Skye Jethani on “the identity-forming power of brands.”

Skye Jethani

Given the amount of traffic and comments my Chick-fil-A post received last week I asked my friend Skye Jethani if he’s be interested in contributing something to theme of branding and Christianity.  Skye is an editor at Christianity Today and has written extensively on these topics.  My thanks to him for contributing an excerpt from his excellent book, The Divine Commodity.  You can read more from Skye on his blog or in his latest book, With.

British entrepreneur Richard Branson opened his first Virgin record store on Oxford Street in London in 1971. Today the Virgin empire includes airlines, soft drinks, comic books, mobile phones, even wedding gowns and spacecraft. There are over 350 companies imprinted with the Virgin logo generating more than $20 billion in revenue. “In the beginning,” says Branson, “it was just about the business—now it’s about the brand.” “Branding is everything.”[1]

More than a name or logo, a brand is a manufactured idea that infiltrates the imagination. Colin Bates, a marking expert, says, “a brand is a collection of perception in the mind of the consumer.” As such, the goal of branding is not the development of an eye-catching logo. The goal of branding is to manipulate peoples’ minds so they involuntarily associate that logo with predetermined feelings, or as Nike states in its corporate mission statement: “To nurture relevant emotional ties between the Nike brand and consumer segments.” Nurturing emotional ties is not a process that targets the logical faculties of the brain. Instead, branding is a more artistic endeavor that relies heavily on the mind’s imaginative power.

The most successful brands have legitimated the notion that image is everything. The McDonalds brand, for example, has been so effectively imprinted onto our imaginations that a recent Stanford University study found carrots, milk, and apple juice tasted better to children when they were packaged in McDonald’s wrappers. Head of the research, Dr. Tom Robinson, said the children’s sense of taste was“physically altered by the branding.”[2] By creating emotional connections to the McDonald’s brand in children’s minds, advertisers have able to alter their perception of reality and their behavior. Given the choice, children will select the food served in a McDonald’s wrapper every time. This is why Bates says, “A brand is the most valuable real-estate in the world, a corner of the consumer’s mind.”[3]

Sir Richard Branson. Photo by Richard Burdett (cc).

When Sir Richard Branson says his business is “all about the brand” he means targeting a corner of the consumer’s mind and filling it with positive feelings about Virgin. Once this mental real-estate is occupied, the brand’s logo can be slapped on virtually anything and the consumer will be positively predisposed toward it. This represents a significant shift in the way businesses understand themselves. In the past winning a consumer’s money required developing a quality product that met a real need, but today companies are increasingly focused on a product’s branding rather than its substance. “This allows companies to produce cheaper and cheaper products under the same brand image, because people are buying the cachet, image, or identity associated with the brand as much as—or more than—the quality of the product itself.”[4] In other words, corporations have learned the value of selling the sizzle rather than the steak.

Consumerism has created a culture that values style over substance, image over reality, and perception over performance. Naomi Klein, in her fascinating book No Logo shows how this approach reached maturity by the 1990s. “’Brands, not products!’ became the rallying cry for a marketing renaissance led by a new breed of companies that saw themselves as ‘meaning brokers’ instead of product producers.”[5] Successful companies finally discovered what philosopher Jean Baudrillard had known for decades, “Consumption is a system of meaning.” We define our identity and express it through the brands we consume.

The most blatant example of branding-as-identity in recent memory is the popular Mac verses PC ad campaign produced by Apple. The commercials feature a trendy, comfortable young man who unpretentiously introduces himself with, “Hi, I’m a Mac.” Standing to his right is a pudgy, middle-age man in an outdated suit. He stiffly says, “I’m a PC.” The message could not be clearer. Purchasing the Apple brand means you are young, hip, and friendly. In the viewer’s imagination the message is not about computers but identity. Even Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, makes this mental leap when commenting about the ads in a Newsweek interview. He says, “I don’t think the over 90 percent of the [population] who use Windows PCs think of themselves as dullards, or the kind of klutzes that somebody is trying to say they are.”[6] Nothing in the commercials explicitly communicates PC users are dullards or klutzes, but that is the power of branding. It triggers the imaginative ability of the mind to make these associations automatically. Branding has allowed Apple to become a seller of identity and not merely computers.

The identity-forming power of brands means the act of shopping has immense significance in a consumer culture. As Benjamin Barber writes, “If brand name can shape or even stand in for identity, then to figure out ‘who you are’ you must decide where (and for what) you shop.”[7] This may explain why shopping is now the number one leisure activity for Americans. As we peruse the shopping mall we are not simply looking for a sweater, a computer, or a backpack—we are looking for ourselves. Shopping occupies a role in society that once belonged only to religion—the power to give meaning and construct identity. “To shop,” as Pete Ward observes, “is to seek for something beyond ourselves” and this desire “indicates a spiritual inclination in many of the everyday activities of shopping.”

The spiritual and religious importance of shopping in a consumer culture is not lost on marketers. Douglas Atkins, author of The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers, states plainly that, “Brands are the new religion.”[8] They “supply our modern metaphysics, imbuing the world with significance…Brands function as complete meaning systems.” Because brands have a power over us on par with religion Atkins believes “cults are a rich and legitimate source of insight for the creation of brand worship.”[9]

If brands are the new religion is the opposite also true? Has religion been reduced to a brand? The evidence suggests is has. Researchers are no longer able to differentiate the behaviors and values of self-identified Christians from non-Christians with one exception—what they buy. As total sales of religious products reaches $7 billion annually, it appears that God’s people are constructing and expressing their identity through the consumption of Christian branded products. As Mark Riddle observes, “Conversion in the US seems to mean we’ve exchanged some of our shopping at Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, and Borders for the Christian Bookstore down the street. We’ve taken our lack of purchasing control to God’s store, where we buy our office supplies in Jesus name.”[10]

WWJD bracelet. Photo by KrazyLegsKC

According to Pete Ward, the use of brands by Christians to construct identity accounts for the wild success of the WWJD bracelets. “For many of these younger teenagers identity is uniquely invested in the purchase and display of products. These products act as symbols within a wider meaning system. WWJD managed to incarnate Christ inside this fairly arid world, and it did so by commodification.”[11] Ward endorses Christian-branded products as a legitimate way to “incarnate Christ” in our culture. But based on this logic it appears the Apostle John got the opening words of his gospel wrong. The Word did not need to be made flesh; the Word (literally “logo” in Greek) simply needed to be branded onto popular merchandise. In a consumer culture “incarnating Christ” no longer carries an expectation of Christians loving God and their neighbors, but rather the perpetual consumption of Christian merchandise—music, books, t-shirts, gifts, and jewelry. A person’s identity as a Christian has less to do with internally transformed values, and more to do with externally displayed products.

Paralleling the corporate shift away from manufacturing goods to manufacturing brands, Christianity in North America has drifted from a faith of substance to a faith of perception. Consider how people select a church. Two generations ago when denominational loyalty was high, a church was chosen primarily based on the doctrinal beliefs it espoused. Today, the music style used in worship is the issue of paramount importance when choosing a church. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church, says, “Music may be the most influential factor in determining who your church reaches for Christ, and whether or not your church grows.”[12] Like Virgin, Nike, and Starbucks, the church has learned that success in a consumer culture has more to do with the packaging than the product.

This emphasis on style over substance is at work at the individual level as well. In a culture where people construct identity by consuming brands, we should not be surprised that Jesus-branded clothing lines are proliferating. 1in3Trinity is one example. Started by a former merchandising executive, the 1in3Trinity brand includes clothing for men and women as well as an energy drink “fused with the Fruit of the Spirit.” The company’s website says “The 1in3Trinity lifestyle brand of clothing and accessories is created to strengthen and sustain Christians in their walk.” And adds, “It’s not only about wearing your faith on your sleeve; it’s much more! It’s about living day to day, trying your best to be a great example of God’s love.”[13]

The marketing effort tells Christian consumers that branding oneself with 1in3Trinity merchandise is a way of both expressing and strengthening their inner Christian identity. But elsewhere on the website the company deconstructs the existence of any qualitative distinction between Christians and non-Christians. “We want to share with you what it means to us to be a Christian,” the company declares. “When we say ‘We’re a Christian,’ we are not shouting we are righteous. We are whispering we are lost…we are admitting we often fall like many and need Christ to pick us up….We are not claiming to be perfect… we are not ‘holier than thou.’ We are just simple sinners who received God’s gifts of love, grace and mercy.”[14]

Dallas Willard. Photo by Loren Kerns (cc).

The definition of a Christian espoused by the 1in3Trinity brand echoes a popular bumper sticker: Christians Aren’t Perfect, Just Forgiven. Responding to this sentiment Dallas Willard asks, “Just forgiven? And is that really all there is to being a Christian?.” Willard recognizes the insidious theology behind the slogan—a theology promoted by Consumer Christianity. “It says that you can have a faith in Christ that brings forgiveness, while in every other respect your life is no different from that of others who have no faith in Christ at all.”[15]

If being a Christian is not marked by a life of increasing righteousness, holiness, faithfulness, love, or justice, what does differentiate a follower of Christ from other people? Perhaps that is the point. If being a Christian involves no internal transformation than an external transformation will have to suffice—an external transformation provided by “lifestyle brands” like 1in3Trinity. Approaching Christianity as a brand explains why the majority of people who identify themselves as Christians live no differently than other Americans yet spend enormous amounts of money on Christian products. According to George Barna most church-goers have not adopted a biblical worldview, they have simply added a Jesus fish onto the bumper of their consumer identities. And like the products they purchase, the branded Christian’s identity will always be more about image than substance.

___________________________________
Excerpted with permission from The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity (Zondervan, 2009) by Skye Jethani.

1 Branson, Richard. “Sir Richard Branson,” Virgin. http://www.virgin.com
2 “Study: Food in McDonald’s wrapper tastes better to kids,” CNN.com, Aug 6, 2007
3 Bates, Colin. “Marketing Defintions: Brand.” Building Brands. http://www.buildingbrands.com.
4 Beaudoin, Tom. Consuming Faith. P.9
5 Naomi Klein, No Logo (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2000), 21.
6 Steven Levy, “Finally, Vista Makes Its Debut, Now What?,” Newsweek. Feb 3, 2007.
7 Benjamin R. Barber, Consumed (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007), p. 194.
8 Douglas Atkin, The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers (New York: Portfolio, 2004), p.xi.
9 Atkins, The Culting of Brands, p. 97.
10 Mark Riddle, “Rant #2-The Christian Bookstore,” Theooze.com, April 11, 2002, http://www .theooze.com/articles/article.cfm?id=300&page=1
11 Pete Ward, Liquid Church, p. 64
12 Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Church, p. 280.
13 “Brand,” 1in3Trinity website, http://www.1in3trinity.com/brand.html
14 “Fusing Faith into Fashion,” 1in3Trinity website, http://www.1in3trinity.com/about.html
15 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, (Harper San Francisco, 1998), p. 35-36.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

1 thought on “Skye Jethani on “the identity-forming power of brands.””

  1. The connection between branding and Christianity is an interesting topic. A few years ago I changed churches in part because it began to feel increasingly like the members were part of a Christian marketing program. Every guest speaker seemed to have just released a new book or guest musical artist a new recording that you could purchase at the bookstore. Lines of people in church waiting to get autographed copies of product just didn’t feel right to me.
    Seven billion dollars spent on Christian products seems like a lot of money but a least some of that money is spent on worthy purchases like the Bible or Skye’s books. It makes sense that it is mostly Christians buying these products considering you wouldn’t expect too many non believers to say subscribe to Christianity Today. I can also understand the idea that instead of buying Christian products the money could be more effectively used to actually help others in need.
    What intrigued me in the excerpt from the book is the connection you could make between branding and politics. Compare the seven million dollars spent on Christian products and the possibility of a 1 billion dollars being spent just on the presidential race. The money spent on elections is almost entirely about branding. Skye’s line that “consumerism has created a culture that values style over substance, image over reality and perception over performance” fits perfectly with the political campaigns run by both parties. It seems like politics and government are mostly about creating an image of solving problems vs. actually solving them. Many of us become loyal to a brand be it democrat or republican based on what we are lead to believe they stand for.
    I also think you could make an argument that government has has taken on the role of the Church for many. It even seems that many politicians use the language of Christianity to justify things like higher taxes to pay for social programs because taking care of those less fortunate is the biblical thing to do.

Comments are closed.