Can social brands provide meaning to your life?

brand meaning

By Chuck Kent, {grow} Community Member

Today’s post arises from a recent {grow} piece written by Gregory Pouy who observed: “We are not going to church as much as we used to, we are not concerned with family as we were before, and we are living in huge cities that make us all anonymous.  But the truth is that people want to be part of something – and in part, they are seeking this in brands.”

To be honest, the suggestion of substituting the transcendent for the transactional made me cringe but it’s nothing new. A 2010 study out of Duke University and NYU, “Brands: The Opiate of the Nonreligious Masses?” supports the theory that “brands and religiosity may serve as substitutes for one another because both allow individuals to express their feelings of self-worth.”

Is Gregory right? Are people identifying with brands as a way to give meaning to their lives?

So I decided to reach beyond my own parochial cringing and get a current take from an Ad Age columnist (and author Jonathan Baskin), two social media gurus (the aforementioned Gregory Pouy and Mark Schaefer), plus Rabbi Michael Shevack, a former adman, creator of campaigns including “Gillette, The Best a Man Can Get,” and author).

In a short post, I could not include all of their fascinating responses, but these four deep thinkers give us considerable food for thought. Please think about what they have to say and leave a comment of your own to this discussion.

Do you believe that brands can play a role in filling the core human desire to belong?

Jonathan Baskin: Nope, not in the least. I think it’s gross overreach and evidence that marketers haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that a focus on material existence is what has, in large part, created the existential void in peoples’ lives. The simplicity and Makers movements are two examples of trends going in the absolute opposite direction.

Mark Schaefer:  They can and they do. Have you ever seen somebody wearing a Harley Davidson jacket or a Nike logo on their shirt?  This is an outward expression of emotional alignment and belonging. I’ve often said in my speeches that it’s not just a brand, it’s a buddy. We form relationships with companies and brands just like we do with our friends.

Rabbi Shevack: Before specifically speaking about the role ‘brands’ have to play in filling the core human ‘desire’ to ‘belong,’ one must first be aware of what is fundamental behind the brand itself … A brand is – no differently than any religious experience which postulates mediators between the individual’s internal world and his/her outward fulfillment – a mediator. It’s purpose is to fulfill the individual’s sense of belonging, not merely to themselves, but, also, to others.

Do you think that brands will play a greater or lesser role in the future in consumers’ search for meaning?

Gregory Pouy: I feel in the future they will play a lesser role in the consumer’s search for meaning, for the simple reason that few brands are working on their core value. Most of them work on short-term decision processes… This is directly due to the fact that most marketers only stay in a position 18 months and want their resume to be outstanding. ‘Working the long term objective’ isn’t that sexy.

Rabbi ShevackBrands are social movements!  Brands can be revolutions!  Brands change worlds! Can a brand be a vehicle of salvation?  Yes, of course!  As ridiculous as it sounds. Why? Because incorrect desires— desires that don’t “govern together”, as the word “correct” means, are the vehicles of our fall-from-Grace in Life:  too much cholesterol, too much sugar, etc.  Correct desires – desires that link the individual with other individuals, for a common purpose, in harmony with nature’s design, for the shared-purpose, world-purpose of the goodness, happiness and, of course, monetary prosperity of all – well, that is the definition of salvation, at least upon the earth.

Belonging suggests mutuality. How can brands best overcome the ultimately transactional nature of brand-consumer relationships?

Mark Schaefer: There does not have to be a mutual connection to establish a relationship. I have followed Bruce Springsteen since I was kid. I love this man and his music. He has played a very important part in my life. Yet I have never met Bruce and probably never will.  I have a deep emotional connection to a brand who never knows I exist.

Gregory Pouy:  Here is something that brands really don’t get: a brand community barely exists.  There are existing vertical communities on any subject. Brands should try to enter those communities.  They should respect the codes and understand that they aren’t running the show.  They should just try to belong. I don’t see many brands successfully doing this, but some are. We hear much less from them because this doesn’t earn you a Cannes Lion. But they are the ones who will last.

Do you think that brands can overreach, so as to become unbelievable or counterproductive in trying to develop “brand passion” and “brand evangelists?”

Jonathan Baskin: I have trouble distilling my thoughts into readable sentences in response to this question because there’s so much inanity going on these days. The Internet has enabled marketers to discover that there are small communities of people who absolutely adore their brands, almost to the point of being clinically crazy. This isn’t a new phenomenon, only its observation is, but we’ve come up with a theology that claims these crazy people should be nourished and encouraged to share their nuttiness with others. It only makes sense if you limit your perspective to online dialogue. In the real world, they’re still not only crazy but irrelevant, if not counter-productive to reality-based transactional relationships.

Brands don’t need people to love their detergent or floor polish. They need them to use them consistently because they work the best for the least amount of money. There’s a lot of information and creativity required to establish and maintain this awareness, but all the jabbering about content, storytelling, etc. just elevates process over purpose.

Mark Schaefer:  Here’s the weird thing. We get all these snippets of communication from companies and brands. No tone. No body language. Maybe it’s even in 140 characters or less. And yet we can sniff out a fake a mile away. Research even shows Millennials are becoming more in-tune with authentic messages than their parents. So I think if companies overreach, they are going to hear about it and they better adjust. Overall, the social media feedback is loop is pretty darn efficient!


Can brands satisfy our deepest longings? Do they? Should they even try? As you can tell even from my interviewees’ truncated responses, the subject provokes strong and varied opinions. What are yours?

chuck kentChuck Kent is a freelance copywriter, content creator and brand strategist who can be found at his Chicago-based company Creative on Call.

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  • Social_Ben

    I really enjoyed this post thank you.

  • Your interview evoked a morning mental ramble about how we humans act on our beliefs. We do not always get the results we expect, maybe less than more and yet, and we repeat the same behaviors even when the results are not what we expected.

    The type of people one wants to align with is the motivation, not the brand. The
    brand is the catalyst and the financial winner. Whether are not people gain a
    deep, lasting sense of belonging is secondary to the reality that people try to
    find and create deep connections with the peer groups they want to be “a
    part of” through their purchases.

    Brands underscore this sense of belonging through communities. I like what Gregory said, “Brands should try to enter those communities. They should respect the codes and understand that they aren’t running the show. They should just try to belong.”

    Isn’t this what strong brands do? They create some identity and use a logo on clothing, cars, drinks or gadgets to become part of the community with an identifier of sameness. Look around your office or wherever you happen to be. How many logos can you quickly count and whom do they belong to? How
    many products can you identify in a movie or TV scene? How do you feel when you see someone driving the same car, wearing the same clothes or carrying the same gadget?

    I do not believe the stuff we own or the brands we align with fulfill our deep core need to belong, but that does not stop people from trying. The important question I believe needs answering, “Are you branding in a way that has a positive social impact?”

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  • I’m writing as a social media marketer and as an Episcopal priest.

    One thing I’d like to point out is that religions and denominations themselves are perceived as brands. One of the things that’s difficult about being a Christian is that “Christian” as a brand is perceived in an entirely different way even than its subsets. I bet that when I announced I was Episcopalian, you thought of something different than if I had said I am a Christian.

    I think one of the tensions in religion is the tension between the belonging/faith aspect and the belonging/brand aspect. There are people who identify as a particular faith without practicing any tenets or rites of that faith. I had been at a loss to explain that, but I think that one way to consider that is as a brand affiliation.

    Does it provide meaning? I certainly think it provides identity/tribe and organization/general worldview. And those two things are very meaningful. But I think religions — ones that are not simply looking to bilk people, anyway — are about discovering what is transformative for its adherents rather than what is transactional.

    So can brand loyalty be transformative? That’s the next thing I need to ponder.

  • Chuck Kent

    I think brands can be positive… and also positively overreaching. I commented on Gregory’s original post about the super-self-important positioning of Restoration Hardware.. take a look at the founder’s introduction to their 600 or 700 page long forest-killer of a catalog, and his yammering on about, basically, being bringers of the light. I not only don’t believe that from an overpriced furniture company, I don’t want to get near it… and it’s a good example of what Jonathan Baskin is referring to when he notes that brands should be mindful of their less-than-positive role in making materialism an ultimate goal, good and, basically, religion in our society.

    Thanks for your thoughtful response.

  • I posted this comment on Triberr, but I had to bring it here too:

    “Gregory Pouy: I feel in the future they will play a lesser role in the consumer’s search for meaning, for the simple reason that few brands are working on their core value. Most of them work on short-term decision processes… This is directly due to the fact that most marketers only stay in a position 18 months and want their resume to be outstanding. ‘Working the long term objective’ isn’t that sexy.”

    Round of applause for this guy. The search for meaning between brand and individual is eternally at odds in this way. While the brand may be working a longterm goal, their treatment of the individual within their organization is still inward facing instead of outward (employee) facing.

    Which means while the brand talks about “we” individuals will always operate on a “me” dial, leaving the consumer as a marginal character in their success story.

    Result: the consumer is not going to be fulfilled by the brand, and neither is the individual employee, but the data will show everyone is happy and the brand will march on.

  • Religion and social brands the same? Nope.

    I don’t feel they are the same at all. Social brands are selling you material things, which can be enticing at the moment, but down the road? It ends and something else will take its place.

    It boils down to business and making money. Can’t embrace everybody in their following.

    Samuel from Internet Dreams

  • Chuck Kent

    Good point about religions and denominations being brands in themselves, a point also made by Rabbi Shevack in his extensive reply, which I hope to share at a later date. Please let us know what your further ponderings produce!

  • Plus 100 to Gary : )

  • gregbis

    Thanks very much – totally agree with you !

  • gregbis

    Thanks very much for your answer ! Always good to discuss.
    I do agree with the very strong brands (the one who are loyal to their core values) but for most of them…it is just not realistic to talk about a “brand community”.
    Totally +100 for your last question!
    People will never remember what you did but how they felt when experiencing you!

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  • Really enjoyed this Q&A format on an intriguing topic, Chuck. Jonathan’s responses resonated with some of my own views about people “looking for love in all the wrong places”…and how we can be too transactional and material.

    The other guys had great examples (good point w/Springsteen). I think brands need to not worry about REPLACING relationships or reasons for living. They simply need to be a REAL CONTRIBUTOR to their consumers’ lives. That contribution can come in the form of music that illicits emotions (and subsequent sharing), or it can come in the form of camaraderie/common cause – like Livestrong, etc.

    Be real, and not over-reaching, and they may not fill large voids – but they will comfortably fit within the tapestry of our lives.

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