Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is Religion Buyological?

Last night I made a trip to a new Barnes and Noble that just opened up. As we drove up I told my friend, "It's like walking into the Coliseum," it was so big. The cashier I talked to said it's the biggest in Illinois. I'll say.

I intended to be in-and-out, but who was I kidding? It's a bookstore. At a table labeled "Thought Provoking," I picked up a book called Buyology. Groan, sure, but I'd say it's a pretty good title. The premise was the author used brain scan analysis to bring some understanding to consumer behavior.

Just before I put Buyology back on the table, chapter 6's subtitle caught my attention: "Faith, Religion, and Brands." Now I don't care much about consumer behavior, but I do have my opinions on church, religion, and marketing. I know, I'm very discreet about it. You would never know.

So I sat down and skimmed chapter 6. The author's argument was that religions and brands have a lot in common. I think his point was to show how strong, smashable brands can establish consumer loyalty almost religious-like fervor. He recalled a Steve Jobs product unveiling he witnessed that had characteristics of a religious gathering. For a brand, this is sort of brand loyalty is a good thing. It makes money.

He built his argument around some pillars, which he argued were true of both religions and brands. I think these are pretty self-evident, so I'll just list them without expanding too much.

A sense of belonging
A clear vision
Intent to exert power over enemies
Sensory appeal
A sense of grandeur/wonder

Unlike most of my posts, I don't have my opinion settled about this. I'm wondering what you think. Do you think the connections are valid? Do these similarities diminish the validity of religion or faith? If there are so many similarities between religions and brands, what distinguishes religion from brands? What does religion offer that brands don't (or can't), if anything? If there are no distinguishing marks for religion, what value is it?

I'm interested to hear your thoughts.


Laura said...

though i haven't read (or even heard of) this book, it seems to me that the similarities do not stem from the marketing in itself, but rather, the marketing stems from a religious basis. consumer behavior, for the most part, is triggered in a quest to fulfill a longing, whatever that longing might be. much of the brand loyalty you speak of, such as the mac revolution, seems to stem from this desire as well- for a sense of belonging, amongst other things. and in many instances, this desire for fulfillment is nothing more than a need for god. it seems to me that the validity of christianity, if nothing else, is strengthened by the similarity, simply because it proves the only lasting source of fulfillment. and until consumers find that source, they will continue to buy into the marketing schemes promising to provide it. and obviously, companies are going to use this to their advantage in hopes of establishing brand loyalty and cult followings. so doesn't it make sense to use faith-based principles as a groundwork for appealing to customers? just a thought.

Laura said...

ps. why are you reading dallas wedding planner??

Ben B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ben B said...

I wish I was the B&N talking to your right now. Here's 2 minutes worth of thought that can be summed up as: yes, American religion is buyological but that's not necessarily a good thing.
1. Evangelicals have always been brilliant at branding or Selling their religion. See Laurence Moore, Selling God (
2. I think its wise for Christians to separate the two as much as possible and I think "emerging Christians" are sort of trying to do this. This blog ( is obsessed with the topic.
3. Victorian Christians invented consumerism and branding in the late 1800s. Check out Leigh Eric Schmidt’s brilliant book, Consumer Rites (

Adam said...

Laura - I appreciate your insights, turning all the assumptions on their heads to argue that the evidence actually points in the opposite directions. But then we run into a few more questions.

Is Christianity simply selling the best product? And how is Christianity's product different/better if it is still within the "product" category? Doesn't salvation/redemption/Jesus/wholness/etc. transcend the "product" category? I'd like to think so, but maybe we're stuck with the marketing/consumer paradigm and have to reason within it. If Christianity's "product" does transcend the category, then how does it do so? In what ways?

I think you're analysis is right on from one vantage point. But these questions still taunt me.

Ben - I have too many books to read. A little BN discussion would be good. My questions to you are similar: How does Christianity's "product" transcend the category? Is there a better paradigm than the marketing/consumer one the author uses to talk about religion. Is there a better paradigm for thinking about these matters? Saying things like "I can buy into that" betray just how "invested" that paradigm is in our thinking. Let me out!