There’s Power in the Name (Brand)

When I picked my oldest daughter up from her first day of kindergarten she ran into my arms with excitement. “Daddy, Daddy! Guess what?” Zoe said. “I got my first homework assignment!” She’s not nearly as excited about homework now that she’s in middle school.

Zoe eagerly pulled the paper from her backpack. It read:

Dear Parents,

Here is your child’s first kindergarten “homework”! Please help your child find “logos” such as the ones displayed on this page to help reinforce the concept that he/she can already read! They may be on bags, boxes, cups, cans, etc. The children feel great about their ability to read them. We will use them for sharing and also to create a display in our classroom. Thanks for helping!!!

I asked Zoe if she could “read” any of the logos on the paper. Without hesitating, she identified Pizza Hut, Target, and Lego. At home, she collected the logos of Disney, Jell-O, and Goldfish Crackers. Later, while drinking a glass of water, she proudly shouted, “That says IKEA!” She spotted the tiny logo imprinted on the bottom of the glass.

When I was in kindergarten we learned the alphabet by associating letters with generic objects. A is for apple. B is for ball. C is for cat. Zoe’s first step toward reading was identifying corporate brands. A is for Apple Computer. B is for Burger King. C is for Cheerios. Should it scare me that my five-year-old had memorized more corporate brands than bible verses or even names of relatives? Also scary was the fact that no one taught her to identify logos. We didn’t have corporate logo flashcard drills at home. Zoe’s internalized these logos simply by living for five years in a brand-saturated culture.

In truth, we should not be surprised that a kindergartener is already brand savvy. As marketers have discovered the power of branding on the mind, they have become eager to target the malleable imaginations of children. They are the segment of the population with the least defined self-identity and they exhibit a willingness to shift their identity without reflection. By choosing a My Little Pony or Iron Man backpack, kindergarteners are already learning to build their identities with brands, and this process will continue the remainder of their lives. Why else would companies like Ford and Pizza Hut spend millions of dollars marketing in preschools? (And they do.) Three and four-year-olds cannot order a pizza or buy a car, but by planting a branded seed in the kids’ imaginations and associating it with positive feelings, these corporations hope to reap the fruit when these children begin to form their identities as teenagers.

This sort of brand marketing has been so effective that the average ten-year-old has already memorized between 300 and 400 brands. When these children become adolescents, each with an average of $100 of disposable cash to spend every week, they will select from these brands to construct their identities—identities they can eat, drink, smoke, drive, play, ride, and wear.

The link between brands and identity helps explain a new trend uncovered by a psychology professor at Nebraska’s Bellevue University. After studying Social Security records, he reported an increase in the number of children named after popular brands. Decades from now, when Zoe’s oldest child goes off to kindergarten she may have classmates named Infiniti, Celica, Armani, Timberland, Nautica, L’Oreal, or ESPN—all recent baby names on record. I only hope my granddaughter isn’t named IKEA.

The identity-forming power of brands means the act of shopping has immense significance in our culture. As Benjamin Barber writes, “If brand names can shape or even stand in for identity, then to figure out ‘who you are’ you must decide where (and for what) you shop.” This may explain why shopping is now the number one leisure activity for Americans. As we peruse the shopping mall, we are not simply looking for a sweater, a computer, or a backpack—we are looking for ourselves. Shopping occupies a role in society that once belonged only to religion—the power to give meaning and construct identity. “To shop,” as Pete Ward observes, “is to seek for something beyond ourselves” and this desire “indicates a spiritual inclination in many of the everyday activities of shopping.”

The spiritual value of shopping is not lost on marketers. Douglas Atkins, author of The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers, states plainly that, “Brands are the new religion.” They “supply our modern metaphysics, imbuing the world with significance…Brands function as complete meaning systems.” Because brands have a power over us on par with religion, Atkins believes, “cults are a rich and legitimate source of insight for the creation of brand worship.” Am I the only one who finds that sentence incredibly creepy?

For centuries, Christians have declared, “There’s power in the name of Jesus.” Our consumer culture has discovered that Jesus’ name can be swapped out with any number of other brands. For example, a former vice-president of marketing for Starbucks confessed that there isn’t “a huge difference between” between coffees. So, to sell a $4 cup of their stuff requires “establishing emotional ties” with the Starbucks brand. There’s power in the name of Starbucks.

Here’s how Marty Neumeier describes the link between consumer brands, identity, and religion:

Depending on your Unique Buying State, you can join any number of tribes on any number of days and feel part of something bigger than yourself. You can belong to the Callaway tribe when you play golf, the VW tribe when you drive to work, and the Williams-Sonoma tribe when you cook a meal. You’re part of a select clan (or so you feel) when you buy products from these clearly differentiated companies. Brands are the little gods of modern life, each ruling a different need, activity, mood, or situation. Yet you’re in control. If your latest god falls from Olympus, you can switch to another one.

If brands are the new religion, is the opposite also true? Have religions been reduced to brands?

Data compiled by Ron Sider in his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, found that researchers are not able to differentiate the behaviors and values of self-identified Christians from non-Christians with one exception—what they buy. As Mark Riddle observes, “Conversion in the US seems to mean we’ve exchanged some of our shopping at Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, and Borders for the Christian Bookstore down the street. We’ve taken our lack of purchasing control to God’s store, where we buy our office supplies in Jesus’ name.” Ouch.

In a consumer culture where brands = identity, being a Christian no longer carries an expectation of obeying God and loving one’s neighbors, but rather the perpetual consumption and display of Jesus junk—music, books, t-shirts, gifts, and jewelry. A person’s identity as a Christian has less to do with internally transformed values and more to do with externally displayed products.

This may explain why Christianity in North America has drifted from a faith of substance to a faith of style. Consider how many of us select a church. Two generations ago when denominational loyalty was high, a church was chosen primarily based on the doctrinal beliefs it espoused. Today, the music style used in worship is the issue of paramount importance when selecting a church. Even Rick Warren has acknowledged that, “Music may be the most influential factor in determining who your church reaches for Christ, and whether or not your church grows.” Like Apple, Nike, and Starbucks, the church has learned that success in a consumer culture has more to do with selling an identity than providing real substance. It’s more about the sizzle than the steak.

How should we respond to this consumer vision of identity in the church? I’ll be exploring that in next week’s article.




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