The gospel according to brands

Economist cover showing Steve Jobs as a messiah figure.
Economist cover showing Steve Jobs as a messiah figure.

Like many of my fellow Americans of Christian heritage, I celebrated Easter Sunday in a rather typical fashion: I attended church, helped with an Easter egg hunt on church grounds, ate a few too many candy eggs, enjoyed a nice meal with family and capped the day watching college basketball. (I’m happy that North Carolina, my pick for this year’s champion in one of my brackets, advanced to the Final Four last night.) If my activities on Easter are any indication, it’s clear that the meaning behind the big Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas was not always at the forefront of my observance of the holiday. For many of us, Easter and Christmas is more about spending time with loved ones than about the religious or spiritual aspects of these days.

But the ideas behind the story of Easter and Jesus’s resurrection — the ideas of rebirth, renewal, and the Big and Implausible Comeback — resonate in our culture.

Let’s take NCAA basketball as an example. Regardless of what you think of the Syracuse basketball program and Orange head coach Jim Boeheim, you have to admire the team’s perseverance against the odds in their journey to the Final Four this year. As a number 10 seed in their region, the team wasn’t expected to make it beyond the first or second round. Andy plenty of pundits questioned whether the Orange should have been invited to the tournament in the first place.

Yet here they are, just one win away from making it to the championship game. A team and coach reborn and poised for one of the biggest sports comebacks of all time.

It’s almost enough to make you forget about the Orange’s previous transgressions, For those who aren’t aware, Boeheim was suspended for nine games earlier this year and the team had to vacate 108 wins as a result of an NCAA investigation. This is hardly the image we conjure of a messiah figure in our culture.

Sports and religion have a lot in common: There are zealots among adherents of both.

The religion of brands

Brands, too, have a lot in common with religions, as this recent Harvard Business Review article describes. Author Utpal M. Dholakia, a marketing professor at Rice University, notes that in some sense, brands take on the characteristics of religion.

Consider the Big Comeback stories of Steve Jobs, the once rejected messiah figure of Apple who returned to save that company, or Jack Dorsey, another spurned leader who has returned to save the company he founded, Twitter (this comeback story is still being written). Dholakia points to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (journalism’s savior?) as yet another branding messiah figure. “Stories about the magnetic, larger-than-life founders of Amazon and Apple provide a rich mythology that draws consumers to these brands.”

But unlike the values and rituals of religions, brands’ values and rituals are “narrowly formulated, self-serving, and consumption-focused.” This makes brands a hollow shell of bona fide religions (but, in my view, very much like sports entertainment). In addition, brands “usually have little to offer beyond the boundaries of their products and services” (also like sports entertainment).

Dholakia is focusing on the essence of business brands, not the brands of colleges and universities. Higher education holds a more noble and high-minded purpose. We’re not about products and services. Or so we like to think.

What brands and religions have in common

Regardless of whether your brand is all about making money or about educating people to be better citizens, chances are your brand has these three things in common with religious belief systems. And savvy marketers should take note.

According to Dholakia, all brands and religions have:

  • Core beliefs and values. Whether codified in a strategic plan’s “mission, vision and values” statement or represented by a tagline in your student recruitment marketing, every brand has some set of values it expresses in hopes of attracting those whose values align.
  • Symbols, myths and rituals. Higher education possesses a multitude of rituals to mark rites of passage: convocation, commencement, signing day and spring break are just a few.
  • Relationships with members of a like-minded community. After our students graduate, our alumni associations work to keep the ties between graduates and the alma mater strong, and we host events to reconnect with members of our “university family” all across the world.

Perhaps it is natural that institutions of all types — from religions to businesses to colleges to sports teams — embrace aspects of religious belief systems. After all, Dholakia points out, “Organized religion has shaped virtually every aspect of human behavior for thousands of years.” Religion has been a part of the human condition for a long time. And our efforts to “market” our colleges and universities may not be so far removed from the evangelist’s calling to “spread the good news.”

In higher education, our core beliefs, values, symbols, rituals and relationships with members of like-minded communities define us. They are the essence of our collective and distinctive brands. And they aren’t too far removed from those of religious institutions. That makes sense, since our colleges and universities sprung forth from religious roots. Like our approach to the holidays of Easter and Christmas, however, how we see higher education has changed over time. But the roots and influence of religious belief systems remain.

Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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