Blockbuster branding lessons from religion

By examining the way in which religion works, brands can learn how to acquire followers, retain disciples and build deep, lasting, meaningful bonds, writes Karl Treacher.


I grew up in a church. My father, Don, was a Christian minister. Like most ‘families of the cloth’, we basically had no cash, and I spent many years confused as to why my dad went to work on Sundays wearing what I thought was a dress (his preaching robe). I figured that if he only worked one day a week (and did so as a cross-dresser) then we deserved to be poor.

At age seven I decided that religion was too much of a distraction from backyard cricket, so I gave it up. Despite not being actively involved in the church from that moment forward, I did manage to learn a great deal about faith, loyalty and building citizenship in the name of a set of beliefs. Yes… the holy grail of brand activity.

So, as these principles are hardwired into my psyche, I thought I’d share them with those of you who were lucky enough not to wake up every Sunday morning to a group of old people belting out ‘Alas And Did My Saviour Bleed’.

Religion is blockbuster branding.

Be it Krishna, Buddha, Abraham, Jesus or Mohammed, these people began something amazing. Millions of people talk about them, wear things that represent them, insist their children also pledge allegiance to them and, unfortunately, even kill other people in misconstrued faith for them. By examining the way in which religion works, brands can learn how to acquire followers (known more commonly as ‘customers’), retain disciples (advocates) and build deep, lasting, meaningful bonds.


All religions tell a terrific story

A brand must have a story behind it. Moses was found in the reeds, and as a man he parted a sea to help his followers escape. Now that’s a good tale! Henry Ford at 40 started a corporation that built the very first mass-produced automobile, despite being told that nobody wanted anything other than horses. A brand story is critical in establishing authenticity and in satisfying a key consumer question: ‘How did this brand start?’

Many brands don’t spend enough time developing and reciting the story of their birth. It’s this story that builds a deep sense of purpose and legitimacy. Imagine Apple without Steve Jobs, or Virgin without Richard Branson’s story. Have your story well-crafted and readily accessible for anyone interested: customers, employees, shareholders… anyone.


Signs and symbols

In the time it takes me to write this article, 2000 people worldwide will have had a crucifix or yin yang tattooed on their body. [Ed’s note: made-up-statistic alert.] Brand symbolism is an area of branding that receives much attention. From ‘Logos for Dummies’ to Naomi Klein’s best-seller No Logo, the visual identity of a brand is one of the first things that marketers think of… and rightly so. More than 65 percent of people respond best to visual stimulation. This figure is increasing due to technology and visual learning tools being used more and more in human infancy.

But let’s get one thing straight: the purpose of a logo is to trigger a set of cognitive and emotional responses, relating to either prior experience or the promise of a future experience.

(Here’s some trivia to lighten the mood. Interestingly, logo shape and colour biases have been found to be generation specific, which means that while baby boomers love your new logo, millennials may well have a different view.)

In recent years, organisations have spent millions on establishing their visual identity. BHP Billiton reportedly spent $4 million perfecting its ‘blobs’ and BP paid almost double that for its ‘green sun’. There’s no need to bankrupt your brand to fund a new logo, but do spend resources defining the logo that best resonates authentically with your market position.


Language and jargon

The Buddhist talks about enlightenment and rebirth, the Christian, Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, and ‘reincarnation’ is a central belief of those of the Hindu faith. All religion has proprietary language that helps unify members or those with an allegiance. Strong brands also have their own language. Hardware that leaves the Apple warehouse is called ‘i’ something – iPhone, iPod, iPad, iMac. Furthermore, when you use a Mac you must also learn new terms like ‘the dock’ and ‘Time Machine’. When used correctly, brand jargon helps build credibility and gives people a sense of ownership, authority and belonging.


Promises and faith

When Moses returned from Mount Sinai, he came with two tablets that detailed a way of living that bode well for his people’s chances of a desirable afterlife. Similarly, the Buddha offered an eightfold path to enlightenment and Jesus gave many lessons on how to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. All of these acts and suggestions are a way of stating a value proposition: if you are loyal to us, you will get… (again, note the importance of the promised brand experience).


Rituals and ceremonies

Without exception, all religions involve rituals and ceremonies. Everything, from sacrificing animals, removing a young boy’s foreskin or starving, to eating chocolate bunnies, can be the order of the day when it comes to demonstrating your faith. Similarly, strong brands also incorporate various traditions. The happy hour on Virgin-brand airlines is a prime example, as is the release process that Apple engages in when launching a new device.


Propaganda and promotion

Be it a fish sticker on a car window, or a canvas sign outside the local church that reads, ‘He died for your sins’, religion has been promoting itself since its creation. The early prophets and current day Jehovah’s Witnesses door-knock initiatives are based on promoting a philosophy or concept. This is not really so different from television advertising or a brand’s latest outdoor ad, aside from the bells, whistles and creative quality. Interestingly, however, the promotion of ‘stunts’ has served religions far better than any visual symbol or catchy tagline. Who doesn’t know about Moses talking to a burning bush? Or Jesus rising from the dead? For the record, I have no opinion regarding whether these events actually took place, but they are fascinating examples of exceptional stories and sustained storytelling.


Brand behaviour, code of conduct

My grandmother (who is apparently in Heaven now because she believed in Christ) kept her ‘Sunday best’ in a special section of the wardrobe. Every Sunday she got dressed up and drove to the local church with my grandfather (yep, also in Heaven). When they got to church people smiled pleasantly at one another with an air of dignity and mutual respect, and spoke in hushed tones. It was as if politeness was the basis of the faith. Conversely, go to a Jewish wedding and expect to suffer a serious injury soon after the groom enters and gets thrown into a chair, hoisted to head-height and tossed around the room. All religions (and strong brands) have an unspoken code of conduct that defines the ‘feel’ of membership.


Visual language

Wear a small round hat on your head, dress in a burqa or don’t cut your hair ever and wear it in a turban. All of these things represent the visual language of particular religions. They are distinct and clearly distinguish one religion from another, much like a branded T-shirt or the brand guidelines of a brand. Distinction and unique appeal are what a brand lives and dies by. Visual language/brand recognition is the first stop on the way to brand advocacy.



Let’s pretend that it’s 8am and you are on a train when a man approaches you and tells you he will ‘save you’. You probably wonder which pub opened early and get off at the next station. Despite this being your safest bet, you may have missed out on hearing from a Christian ambassador looking to save you from your life of sin and future as Satan’s plaything. All religions have ambassadors – people dedicated to recruiting new members. Strong brands use well-known, well-loved characters to do the very same thing (e.g. George Clooney for Nespresso, Simon Baker for ANZ and, more recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger for


Word of mouth

According to basically everyone, the best kind of promotion is word of mouth and customer advocacy. Well, look no further than religion to show you how this is done. If you are born from a Jewish mother, then by default you become Jewish. What an awesome ‘dob in a friend promotion’. If you are from a Christian family, your first name is referred to as your ‘Christian’ name. Sneaky. And, if you are a Scientologist, you can make a few bucks by recruiting people. Some of the best brand recruitment schemes come from religion. In many cases, religion makes above the line advertising appear very unsophisticated. There is nothing more persuasive than the intimacy of a friend or family member sharing their heartfelt belief about something.


The wrap

While most respectable religions weren’t ‘designed’ (as brands are), their ability to sustain validity across generations and amass millions of dedicated followers is something to behold and learn from. The depth of commitment to people’s choice of religion is itself a psychological phenomenon. A depth that, until the age of seven, meant sacrificing every Sunday morning to stand in a cold hall instead of playing cricket in the street with other kids… Christian kids, Jewish kids, Hindu kids, Muslim kids, atheists and agnostics. All just young humans whose parents believed so strongly in a story and value proposition that they adopted it as part of their identity. There is no better example of effective branding than religion.



Karl Treacher
BY Karl Treacher ON 27 January 2015
Chief executive of The Brand Institute of Australia, a behavioural analyst
with more than 15 years of brand consultancy experience and a pioneer of organisational branding and culture alignment. Tweet at him using @treacher.