Are Brands Making People Less Religious?

January 9, 2015
Behavioral Science, Marketing

People may joke about a spiritual-like devotion to Starbucks, Apple or BMW, but recent research shows brands may truly be impacting religious commitment. Specifically, Professor Gavan Fitzsimons' work finds people may be using brands as a means of self-expression in the way they once used religion.

Fitzsimons specializes in how brands affect consumer choice on an unconscious level. In previous research, he found shoppers who were thinking about religion were less likely to choose a brand over a generic product. In another study, his research team found that shoppers in more religious counties relied less on brands than their more religious counterparts.

Fitzsimons co-authored the study "Finding Brands and Losing Your Religion" published recently in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

"Our past work has shown that religious people relied less on brands than their non-religious counterparts. In our current work, we wanted to see if the opposite was true: whether simply exposing people to brands would be enough to undermine or weaken their commitment to God and religion," Fitzsimons said.

The group conducted a series of studies to test this basic premise. In one, 131 participants were asked to choose between products that were branded (for example, a Nike or New Balance bag) or the same products with the brands removed. They were then asked a set of questions about their religious commitment. Results showed the participants who were exposed to the branded products identified as less religious (for example, they reported reduced belief that it was important to regularly attend religious services).

"People who picked between the branded items had their need for self-expression satisfied more than folks who had generic choices," Fitzsimons said. "As a result, religion became less active and important for them, even if they were indeed quite religious." 

In another study, 41 participants were either asked to describe brands that allowed them to express their personality or brands that were more functional. Results show participants who described the brands as a means of self-expression reported a lower commitment to religion.

Researchers wanted to understand if exposure to brands would affect charitable giving. Of 260 adults given a choice between T-shirts that could be kept or donated, those who were offered branded shirts to keep considered religious expression to be less important.

"As brands have evolved over the past 100 years they have increasingly come to serve many of the same roles in our lives as does religion — they provide a means for self-expression, a sense of community, and a sense of belonging," Fitzsimons said. "Our results speak to the power of brands in modern life, and present a cautionary tale for mixing brands and religion in our lives. At a minimum, religious leaders should avoid serving 'Starbucks' coffee after weekly service."

This story may not be republished without permission from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Please contact for additional information.

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