January 3, 2011, Updated September 13, 2012

A new study shows that corporate brands like Nike, Apple or Gap take the place of religious symbols like a crucifix or Star of David for people who aren’t deeply religious.

Gap in Jerusalem

Photo by Abir Sultan/Flash90.
Consumers use brands in the same way that they use religiosity, to express their sense of self-worth, according to the new study.

It seems that the more religious you are, the less likely you are to define yourself or seek self-worth through your choice of consumer brands whether its Nike, Gap, or Apple. In fact, new research from Israel suggests that as consumers, our religiosity has a large impact on our choice of a particular brand and whether or not we remain loyal to it.

Tel Aviv University Prof. Ron Shachar advises marketing professionals to consider consumers’ religious beliefs when crafting their advertising strategies, if they hope to achieve their goal to connect between consumers and the products they represent by creating strong brand identities.

Shachar, of the Leon Recanati Graduate School of Business Administration, says that a consumer’s religiosity has a large impact on the likelihood that he or she will choose particular brands. He asserts that consumers who are deeply religious are less likely to display an explicit preference for a particular brand, while more secular populations are more prone to define their self-worth through loyalty to corporate brands rather than religious denominations.

His research, conducted in collaboration with Duke University and New York University scientists, recently appeared in the journal Marketing Science.

I am what I buy

There is considerable statistical evidence that consumers buy particular brands to express who they are to the outside world, Shachar says, adding that from clothing choices to cultural events, people communicate their personalities and values through their purchases.

In their study on the relationship between religiosity and brand reliance, Shachar and his fellow researchers focused on the US, conducting both field and lab experiments.

In the field study, they collected state-level and county-level data on the number of major-brand stores (such as Apple, Macy’s and Gap) per capita and correlated this with the number of religious congregations per thousand people, as well as with individuals who reported frequent attendance at church or synagogue. Adjusting for economic, educational and urbanization factors, the team found a negative correlation between religiousness and brand choice.

In the lab experiment, college students were divided into two groups. The first group was asked to write a short essay about what religion means to them personally, while the second group wrote a more casual essay about their day.

Gap logo or Star of David?

The two groups of college students then participated in a simulated shopping experience that offered both national and store brands, including items such as sunglasses, fashion accessories, batteries and pain relief medications. This was coupled with an Internet study, in which more than 300 participants were asked to write about their religious practices and then went through the same simulated shopping experience.

Researchers discovered that those participants who wrote about their religion prior to the shopping experience were less likely to pick national brands when it came to products linked to appearance or self-expression – specifically, products that reflect status, such as fashion accessories and items of clothing.

The study found that for people who aren’t deeply religious, corporate logos often took the place of religious symbols like a crucifix or Star of David, providing feelings of self-worth and wellbeing. Shachar relates that two additional lab experiments conducted by this research team demonstrated that consumers use brands in the same way that they use religiosity, to express their sense of self-worth.

Next, he and his fellow researchers hope to clarify how the relationship between advertising and religion affects branding in international markets like Asia and Europe, considering whether a strong religious presence in a particular geographical area might hinder or block the expansion of global brands. “This seems to be the case, but that is a question we are trying to explore right now,” he concludes.

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