A few years back, an Australian teenager with an unusual surname submitted his bare neck to a plastic surgeon’s laser. The doctor worked carefully, slowly eradicating the tattoo of a striped bar code with the letters G-U-C-C-I etched underneath. An hour later, the tattoo was history, and so was Will Andries Petrus Booye’s brand-obsession, one that had become, in his words, “My one and only religion.”
I first met Will in the late 1990s, back when the ink on his tattoo was still wet. For Will, Gucci was companion, confidante, soul mate, hero, mirror image, and friend with benefits combined. When asked, he could go on at length about the company’s designs, colors, and textures, as well as about the distinctive smell of the stores. Entering the Gucci flagship, he told me, was like coming home. From the store design to the overhead music playing overhead to the uninterrupted luxury of the place, everything Gucci put Will completely at ease. And of course, the brand’s sheer exclusivity made him feel like a member of a small, choice, like-minded club.
Fast-forward five years. Almost overnight, the Gucci brand lost its grip on Will. Suddenly the thrill was gone. So what do you do when you break up with your soul mate, your reason for living? You get a haircut, and you lose the tattoo. Some people even join the military. Will did all three.
To me it was fairly obvious: He’d lost his religion.
In fact, I devoted a whole chapter of my 2007 book, Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy to this very same subject. The similarities between the world’s great religions and some of the world’s most renowned brands has been one of my passions ever since I stumbled onto Bangkok’s Pariwas temple nearly a decade ago. There I found myself confronted with an extraordinary-looking Buddha. The Buddha was compelling in part because of the modern-day company he kept. Carved into the altar below his form, alongside several other less well-known deities, stood a resplendent gold-leaf statue of mop-haired soccer icon David Beckham. This wasn’t a case of vandalism, or sacrilege; a Thai sculptor had created the carving in 1998 as part of the World Cup celebrations. Said Chan Theerapunyo, the temple’s abbot, “Football has become a religion, and has millions of followers. So to be up to date, we have to open our minds and share the feelings of millions of people who admire Beckham.”
The Thai people are far from alone here. Pay a visit to India, and you’ll find that the local Bollywood film scene has spawned an entire celebrity-obsessed generation, so much so that you will find countless temples built or sponsored by Indian celebrities to honor or worship their own graven images.
If Hindis and Buddhists are willing to bend the rules of religion to cater to our worldwide celebrity obsession, wouldn’t it follow that brands might be next in line?
The short answer is yes. So in 2007, I carried out a scientific research study testing 32 volunteers. By using an FMRI to scan their brains, I found that religious imagery not only stimulates the same regions of the human brains as an iPod or the Apple logo does, but that a handful of other global brands, from Hello Kitty to Harley Davidson to Guinness, also ignites these same “God spots.”
Notice I said handful (I unearthed only a half-dozen examples in all). In the weeks, months, and years following the study, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why doesn’t every brand in the world pursue this tactic? Wouldn’t it be the ultimate behind-closed-doors strategy? Think about it: a campaign that makes your customers so preoccupied with your brand that they camp out overnight in sleeping bags in anticipation of a new release, cannot be rationally argued with, and are so blindly smitten that in one case, an adolescent boy gets a bar code tattooed on his neck?
Problem is, the way 99% of companies manage most brands is entirely, thuddingly, concretely … rational. They focus on consumer awareness. They ask consumers about a brand’s benefits, attributes, and functionality. Can you imagine trying to explain why you “love” one religion over another? Why do you love your old college or school? For that matter, why do you love your spouse or partner? Bet you have no rational explanation whatsoever.
As any religious devotee knows, it’s not about the church, the minister, the congregation, the sound of the bells, or the old-wood smell of the pews. Belief isn’t rational. It’s about a lot of things: our intermingled senses; our desire to lead a simpler life; our relationship with ourselves; our need to belong to a community, to feel as though we’re not just drifting in space. And that’s just for starters. Placing your faith in something or someone may be fanciful, and out-of-vogue among the smart set, but I’ve long believed that creating belief is essential to brand-building.
In light of the recent BBC study, what I wrote about in 2007 certainly bears repeating: The successful brands of the future will offer consumers the same ingredients that the world’s great religions serve up, including mystery, powerful storytelling, sensory appeal, and a sense of belonging. They will have an enemy (think Coke versus Pepsi, MasterCard versus Visa, or even Harvard versus Yale). They will create a constellation of their own icons, rituals, and in some cases, branded language. They will inspire church-like evangelism in their users, hey, maybe even a sleeping bag or two.
Obviously, as Apple’s market cap shows, consumers are more than ready to throw rationality aside and believe. As for companies, the only thing I can do is say a little prayer.
Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine’s “World’s 100 Most Influential People” and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, will be released in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.