Earlier this year, we proposed the debate “When brands become sacred symbols” http://www.morillas.com/en/blog-en/when-brands-become-sacred-symbols/, considering how brands are replacing the role of religion – in terms of belief, practice, rituals and iconography.
As the distinction between structures of power – religions, governments, brands, to name a few – continue to blur, we present the fitting sequel to that debate: what happens when religious icons become brands?
As Ad Age’s (http://adage.com/) columnist Auro Trini Castelli most rightly puts it: “While branding and religion may seem like topics that have nothing to do with each other, there is a precise correlation between religious icons and iconic brands: Both are culturally complex and visually simple.”
The interplay between the two is indeed intricate and layered, but can be defined according to the following two approaches: intentionality and coincidence.
Intentional branding around religious icons:
Let’s consider the Muslim crescent moon: The symbol of Islam, it marks the beginning and end of each month of the Islamic calendar. The crescent symbol can be plastered just about anywhere – calendars, posters, mosque websites – reaching a devote audience of almost 2 billion followers. That’s right, the Muslim consumer market is pegged at a whopping 1.8 billion people. An enormous and largely untapped sector that became reason enough for advertising mogul Ogilvy to open up its boutique agency Ogilvy Noor (www.ogilvynoor.com), a pioneering consulting service for marketers seeking to appeal to Muslim consumers. Their approach to Islamic branding:
“We believe that good Islamic branding practice, that is, branding that is friendly or compliant with Shariah principles, naturally embodies many of the values that global businesses are feeling the pressing need to communicate today. Values such as honesty, respect, accountability and understanding are core to the principles of Shariah and resonate deeply with Muslim consumers across the world.”
For an Islamic celebration last year, the agency designed the crescent moon for a global mail out. Director of Ogilvy Noor commented that the moon as a symbol of Islamic identity is important yet must be used appropriately and within a relevant context:
“In creating visuals for Ramadan, and Muslims in general, creativity is vital. Don’t just follow the crowds in using the crescent. It’s fine if it’s appropriate, but it doesn’t work as shorthand for ‘reaching out to Muslims’. Muslim consumers are much smarter than that, and are looking for visual imagery that speaks to their values and aspirations.”
In the case of deliberate religious branding, the key is to master the way the symbol is used. Not to play into its role as an overused cliché but rather to create the right context around it, so that it strongly reinforces and inspires the values that it represents.
A casual coincidence:
From deliberation to just pure happenstance: What happens when a moon, cross or star just happens to appear on a brand? It becomes open to interpretation and, in some cases, controversy. Take the Chevrolet logo. It’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination, but nonetheless, the Chevy bowtie could be interpreted as a Christian cross. At least that’s what an Egyptian Sheikh believed. In fact, his reaction was so strong that he issued a fatwa that buying or even driving a Chevrolet is considered haram in Egypt because the American brand’s logo looks like the Christian cross.
Although the car brand’s logo actually has no traced origin, they are rumors that it was copied from the wallpaper of a French hotel room by creator of General Motor’s Billy Durant. Sound like Christian branding? Hardly. Not only does the icon contain zero connotations to Christianity, but neither do the values nor culture of the company adhere to a Christian thought practice.
Chevy is joined by thousands of other brand examples that have accidentally adopted religious iconography and, it turn, become controversial. Youth street brand Vans (http://www.vans.es/) has been considered anti-Semitic for the star icon on the soles of their shoes, while Jay Leno’s new crescent moon logo for the Tonight Show is under scrutiny for its Islamic implications. (http://new.pentagram.com/2014/02/new-work-the-tonight-show-starring-jimmy-fallon/).
Now although these brands are clearly not claiming any association with a religion, they certainly lure in plenty of attention and brand buzz. What distinguishes a powerful brand is one that extrapolates and identifies precisely what it stands for in relation to its icon, and to steer its positive and negative brand buzz into a coherent and clearly-linked brand narrative.
For examples, it’s hardly viable that Jay Leno’s tonight show will soar in ratings in the Muslim world simply because of its crescent moon, but it’s largely feasible that, if adhering its brand principles to, at least, a Christian cultural mindset, Chevrolet could become the proud symbol of a Christian households. That is powerful branding.