How Apple, Others Have Cultivated Religious Followings

Nine Components That Powerfully Engaging Brands Share With Religion

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Martin Lindstrom
Martin Lindstrom
Mark couldn't wait. Thoughts of it had kept him awake nights. He'd spent most days preparing for the big day. And it had cost him his entire fortune. It was the opening of the Apple Store in Sydney, Australia.

He had flown 15 hours from his hometown of Palo Alto, Calif., and camped out overnight to be near the head of the line of 4,000 people. And this wasn't the first time he had gone to such lengths. He'd also flown to Tokyo for the opening of the Apple Store there. But Sydney was Apple's 40th store, so Mark was sharing a special anniversary with the brand he loved. What did he expect to get out of it? "A T-shirt," he said.

Coincidentally, the opening took place a week before the Catholic Church's World Youth Day and the arrival of Pope Benedict. If you had just landed on Earth, with no idea of what humans worship, you might easily have drawn comparisons between the thousands of Apple fans and the thousands of Catholics who converged on Sydney.

Having spent years talking with brand fans -- from obsessed Harley-Davidson riders to devoted Guinness drinkers to young Hello Kitty admirers (one of whom owns more than 12,000 pieces of Hello Kitty merchandise) -- I've been struck by the power brands have over their followers. But can the apparent parallels between brands and religion possibly hold up? Have some brands actually managed to create their own religions by, coincidentally or deliberately, adopting triggers and tactics from the world of religion?

Martin Lindstrom author of five books, including the recent best-seller "Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy," based on a three-year, $7 million neuromarketing study. For more of his findings, see the CMO Strategy section.
To find out, I partnered with neuroscientists, who used MRI to compare the brain activity of devout Christians to that of brand fans. It turned out that brand iconography activated the same region in the brains of fans that was activated in the brains of Christians when they were exposed to faith-related triggers. But that was the case only with emotionally powerful brands such as Apple, Harley and Guinness. Brands not among that rarified group, such as BP and KFC, provoked less activity and engaged fewer regions of the brain than brands with dedicated fan bases.

What is it that sets these emotionally engaging brands apart? As part of the study, we also interviewed 14 religious leaders from across the world to establish the components of a powerful religion -- and a powerfully engaging brand.


This is the cornerstone of religion. It can inspire great action and firm conviction. To see how this translates into branding, take L'Oréal's mission: "We sell hope." Then there's Apple's 1982 brand vision: "Man is the creator of change in this world. As such he should be above systems and structures, and not subordinate to them." These companies' visions drive them and guide them.


What do Tupperware, Harley-Davidson, Lego and Apple have in common? They're all based on communities. Considering Lego's considerable brand equity, you might expect that the company's marketing budget would count in the billions. Not so. In fact, it is so modest that if I recorded it here, you'd probably think it was a typo. Lego doesn't do the talking. It lets Lego maniacs do it instead.


Imagine Pepsi without Coke. Impossible, right? A competitor is a valuable foil that unites a company from within and pushes the brand's boundaries. The enemy shapes the brand.


If you were to close your eyes and walk into a place of worship, the sounds and smells would still tell you where you were: ringing bells, incense, the rumble of a massive organ. Most brands are lacking here. Visit any supermarket or retail chain, and you'll struggle to experience any sensory stimulus, other than visual, that tells you, uniquely, where you are.


The world's holy texts are built on oral traditions. Storytelling has driven faith and religious practice, keeping them alive for millennia. Just as every hymn and window in a church is linked to an all-embracing story, brands have the potential to build holistic identities.


It's all about thinking big -- really big. Cathedrals are massive in scale. This attribute is particularly relevant for brands and perhaps more accessible than other religion-related characteristics. Think about the Fifth Avenue Apple Store in New York, the latest Prada store in Tokyo or Burj Al Arab, the world's first seven-star hotel.


This phenomenon has lived for centuries and now takes place via chat rooms and viral videos. Word-of-mouth is powerful, trusted and cheap. Brands must make use of the inclination of consumers to be persuaded by friends. Brazilian cosmetics brand Natura deploys a direct-sales force of more than 718,000 to win converts. Just by knocking on doors, it has established a vibrant network of brand supporters.


Imagine a smashed stained-glass window, a page loosed from a Bible, a snippet of choral singing. Would you recognize where they came from? Most likely. Few brands, however, reflect this consistency. Not many can be recognized without their logos. Examine an iPod, and you'll have problems finding the Apple logo. Yet its design is so in tune with the brand's identity and so unambiguously original that you know an iPod when you see and feel it. (For more on going beyond the logo, see my article last week in CMO Strategy.)


Rituals build brands. The act of placing a wedge of lime in the neck of a Corona bottle helps sell those beers. And where did it come from? As one story goes, it was invented by two bartenders in California to see how fast a ritual could spread.
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