An Ad Age columnist, two social media gurus and a rabbi discuss whether brands can fill the core human need to believe and belong. 

Terms like “brand evangelist” and “brand passion” are not new, but are marketers expecting these terms – and brands, themselves – to take on a deeper meaning?  That question came to mind recently as I read a guest post in the popular social media blog {grow}, by Paris-based Gregory Pouy, who wrote: “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.”

Can brands really fill an existential void?

To some – myself included – the suggestion that an inherently transactional relationship could ever substitute for a hopefully transcendent one is discouraging at best.  But the thought – in fact, the whole shift in how and where people search for meaning – is not new.  A 2010 study out of Duke University and NYU, entitled  “Brands: The Opiate of the Nonreligious Masses?”, supported the theory that “brands and religiosity may serve as substitutes for one another because both allow individuals to express their feelings of self-worth.”

Of course, the world has changed considerably in just the three years since that study. A recent Pew Forum survey noted the continued decline in religious belief, especially among the young – and no one with an Internet connection could fail to note the rise of brand-driven online communities, as more brands become social brands.  So I decided to reach out past my own gut reactions and get a current take from Ad Age columnist and author, Jonathan Baskin, two social media gurus (the aforementioned Gregory Pouy and Mark Schaefer, a social media consultant and author), plus a member of the clergy named Rabbi Michael Shevack (who is also a former adman, a creator of campaigns including “Gillette, The Best a Man Can Get,” and an author).

While a few of their key comments were included in my guest post reply on {grow} to the aforementioned piece by Mssr. Pouy, the matter deserves deeper exploration, and so the editors here at Branding Magazine have graciously agreed to publish the more extensive replies:

Jonathan Baskin, Mark Schaefer, Rabbi Shevack, Gregory Pouy

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 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, desire itself.

A brand is not some “abstraction”; it is a thought, design, entity, fabrication, that is designed to fulfill a desire. It is desire incarnate so-to-speak. Such a desire, in the case of brand, may be simple:  eradicate a headache or provide a better-tasting peanut butter. Here, the functionality of the desire outweighs any other aspects of brand.

However, desires are more complex than functionality alone. Built into the desire to eradicate a headache is “the removal of obstructions to enjoying Life”. Built into the desire for a better-tasting peanut butter is, implicitly, “pleasure”, “quality”, more noumenal qualities, to use the Kantian term, There are pleasures, qualities, drives within the person, even unbeknownst to the person consciously, that interface with the phenomenon which is a brand, and which determine the person’s relationship not merely with the brand, but the entire world, both inwardly, and outwardly, unconsciously and consciously, that the person inhabits and en-globes.

Thus, 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. Its purpose is to fulfill the individual’s sense of belonging, not merely to themselves, but, also, to others, these being inseparable, since there is no such thing as an “abstract individual”, which has no social relationships or relationship to nature.

Gregory Pouy: Yes I do believe so in the society we have built. There is even a expression for that: “inspirational brand.” But to a larger extent I really feel like people are totally lost as they have fewer landmarks then they did before: family, religion or small city. We live mostly in huge countries and are strangers to each other. Therefore, since the human being is a social animal, he needs to belong and brands help him to do so.

I feel it getting worse and worse, so to speak, but I also think that there is a limit to it. However, many brands are governed by short-term decisions and very few of them are faithful to their core values.  Many marketers don’t even know the core values of the brand they are working for (without looking at the answer in the brand book).

I hope there will be a turnaround at some point and I really feel that people feel the need to be connected to something much more meaningful than just a brand. This movement began years ago and is growing but, depending on the country, it may be in a different phase of development.

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

Mark Schaefer: That’s an interesting question. You could argue that social networks are playing an important new role in creating human connection. To the extent that brands can help somebody belong and have fun… well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

Gregory Pouy: I feel that 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 the long term objective” isn’t that sexy.

But the marketer who really does [work on their core value] will give an amazing competitive advantage to the brand they are working for. I see that as a positive impact on life because that means people will connect to a higher purpose.  Concerning business, would be great if marketing directors could understand this and work in this direction. Marketing would be much more meaningful and business would be at its best for the one who does.

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Jonathan Baskin: [Brands will play a] greater role in obfuscating or otherwise impeding that search, and a lesser role in satisfying it. The premise that companies and the brands they promote have any business providing meaning beyond the proofs of benefit and utility (and joy and satisfaction from use) is a 20th century mass-media conceit. It was made possible by 1) over-production of goods and services, especially post-WWII, with a commensurate lack of functional improvement (i.e. we needed to keep factories running even if they weren’t making ever-better or different things), and 2) the media one-way media channels available to tell consumers that these always newer things “meant.”

Both those circumstances are no longer valid, and consumers are more aware now anyway. Today, we are not unlike consumers 200 or 2000 years ago, in that we primarily need the things we buy to do things that matter to us, and it’s from that experience that we derive any meaning. This is potentially wonderful for us and for businesses because it could re-focus them on innovating things that actually do things better, faster, cheaper, etc.

Rabbi Shevack: Brands 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.

This ancient idea, until the Protestant work ethic got submerged by mere hunting for profit, was behind its spiritual power. It needs to be rediscovered! It is not an idea. It is simply how Life is! Do not under-estimate the value of a brand, such as Christianity, which swept the entire globe.  Its brand promise:  individual salvation, forgiveness, love-of-God, eternal life. Exactly what everyone is looking for, religious or not. All brands can be framed similarly;  there are hierarchies of desires, which scale the ubiquity of brands and their sales.

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.

Jonathan Baskin: They can’t and shouldn’t try. The very idea that people would somehow ‘belong’ to brands is idiotic when it isn’t downright scary. Great, valued, repeat transactions could be seen as an “ongoing conversation” if not a “relationship” outright. Providing that consistency should be the goal of every business.

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 over-reach, 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.

I worry that most marketers are aggressively working to put themselves out of a job. The simple test is this: for ANY of the meaning nonsense that marketers claim matters, what would happen if brands simply turned them off? Would consumers arise in violent protest because P&G isn’t celebrating moms anymore, or Dove doesn’t promote real beauty? Of course not.

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 over-reach, 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? Please leave us a comment as to your thoughts.