Is Your Brand a Cult?

Bad reasons for brand loyalty.

Posted Oct 26, 2011

In the PBS Frontline program, "The Persuaders," there is an interesting analysis of the similarities between the reasons people "join" a brand and the reasons they join a cult. Some in the advertising industry have studied cults, and applied some of what they've learned to advertising strategies. One thing that both have in common is that they try to bypass reason in order to get people to behave in the desired manner.

In the segment of the show on the tactic of "emotional branding," Naomi Klein points out that traditionally the human desires for narrative, community, and transcendence were fulfilled in institutions like schools and churches. We want our lives to make sense, to be a part of some larger story which gives us a sense of meaning and purpose and confers a particular identity on us. We also long for connections with other people. And we desire transcendence, often finding it in some sort of spiritual practice or faith.

Klein points out that advertisers capitalize on this by trying to associate their product with our needs for narrative, community, and transcendence. And she observes that it is, in many ways, ridiculous.

Nike wants us to associate its shoes with the transcendence of sport. Starbucks is a "third place" for community, alongside home and the workplace. And Mac users "get it," they know something which makes them superior to non-Mac-users.

But Klein is right. At the end of the day, your shoes are just running shoes, and your laptop is just a computer. They aren't able to confer an identity or give your life meaning. This is a good thing, too. Not for you, but for these companies, because it means that you'll need to go shopping again.

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