Skip to main content

Give Us This Day Our Daily Brands

Researchers find identifying with brand-name products reduces religiosity.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Praise be to the Starbucks. (Photo: ontourwithben/Flickr)

Praise be to the Starbucks. (Photo: ontourwithben/Flickr)

Some people's loyalty to certain brands—think Apple—borders on the religious. If you've ever wondered why, consider the idea that religious affiliation and close identification with brands fulfill some of the same basic psychological needs.

That's the conclusion of a research team led by Keisha Cutright of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. It reports that when brands serve as a powerful source of self-expression, people are less likely to report, or demonstrate, strong religious commitment.

It seems if you're wearing the right brand of jeans, you have less need for Jesus.

"These findings imply that religiosity is less stable than it seems, and can be shaken by a substitution that may seem superficial to many—brands," the researchers write in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

"Brands, like religion, help individuals express themselves by articulating their self-worth to others, communicating aspects of their personality to others, and signaling their desired affiliations."

Cutright and her colleagues describe five experiments that provide evidence for their thesis. The first featured 71 university students who, in each of 10 rounds, were asked to choose between two similar products.

For half of the participants, the brands were named: In one round, they chose between a red and a green Adidas shirt, while in another, they picked either a white or brown Starbucks mug. The others went through the same process, except the brand names were removed.

They then responded to a series of statements designed to reveal how important their religious beliefs are to them, and how vital they considered it to regularly attend religious services.

The results: Those exposed to the brand-name products "reported lower religious commitment," as well as "lower importance of religious service attendance," the researchers report.

Another experiment utilized a familiar psychological tool. After describing how often they attend religious services, the 67 participants performed the task described above (with half choosing between brand-name products and half choosing between unmarked ones). They then were given "strings of letters that could be completed as religious or non-religious words," and asked to complete as many of them as possible.

Among those who compared generic products, "individuals who attended religious services frequently were more likely to generate religious words than those who did not," the researchers write. However, among those who compared brand-name items, "this pattern disappeared."

"This supports the notion that brand salience dampens the accessibility of religion," Cutright and her colleagues write, "presumably because religion is not as highly valued when brands are available to meet certain needs."

The researchers argue that those needs involve the deep-seated desire to "express one's self-worth, express one's identity, or express one's personal affiliations or sense of belongingness." This notion was directly tested in another experiment featuring 131 adults recruited online.

They completed the same task created for the previous experiments. But some of those choosing between brand-name products were also given specific warnings. One group was told that "people are not as successful as they think in expressing self-worth with brands," while others were told brands aren't as effective as one might believe as a way of expressing one's identity or affiliating with others.

Once again, those who judged the brand-name items reported lower levels of religiosity. That also held true for a final group that received a warning that had nothing to do with self-expression; it noted that people "are not as successful as they think in judging product quality through brand names."

However, when one of the self-expression-related warnings was added, "religious beliefs returned to baseline," the researchers report. With the expressive power of the products diluted, participants kept a firm grasp on their spiritual affiliations.

So religion is basically branding? That's clearly an overstatement, but the researchers make a convincing case that it's at least partially true.

"Brands, like religion, help individuals express themselves by articulating their self-worth to others, communicating aspects of their personality to others, and signaling their desired affiliations," they note. If wearing Nike shoes can accomplish the same thing, it stands to reason that religion becomes that much less important.

As Cutright and her colleagues put it: "Beliefs about God waver when brand-name products take center stage in individual's minds." Perhaps the Devil really does wear Prada.