Are Brands Our New Religion?

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A recent study has given new meaning to the phrase “brand worship.”

According to a study published this month in Marketing Science, a research journal, consumers who don’t identify strongly with a religion are more likely to identify themselves with a brand instead and express some degree of brand loyalty.

“There is this incredibly strong and robust negative relationship between how religious people are and how they rely on brands,” said Gavan Fitzsimons, a marketing professor at Duke University and one of the lead researchers on this study.

Fitzsimons and his fellow researchers surveyed more than 1,000 consumers and found those who identified themselves as more religious tended to care less about whether they bought a name brand or not. For example, the researchers found that religious consumers were perfectly happy buying generic aspirin at CVS, while irreligious consumers gravitated more toward name brands like Tylenol.

“The non-religious are using brands to express not just their identity but also how they feel about themselves and their self worth,” Fitzsimons said. “This is particularly true in instances where others will see the brand.”

Fitzsimons, who used to be a practicing Irish Catholic, notes that a major aspect of religion is the feeling of community and being able to communicate to the world that you belong to a certain group of people and value a certain set of beliefs, often by attending religious services.

Now, instead of religious worship, many consumers buy Apple (Stock Quote: AAPL) products.

“When you don’t have religious services as part of your daily or weekly ritual, you will look elsewhere,” Fitzsimons said. “So these strong brands like Apple do make people feel like part of a society and community. You see all these other people talking on their iPhones and using their Macs, and you feel the sense that ‘they are with me.’”

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers also looked at data about the number of big brand stores like Apple and Macy’s in communities throughout the country and compared this to the number of religious congregations. Sure enough, they found that communities with fewer churches or synagogues tend to have more Apple stores.

So what effect might these findings have on the relationship between consumers and businesses?

For one thing, these findings prove the odd point that following a religion is actually a more cost-efficient way to live.

”Being religious would likely lead you to save a bit more money and be more frugal,” Fitzsimons noted, since those consumers are less likely to spend extra bucks for big name brands, not to mention the fact that religions usually preach frugality as one of their major tenets.

More than this though, this data could have an impact on the way businesses decide which markets to enter. According to Fitzsimons, brand managers may soon begin to factor in the religious makeup of a community when weighing the pros and cons of opening up a new store.

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