasses versus a fancy, I don’t know, Ralph Lauren pair of sunglasses or something like that.

When we activated religion in a controlled lab setting, it led people to rely less on brands than they otherwise would. As religiosity goes up, brand reliance goes down.

That’s the gist of the first piece of work, and I think if that was where we’d stopped, it would be quite interesting, but maybe not quite as scary, and you can come up with many explanations for why that might be the case.

So that’s part A of the story. Part B of the story is, given that this correlation was very negative, we started to ask ourselves whether it might not be the case that it could function in the opposite direction, and that’s the whole new line of work that we’ve been doing.

So what we do is instead of activating religion and looking at brand reliance, we flip it. We activate brand and look at people’s religious beliefs.

We bring them into the lab, and we have some describe their favorite brands and others describe their favorite number -- just something random that would not be related to brands at all but that they also liked.

What we find is that when we activate brand versus activating some other neutral concept, people’s belief that attending religious services on the weekend is important goes down pretty dramatically. Even belief in a higher, controlling god goes down dramatically.

Statistically, it is unbelievably robust. It shows up over and over and over again. The stats all show that it is not just small change. It is a large change that’s statistically significant, and we’ve replicated it now, I would say, I bet 10 to 12 times with different populations, different samples from regions of the country, etc.

Q: So you can stop people from believing in God?

I wouldn’t say stop. But I think it’s certainly fair to say that we can shake or reduce their belief in God by activating brand.

We certainly don’t think that this is happening at a conscious level. In fact, anytime you suggest this to people, people get vehemently opposed to the notion that this could be the case, that their faith in God could be shaken by thinking about brands.

But basically, the idea behind it is that they’re both serving the same function. For eons, organized religion has provided a sense of community, has provided a way to say who we are to others, has provided a source of meaning in the world.

Brands, as they have evolved, have just moved into that exact same space with those exact same functions. So if that need is getting fulfilled through brands, it means that we don’t need religion nearly as much to do so.

As a function of that, people don’t think it’s as important to go to services, and it even reduces their belief that there is a higher power looking over us.

Q: So you’re saying that brands can replace the social and psychological function of religion?

I wouldn’t say replace, but they certainly are fulfilling those same social and psychological needs. I don’t think that for most people they’ve replaced them, but they certainly, at times, are able to reduce people’s need to meet those social and psychological needs through religion. They use brands instead, even if they’re not consciously aware they’re doing it.

Q: Can church leaders use your findings?

I hope so. I think it’s one thing for a minister to stand up in front of a congregation and say, “You know, this whole secularization of society and brands becoming the new reality is bad.”

It’s another to say, “There’s some real interesting research that’s coming out of Duke University now that shows that if you are relying heavily on brands in your life, it’s going to potentially shake your belief in God.”

Many folks might like to say, “Can’t we just go back to a world where brands aren’t playing this incredibly important role in people’s lives?” I’m old enough to remember [when] Sunday was a day of rest, and there were no stores open, and there were no Little League games. It was about going to church and hanging out with your family. That was probably a pretty good thing for society, but that’s gone, and as near as I can tell, that’ll never come back.

The other thing I think could hopefully come of this is -- There’s been a movement toward an embracing of brands by organized religion. You’ve seen more and more acceptance of, for example, Starbucks coffee served in the back after church. I think this research would suggest that we should be really, really careful about doing that, because, literally, going and picking up that Starbucks coffee after church might reduce the likelihood that you’re going to come back to church the next Sunday.

It’s not hard to imagine that people don’t want to believe it, that this is a real effect. But if you can get people aware that it’s there, I think it might get people to rethink the role of their religious institution versus their brands in their lives.

Which I think would be a healthy exercise for just about everybody to go through.

Q: If religion is so easily replaced by a brand, is there something that religious leaders need to do differently to fulfill people’s needs?

I’m not sure that research necessarily sheds a light on it. I have my opinion, which is that the challenge for religious leaders is that brands have taken a philosophy -- which we promote as marketers -- of understanding customers’ needs and delivering what it is that they are looking for.

For example, I love my Diet Coke. With Diet Coke, they know exactly what I’m looking for and they strive to perfectly meet my needs.

In traditional religious organizations, there’s what we would call in marketing the opposite of a customer orientation.

I’m just remembering back to my own childhood: “We know what’s good for you. You just don’t worry about it. Don’t be asking too many questions. Just do what you’re supposed to be doing here, and all will be revealed in time.” Literally, I remember that.

That’s very different from Diet Coke giving me exactly what I want today.

I think that’s one of the biggest challenges. Now, I don’t have the answer, but I think you can even see [religious] organizations that have rich, long histories struggling because some of the newer churches are coming in and taking a very “customer-oriented” view.

It’s like, “Oh, you want a child care center in the church? No problem. You’d like a youth ministry in the church? No problem. We’ll give you exactly what it is that you’re looking for.” That approach is more of a brand type of approach.

Q: I suspect that many religious leaders would disagree with that and even say that the church should be the opposite of that -- that it should be an alternative to this world.

And in many ways, they’re absolutely right that it should be an alternative to this world. The problem is, as soon as you take that position, there are going to be people that choose the brand way, the customer-oriented way. If I’m a religious leader, now I start to get nervous.

It’s a very interesting and difficult philosophical question, and I guess, at this point, I’m happy to be the consumer psychologist and not the religious leader.

Q: Perhaps brands can fulfill a need for community and identity, but what about faith? Presumably, people are not literally worshipping those products, but they’re …

Let’s hope not, right?

Q: … fulfilling some of the ancillary benefits of being part of a congregation. But what about the spiritual core?

Yes, the true spiritual connection to the higher power. Obviously, brands are not doing that, and I think at least that we’re safe on that front.

The trouble is, I think that those secondary benefits, the sense of community, are the ways traditionally that churches have brought people into the pews. And once you’re there, it starts you on a path to that higher connection.

Q: Do you have future research you want to do?

Yes. One of the things that we realize is a limitation is that much of the work we’ve done so far has been with U.S. participants, and predominately Christian participants. We don’t have the sample sizes there to be confident that it’s going to hold up in different religions, and so we’re now starting to run [experiments] and collect data in different parts of the world, where other religions are the predominant religions.