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Brand Management

The Rise Of Sacred Brands And Experiences


What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”

Traditional marketing communications erected a big wall between what anthropologists term Sacred vs. Profane. Sacred consumption occurs when we “set apart” objects and events from normal activities and treat them with respect or awe. Note that in this context the term sacred does not necessarily carry a religious meaning, although we do tend to think of religious artifacts and ceremonies as “sacred.”

Profane consumption in contrast, describes objects and events that are ordinary or everyday; they don’t share the “specialness” of sacred ones. Again, note that in this context we don’t equate the word profane with obscenity, although the two meanings do share some similarities. In the old days at least, the two domains didn’t mix. References to organized religion in the service of selling material goods were traditionally taboo (not counting Xmas sales, perhaps).

Today, this wall has come down. Our pervasive consumer culture imbues many objects, events, and even people with sacred meaning. Many of us regard events such as the Super Bowl and people such as Elvis Presley as sacred. Even the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, maintains a display that features such “sacred items” as the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, a phaser from Star Trek, and Archie Bunker’s chair from the television show All in the Family.

As the Smithsonian’s collection illustrates, the traditional wall of High Art vs. Low Art also seems to be on the verge of coming down. High Art refers to “elite” painting, sculpture, and other works we usually see exhibited only in galleries – conveniently separated from human contact by a wall of glass. In contrast, Low Art somewhat condescendingly describes popular culture such as comic books, TV shows and of course advertising that is the province of the masses. When Captain Kirk’s weapon is displayed with the same reverence as the Mona Lisa in the Louvre (which in turn is virtually inaccessible these days because of the hordes of tourists who are eager to take a selfie with the tiny masterpiece), we know that things are changing.

We make a similar distinction regarding the wall that separates Arts vs. Crafts: An art product is an object we admire strictly for its beauty or because it inspires an emotional reaction in us (perhaps bliss, or perhaps disgust). In contrast, we admire a craft product because of the beauty with which it performs some function (e.g., a ceramic ashtray or hand-carved fishing lures). A craft tends to follow a formula that permits rapid production.

But clearly the distinction between high and low culture is not as clear as it used to be. In addition to the possible class bias that drives such a distinction (i.e., we assume that the rich have culture but the poor do not), today high and low culture blend together in interesting ways. In addition to the appliances, tires, and cereals it sells by the case, the warehouse club Costco stocks fine art, including limited-edition lithographs by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, and Joan Miró. Paintings by the late artist Thomas Kinkade command large sums, even though they are at least partially created in assembly-line fashion by “Master Highlighters” who embellish each work.

In fact, marketers often invoke high-art imagery to promote products. They may feature works of art on shopping bags or sponsor artistic events to build public goodwill. When observers from Toyota watched customers in luxury car showrooms, the company found that these consumers view a car as an art object. The company then used this theme in an ad for the Lexus with the caption, “Until now, the only fine arts we supported were sculpture, painting, and music.”

In addition to sacred objects (whether painted by Rembrandt or Peter Max), we idolize sacred people as we set them apart from the masses. Souvenirs, memorabilia, and even mundane items these celebrities have (supposedly) touched acquire special meanings and lofty price tags. Newspapers pay paparazzi hundreds of thousands of dollars for candid shots of stars or royalty. Indeed, many businesses thrive on our desire for products we associate with the famous. There is a flourishing market for celebrity autographs, and objects that celebrities owned, such as Princess Diana’s gowns or John Lennon’s guitars, sell on eBay for astronomical prices.

The world of sports is sacred to many of us (recent doping and gambling scandals aside). We find the roots of modern sports events in ancient religious rites, such as fertility festivals (e.g., the original Olympics). Teams often join in prayer prior to a game. The sports pages are like the scriptures (and we all know ardent fans who read them “religiously”), the stadium is a house of worship, and the fans are members of the congregation. Devotees engage in observant activities, such as tailgate parties and the synchronized “Wave” in stadiums. The athletes and coaches that fans come to see are godlike; devotees believe they have almost superhuman powers. One study documented more than 600 children whose parents named them after the legendary University of Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant!

Tourism is another category of sacred experience. People occupy sacred time and space when they travel on vacation (though you may not think so if you get stuck sleeping on an airport floor because of a plane delay). The tourist searches for “authentic” experiences that differ from his normal world (think of Club Med’s motto, “The antidote to civilization”). Often, we relax everyday (profane) norms regarding appropriate behavior as tourists, and participate in illicit or adventurous experiences we would never engage in at home (“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”).

The other side of the Sacred vs. Profane wall is deteriorating as well. Desacralization occurs when we remove a sacred item or symbol from its special place or duplicate it in mass quantities so that it loses its “specialness” and becomes profane. Souvenir reproductions of sacred monuments such as the Washington Monument or the Eiffel Tower, artworks such as the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David, or reproductions of sacred symbols such as the U.S. flag on T-shirts eliminate their special aspects. They become inauthentic commodities with relatively little value.

Religion itself has to some extent become desacralized. Spiritual symbols like stylized crosses or New Age crystals often pop up on fashion jewelry. Critics often charge that Christmas has turned into a secular, materialistic occasion devoid of its original sacred significance. In the U.S.A. alone, the religious publishing and products (RPP) market brings in $6 billion per year.

Creating Brands With Sacred Status

Your business may involve tourism, sports, design, music, or any one of many verticals that elevate certain people, objects, and places to sacred status. In our global consumer culture, “religious” observances definitely are not confined to church. Cult products like Apple, Nike, HGTV, Oprah, or for some even Kraft Mac and Cheese inspire slavish devotion.

One way to add an extra layer of value to what you sell is to enshrine it as part of a collection that is set apart from “ordinary” items. An item is sacralized as soon as it enters a collection, and it takes on special significance to the collector that outsiders may find hard to comprehend. For example, you may know someone who collects matchbooks that mark visits to out-of-town restaurants: Just try to use one of these books if you actually need to light a match. Consumers take their collections seriously, and you should, too.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Michael Solomon. Excerpted and adapted from his book “Marketers, Tear Down These Walls!.”

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