Holy Branding! Religion Gives Brand Immunity


Most marketers don’t count religious affiliation or degree of religiosity as key demographics, but a new study suggests perhaps they should. Makers of branded “self expression” items (such as logo apparel or designer sunglasses) in particular may find this segmentation useful.

According to a paper by Ron Shachar (Tel Aviv University and Duke) and co-authors from NYU and Duke, religious people, or even people temporarily in a religious frame of mind, find branded items less appealing than do less religious people. From the abstract of an early version of their paper, Brands: The Opiate of the Nonreligious Masses?:

First, the authors examine the relationship between religiosity and brand reliance in the U.S. at a macro level, using state level data. Next, they adopt a more micro-level analysis and examine the relationship between individual levels of religiosity and brand reliance using measures of behavior. The results of both studies suggest that non-religious consumers rely on brands to a much greater degree than do religious consumers, particularly when income is high. [Emphasis added.]

The work was published this month in Marketing Science. The authors suggest that retail merchandisers could skew sales away from national brands and toward their store brands by invoking subtle (or perhaps not subtle) religious cues in the store environment.

Brand marketers might find acting on this research a little more difficult; geographic differences in religiosity likely show up in more general sales data used to guide marketing decisions such as store locations. Micro-targeting less religious people would seem to be difficult.

Direct Marketing

One group that might be able to exploit this research is the direct marketing community which has great ability to micro-target customer segments. Lists could be enhanced with, say, religious affiliation or cross-referenced with donor lists. Customers that appeared to be religious might get a less brand-oriented catalog cover, say, than others. A clever marketer, I suppose, could also provide religious cues in a mailing piece offering unbranded “value” products. It’s hard to say how effective this would be, but direct marketers love to test new ways of boosting response. I hope at least one gives this a whirl!

  1. Gospel X says

    Is it possible that in the absence of religiosity people replace that loyalty with loyalty toward brands? It may be that religion is a brand loyalty that trumps all others, but it may also be that people in general wish to find allegiance with something – even if it’s just clothes.

  2. Steven H says

    This is interesting. Perhaps religion and spirituality give others a sense of morality, and they see corporate branding as somehow overindulgent and gluttonous.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I think you are on the right track, Steven. Most religions value self-denial, and that’s hardly compatible with the conspicuous consumption exhibited by buying brand-name products.


  3. Jonathan says

    Interesting post. Although, I can’t help but think of brands like Polo and their apparent affiliation with the wasp-like country club settings. Just one example of where the data might not reflect perceptions in brand culture.

  4. Roger Dooley says

    Jonathan, I’m not sure that being wasp-like involves religion much at all. Or did I miss your point?


  5. Chase Adams says

    @Jonathan What religion would you identify “country club” with?

    @Roger Wow.

    I agree that there is a very strong desire for fervently religious people to shy away from brands.

    Growing up, I:

    1) Lived in the South
    2) Went to a Baptist Church
    3) Was taught by the ministers in my Church that attaching yourself to something other than Christ (particularly spending money on expensive things) was bad

    As a youth, I considered myself counter-culture…so I wore GoodWill clothes.

    Flash forward…I still carry the same beliefs, but I find myself attracted to brands. I think ultimately, it boils down to how well a product is marketed and if I have money for it.

    I think in Christianity there’s a desire to be frugal and live a less than luxurious lifestyle. At the same time, there are a lot of people who are just as fervent for their faith as those Christians, and by Nike, P90X, Chevrolet, General Mills & Coach.

    Great article Roger! Thanks for sharing.

  6. Didztr says

    I was interested in with the mention of “particularly when income is high”. Could it be that the relationship between brand and religiosity should be rather interpreted as brand attraction and level of income?

    Would I be wrong to assume that there is a correlation between someone’s spirituality and level of income (and wrong I may be)? And if so can that be explained by Steven’s point?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I found the high income part interesting, too, Didztr, though I was a bit puzzled. One tends to assume that high income people are less religious, as suggested by the Christian gospel quote about it being easier for camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter Heaven. But perhaps rich people who are religious are more committed than others?


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