Nothing is more nebulous in marketing than brands. What are they? Why do people adopt one brand over another? What makes people brand loyal?

It’s not like we evolved to relate to brands. Heck, we weren’t even intelligently designed to relate to brands. After all, there were no brands 5,770 years ago. 

Much of what marketing has to say about brands involves platitudes, aphorisms and gut feelings. To some, it’s snake oil and patent medicine. But more and more research is being done to help us better understand brands.


In September, Brands: The Opiate of the Nonreligious Masses?”, by Tülin Erdemand and three Duke University faculty. As a Duke reporter summarized the research, “The brand name logo on a laptop or a shirt pocket may do the same thing for some people that a pendant of a crucifix or Star of David does for others.” The researchers found that the more religious a person was, the less important to them were public displays of brand expressions. If brands represent a need for consumers to self identify and express self worth, religion solves that need. Now, that doesn’t mean the brand manager needs to view their brand as a cult (unless you’re the brand manager of Apple), but it might encourage you to study your demographics in a different way. Said one of the study’s authors, Gavan J. Fitzsimons, “If you knew that your target customers were largely more religious, that’d probably suggest the store brand path would be easier. If you knew that your customers were largely not at all religious, that suggests that you might want to focus more toward building a national brand.

By coincidence, right before the study came out, Gary Singer, CEO of Buyology, presented the results of their marketing neuroscience research into brands as religions at the AMA Marketing Research Conference. They found that similar areas of the brain were activated, and identified ten commonalities between religions and great brands:

1. Grandeur
2. Vision
3. Rituals
4. Enemy
5. Symbols
6. Storytelling
7. Sense of belonging
8. Mystery
9. Sensory Appeal
10. Evangelism

Now if you have to feel that looking for divinity in branding is a bit sacrilegious, and that there is no god in the branding machine, then perhaps brands are people rather than gods.

Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson, in The Hero and The Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes, argue that consumers relate to brands as other people, and expect each brand to behave consistently given its character. The authors have built a model of 12 archetypes that brands fulfill: Creator, Caregiver, Ruler, Jester, Regular Guy/Gal, Lover, Hero, Outlaw, Magician, Innocent, Explorer and Sage. Strong brands are evocative of these archetypes: PBS as the ExplorerHarley Davidson as the Outlaw, and Oprah as the Sage.

This understanding of brands seems as nebulous as any. And 
many reviewers dismiss the archetypes as so much hokum. But what they overlook is that the authors actually conducted quantitative research to back up their claims that these 12 archetypes have value to brand managers.

Margaret Mark turned to Young & Rubicam’s BrandAsset Valuator; at the time, over 120,000 consumers had completed the BAV, evaluating over 55 attributes per brand. Margaret Mark and other researchers mapped these attributes to their 12 archetypes to determine the primary and secondary archetypes for 50 major brands. For these brands, they then compared the financial performance of brands with “tightly defined” archetypal identities, whose secondary archetype was at least 10 percent less popular than its primary archetype, and “confused” brands, where the secondary archetype was almost as prominent in consumers’ minds as the primary brand. They discovered that the MVA (Market Value Added) of strongly archetyped brands rose by 97 percent more than that of confused brands from 1993 to 1999, and the EVA (Economic Value Added) grew 66 percent faster during that timeframe. The authors conclude, “Identities that succeed at striking an essential human chord affect the most fundamental economic measures of success… brands that consistently express an appropriate archetype drive profitability and success in the real and sustainable ways.”

Of course, the devil is in the details, but market researchers would be well served to review these studies the next time they need to do brand research.

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.