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What Brands Can Learn from Religion

Graeme Douglas, Group Chief Strategy Officer at Havas, Discusses How Religion Can Serve as a Blueprint for Brands

In this excerpt from What is a 21st Century Brand? Graeme Douglas, Group Chief Strategy Officer at Havas, discusses what brands can learn from religion.

Religions, regardless of when and how they formed, all have universal commonalities that create ‘the experience’ for the adherent or devotee. As we begin to explore exactly what brands can learn from religion, we need to understand what these universalities are and what their role is within the overall religious framework. The core elements are

  • Leadership
  • Sacred text (containing either God’s word and/or a set of guidelines to live by)
  • Semiotics (iconography and symbolism)
  • Ritual
  • Myth
  • Community


The concept of leadership – be it guidance from an inspired mortal or the recorded word of a deity – is central to any entity that purports to be a religious organization. From the anthropological curios of south pacific cargo cults (ranging from the worship of the enigmatic ‘John Frum’ through to the slightly more familiar Prince Philip), to the major Abrahamic religions (in their worship of one God), every faith system ever recorded has had one or more figures of perceived divine ordinance whose word forms the very ethos of the movement.

There is a multitude of positions of ‘leadership’ in an organized religion. There is almost always a god or god-like figure (or in the case of polytheistic faiths, more than one god), but beneath this, there are often sacred prophets or apostles, who hold a semi-divine position, right through to living representatives of the religion who hold a position of authority.

The idea of a business person or company representative as a type of ‘divine leader’ has a long heritage in brands and marketing. The archetypal examples are of course Richard Branson and the late Steve Jobs, of Virgin and Apple respectively. They are physical embodiments of their brand, their companies infused with their own personality and ethos. Inspiring, passionate, seemingly benevolent and often, amazing considering the personal wealth of both, with a whiff of the underdog about them, both with evangelism skills outstripping the vast majority of religious preachers.

It could also be argued, however, that the position of commercial ‘god’ need not be a person. If the aura around a brand is strong enough (or could be built to be so), it is entirely possible for the brand itself to assume this role. Think for a moment about Nike. Although many could claim Nike to be akin to a ‘religion’ (and indeed, they may be correct), could it also not be as accurately described as a god? If the role of a ‘leader’ in religion is to provide focus, guidance and inspiration, isn’t this exactly what Nike offers amateur sportsmen around the globe, through their passion for running, technology to aid the athlete, and events such as Run London?

The criteria for success here is that the brand has something to stand for, an issue that is both relevant and motivating, and one that the brand can credibly link with. If achievable and delivered effectively, the common issue can provide a strong focal point which, if realized across other areas of the business, could certainly assume a position of ‘leadership’.

Sacred Text

A sacred text is often central to the culture and philosophy of a religion. From the Torah in Judaism through to the Scientologist Dianetics, the axioms by which adherents live their lives are captured within a core set of writings that usually have their roots in the leader or ancient founders of the movement.

As well as the words and principles of the sacred text being revered by adherents, often physical manifestations of the text will also hold a sacrosanct position within the religion; for example, worn-out copies of the Qur’an will be respectfully burnt or buried by Muslims, rather than simply discarded or recycled as one may do with other books.

It is the role of the sacred text (and what it contains) that is important to us in this context. All religions must provide a set of guidelines by which an adherent will – to a greater or lesser extent – live their life. While many will veer away from the path from time to time, or choose to interpret the often ancient words within a modern or liberal context, the guidelines will still remain an important structural element of any religious organization.
As mentioned earlier, the concept of ‘brands as a set of ideas to live by’ suggests that perhaps these ideas should be recorded somewhere, in a way perhaps that the great religious texts record their dictum. Unusual and odd as it may seem for brands to physically script how their users should lead their lives (something that would seem slightly incongruous with the world of the modern, liberated and empowered consumer), the concept of adopting a certain tone of voice, and conveying a set of values in their communication, is certainly something brands do on a regular basis. To go back to virgin, their communications are usually quite explicit in conveying the essence of the brand, traits that reflect the public personality of their god, Branson. By, in effect, communicating ‘The Word of Branson’ (albeit indirectly) through their brand communication (at every level – PR, advertising, point-of-sale) one could argue that every piece of messaging that Virgin Enterprises runs is consistent with the idea of a sacred text.

To learn more about the other core elements and how they relate to branding and advertising read What is a 21st Century Brand?