3 Tips to Turn Your Brand Into a Religion
The 21st-century evangelists embrace brands like religions. The brand supplies a life-changing system of attitudes, beliefs and practices, and the evangelists begin to organize their lives around the brand.
Just as "born-again" religions spark a spiritual rebirth for followers, the "brand-again" business recreates a person's identity -- and not by accident. It's a strategy that brands can emulate.
Emotion over function
Most brands try to bind customers through auto-renewing subscriptions, freemium models and annoying email blasts. But, once people convert to a powerful brand, nothing can stop them from buying again. In fact, they refuse alternatives. Why?
The evangelical brand doesn't win on function. Beats headphones are not the most functional ones you can buy for $300 (I know, because I was CEO of Skullcandy before Traeger Grills). However, teenagers with minimal income still scrape together money for a pair of Beats.
If we view brands like religions, the nonsense makes sense. No one functionally compares religions. We stay in a faith or choose one because we identify with its culture. No other system fits. Brand communities, like religious ones, bind the flock emotionally. Both connect individuals around a shared purpose, beliefs, and values that defy logic.
The binding is biological. When neuroscientists ran MRI tests on Apple fans, images of Apple gadgets triggered the same parts of the brain that fire when religious people see images of their gods. But, why? What makes a brand-again business so compelling?
Religions are revolutionary. Modern brands, likewise, rebel to prove they have the ultimate Millennial value: authenticity.
Rebellion establishes authenticity because it shows you're willing to risk your life (or reputation and money) on values. Questioning norms and challenging authority leads to conflict. If you're willing to fight as an underdog, your mission must be authentic.
Evangelical brands are revolutionary. Steve Jobs rebelled against Microsoft. After he was kicked out of Apple, he rose from the dead to redeem the company. Elon Musk is subverting the all-powerful oil industry in his quest for sustainable civilization.
Rebellious brands reject the norms of their industry. Through a product or service, they invite customers to participate in the rebellion. During Apple's revival in the 2000s, followers rejected the PC empire and stood for the individualism captured in Apple's slogan: Think different.
When driving a Tesla, one stands against the oil-industrial complex and for a sustainable future. Brand rebellions, like religions, create in-groups and out-groups.
You can build your own evangelical businesses deliberately. While the approach below is better suited for newer companies, if you've stepped into an older company with a regressive culture, these steps still work.
- Rebel by standing for something. Don't just hate the powers that be. Stand for a vision incompatible with their power. CrossFit, love it or hate it, rebelled against conventional gyms, which it deemed "globo gyms" after the fitness center in the movie DodgeBall. The brand stood for functional movements, natural eating and puke-your-guts-out perseverance. It developed rituals, symbols and language (WOD, AMRAP, EMOM, etc.) to bind the community. To the in-group, it's the right way to train. To the out-group, it's cultish.
- Ground your rebellion in values expressed through rituals. Customers must absorb and live the brand's values by participating in rituals -- the repeatable, shared experiences of a religious or brand community. Cotopaxi, a Utah-based outdoor gear brand, has mastered ritual (Disclosure: I am a board member). Every week, in cities around the U.S., people participate in Cotopaxi Questival, a 24-hour race. They complete quests in outdoor adventure, quirky fun (duel a cop with a banana), culture and community service all while documenting their exploits on social media. The ritual makes people co-revolutionaries in Cotopaxi's mission to "fund sustainable poverty alleviation, move people to do good and inspire adventure."
- Grow only as fast as your values permit. The evangelical brand takes discipline. Notice how In-N-Out Burger has grown slowly despite immense demand. Unwavering commitment to fresh food has checked its expansion. In-N-Out restaurants have no freezers or microwaves, so each one must be within 300 miles of a distribution center. Violating that rule would undermine the brand's values and discredit the rebellion. Growth for growth's sake disillusions the faithful.
Brand evangelists spread the word for unreasonable reasons. Emotion overrides function. In-group identity supersedes ease and convenience.
Sustaining the rebellion is harder than starting it. If you accidentally "win" the rebellion, start a new one. If you become the power you once fought against -- and you start trying to suppress the next rebels -- it's game over.
Don't outgrow your values.