In Brands We Trust
Eileen Barker, Paul Edwards, Abi Ekoku, Rachel Newsome, Gareth Williams

Editors Introduction Has brand loyalty and brand awareness taken over our lives? Do we look forward to the latest Nike trainer, the next version of Playstation and the newest definition of cool as if they were the path to salvation? Or are brands just important markers in a world over-populated with products? In this panel debate held at the London School of Economics and Political Science, academics, marketing gurus, and other experts debate the motion: Are brands the new religion?

Brands have nothing to offer

Eileen Barker: I would like to suggest that brands have nothing to offer. You have got to turn to God for your true help. Nike and Sony are as nothing to religion. I hope very much that you will take this to heart. Religion is so very much better. It knows where it is coming from and where it is going to and I think this is very important. Religion can offer you better relationships with God, with your girlfriend, you can be among the elect, you can bring the Kingdom of Heaven on earth in a way that you cannot imagine; it is so wonderful.

I can offer you altered states of consciousness, that no Coke or any other kind of drug could possibly offer you. You just have to believe and follow certain basic techniques. These cannot be described by brands. I can introduce you to the 3HO, the Happy, Healthy, Holy Organisation. Holy, because it is not enough to be happy and healthy. Not just a long and happy life may you look for, but I can offer you eternal salvation. And if you don't fancy hellfire or all those angels playing harps forever, what about the Eternal Flame Foundation in Arizona? It offers you life forever, eternal life in this world.

I would like to suggest to you that there is just so much more in religion than any of these brands can offer. You may see a car with an attractive blond and think "Why not buy this?" I can introduce you to the Raliants. Why not buy into the Raliants? You could have cosmic orgasms the whole time. I promise you my dear friends, that it is in God that we must trust. And if at the end of this very serious and important debate, you doubt my words, then all I can say is, let's have a recount.

Sport: a new religion

Abi Ekoku: I represent a rugby club, the Bradford Bulls. I represent both the club and the brand. To our devotees we are significantly more than a club. Our ability to transcend the normal role that a club plays in society has given us an immense status within our city and with other people that we influence. Bi-weekly crowds, averaging in excess of 15,000, come, congregate and worship the performers. This, in a sport that is still struggling to grow outside of the heartland, despite a century of being the second-largest spectator game. As the best supported rugby club, the Bradford Bulls product has evolved to a status that represents more than just a game.

For us it is important to recognise that the dilution of our core product, which is the playing of rugby league, is at the very heart of our existence. If we dilute our products, then our fans have a loyalty to the product, to the club, but first and foremost to the performer. It is a product that sells the brand and is not a case of the brand selling the product. Why do people become advocates? People become advocates of a product, or a sport in this case, because of several factors: joy, ecstasy, exhilaration, pain and terror.

These extremes of emotion actually represent many of the good and bad things within sport and also within religion. It is often said that both sport and religion can teach you to harness these extremes of emotion and control their dark side as well. Performers, like prophets before them, are expected by the masses to be politicians-- priests as well as social pinnacles. But it is their flaws that are attractive. They are the most captivating and riveting thing about performers and in a society that is ruled by celebrity and brand image, it is important for performers to retain their place.

'Passion' is probably my favourite word, and passion is a binding force in sport. Each of its participants--the performer in the centre, the spectator, the media, the investor, the sponsor, somewhere on the periphery you also have the club and the governing organisation--experiences passion in a different way. That passion is sometimesvery illogical, but it is what unifies sport in its strongest way and it is what binds all of these components together. If any brand can generate those extremes of emotion and arouse passions within people like sport and in some cases religion can, then I'd like to know about it.

Brand new reality

Paul Edwards: I've spent my life in brands and I think they exist whether we like it or not. We lived through a number of privatisations in the eighties, but for me the biggest was the privatisation of risk. We all took a number of risks on education, pensions, our health, mortgages and how we would spend our lives. All those risks were privatised. We stopped trusting governments and religious figures to a huge degree. Brands have stepped into that vacuum. We've said that we don't have the time and expertise to sort things out and we don't have the traditional partners to sort things out. So, when it comes to those things that we don't have time and expertise for, we let the brand become the person we trust.

I think it is going too far to say that brands have stepped completely into the breach and that brands can do everything a religion can do because we don't have a complete relationship with a brand.As much as we talk about personality and brand style we do not consider brands to be the same as people--it's a much more focused relationship.

Brands can spread throughout your life. So, the supermarket chain Tesco provides pretty good fruit and veg, then you try the meat, the tinned goods and the own label, then you try their pensions, get them to clean your car and then you use their petrol and the brand, provided it doesn't breach the trust, can creep into more and more parts of your life. However, it doesn't necessarily invade all parts of your life and doesn't take you over completely--it is not quite the opium of the masses. I think the moral dimension of brands is important. We talk about trusting the brands and brands ask for our trust. But then, do brands trust us? When you look at banks and the way banks behave and the way the supermarkets behave on price etc., you have got to ask if trust goes in both directions. Once you start to trust someone, you do expect a level of behaviour from them that is commensurate with that.

Some people talk about permission marketing as the new revolution in branding. I think permission marketing is a new species of bollocks because people always give brands 'permission'. I used to work on Nivea. A typical research exercise might proceed: 'Dear Consumer, would you like Nivea shampoo?'
'Oooh yes. Nivea Shampoo. Marvellous! We love it.'
Did anyone buy Nivea Shampoo?
No. People will give you permission to do things that they don't really want you to do.

What brands really have to do is understand what people need and what people really want and gradually begin to supply those needs and that is where the trust grows. You can hear people quite seriously talking about the pros and cons of Audi versus BMW--not in terms of the engineering, ie Is it aluminium?, or Is it front or rear wheel drive?, but rather in terms of what it says about you. What kind of person are you if you've got the wrong one? So, if we think something exists, we might as well behave as if it does exist. Brands are real and you can trust them, but my advice is not to trust them with everything.

Brand control

Rachel Newsome: To say that brands have somehow replaced religion, actually represents both a nostalgic view of the past and a feeling that life nowadays is somehow less meaningful and more superficial than it used to be. To claim that brands are a new religion, is to express a fear of change.

The reality is they are simply an inevitable part of a standardised global economy. At their most basic, brands operate as markers to help us navigate a choice overload. At their most sophisticated, brands are about promise. Because there is so much choice, brands not only tell us what the product or the person is but what they can do for you. They are about added value. For example BP isn't just a petrol company, it's beyond petroleum. Posh and Becks isn't just a pop star married to a footballer, it is a whole aspirational lifestyle package. So, if you essentialise brands, I believe they are simply very sophisticated marketing techniques. They might communicate a set of ideas but there is no overarching ideology that connects any of them other than that they are an expression of a consumer society. I think it is nonsense to suggest that washing your hair with Loreal Elvive shampoo or wearing Gap creates a structure to our lives. That's like suggesting that we become so brainwashed that we are no longer capable of making value decisions based on anything other than what we are told. As a communication tool, if you are going to look at it in terms of marketing, brands are simply a set of signifiers, which are no greater than the sum of their parts.

For example, 'Playstation gives you power', is a very powerful brand message. But its meaning only comes alive in a dialogue between the brand, the culture it was created in and the individual user. On its own it is impotent. It is only because young people in their twenties already feel disenfranchised and need a means of escape that they can relate to that idea. So, really the success of brands is about how they respond to values and aspirations rather than about how they shape them.

On occasions like this, everyone always likes to wheel out the Nike swooshes as representative of the insidious nature of corporate takeover and about how brands are controlling our lives. I think that is all too easy to say because one forgets that the image of Nike has been fundamentally affected by its association with sweatshop labour.

In fact, it is a common misconception that somehow brands are controlling devices employed by large corporations like Monsanto or McDonalds to co-opt our loyalty. As much as anything, brands are a mode of expression, which operates on every level. So, as much as McDonalds are a brand, so is Reclaim the Streets. Even No Logo by Naomi Klein is a band in itself. So, in a way, what brands show is not a new structure of control but how the whole concept of having a structured society defined by a set of absolutes--community, religion, institutions--has changed. Society has been depolarised There are less rules, so increasingly, structure has been replaced by a series of options, and it is this idea of options, or picking and choosing, which brands most reflect about our world. Ultimately I'd like to propose that brands are simply cosmetic packaging in a world where everything from Manchester United to the Spice Girls are as much about their economic currency as their cultural value. It is these things really, rather than brands themselves which have replaced religion.

Brands and religion

Gareth Williams: It is, of course, totally spurious to say that brands are a new religion. What is apparent and what was apparent by what has been said already is that there is a shared language that we tend to mistranslate. We describe religion and we describe branding with words and terms that appear to mean the same thing and therefore we confuse them. I noticed that Abi used words like transcendence, worship, joy, ecstasy and passion. All of these are words that are also used in religion.

It also occurred to me that brands may have the kind of form and structure that religion seems to have. Religion may offer salvation and redemption, brands offer us the promise of transformation. They promise to make us into something new. Religions are based on faith and brands are based on our loyalty. Religions are essentially about the truth and brands claim some kind of authenticity. Religions are essentially evangelistic and brands rely on advertising to sell their message. So there are spurious links that we can make. Of course, it seems that religion has died down, but let's not forget that we are living through a period when religious fundamentalism is at its peak so we can hardly say that 'religion is dead--long live the brand.'

Brands are about money essentially and that isn't what religion is about. The missing link between these two things is that religion has a sense of the numinous: there is an element in religion that indicates the presence of the divine which is absent and must always be absent from brands because they are our constructs and so we can't include the sense of the divine. Maybe brands look a bit like religion, but I would deny that they are the same thing, and that brands are replacing religion.

This feature is taken from a debate held at the London School of Economics and Political Science on 28 November 2001. Copyright, The London School of Economics and Political Science.