NYU Stern
Share / Print

Brands: The New Religion

By Tulin Erdem, Leonard N. Stern Professor of Business, Professor of Marketing & Co-Director, Center for Digital Economy Research

tulin erdem article image

Through four studies, they confirmed that brand reliance and religiosity not only serve as substitutes for each other, but they do so because they both allow individuals to express their feelings of self-worth.

For marketing experts, perhaps the most essential ingredient in forging a loyal customer base is creating a distinct brand. But a new paper co-authored by Tulin Erdem, a professor of marketing at NYU Stern, demonstrates that brands may serve an even more powerful role—as a substitute for religion.

In “Brands: The Opiate of the Nonreligious Masses?”, a paper published in Marketing Science, Erdem, with co-authors Ron Schachar of IDC Herzliya, Keisha Cutright of The Wharton School and Gavin Fitzsimons of the Fuqua School of Business, theorized that those who feel strongly about favored brands, known as brand reliance, would exhibit less engagement with religion, or religiosity, and vice versa. Through four studies, they confirmed that brand reliance and religiosity not only serve as substitutes for each other, but they do so because they both allow individuals to express their feelings of self-worth. They also showed that this relationship exists in product categories such as clothes, where brands enable individuals to express themselves, but not in more practical categories—e.g., batteries.

For example, in an Internet-based study, they asked 356 participants to choose between brand-name and generic goods. The authors classified the products as “expressive” (Ralph Lauren vs. Target sunglasses) or “functional” (Energizer vs. CVS batteries). Subjects then answered questions to measure the importance of religion in their lives.

The findings showed that those who attended religious services regularly were about 20 percent less likely to choose an expressive brand than other participants. There were no differences in the “functional” category.

In a study of 42 subjects, this one based in a laboratory setting, participants whose religiosity was activated when they wrote about their faith were less likely to use brands for expressing feelings of self-worth.

“These findings have significant implications for marketers,” says Erdem.