Family is the core of everything. Brands that want to succeed must understand the “Core Four” values, and reflect them back in every aspect of their marketing.
The Core Value of Faith and Spirituality
Our Search for Higher Meaning and Purpose
We have been exploring a new consumer supergroup we call the New American Middle (NAM). The NAM consumer group is defined by what they value. It is a mindset. Tangible demographic descriptions are helpful, but the NAM is motivated and their behavior is driven by what we call the Core 4 Values. The search for spiritual meaning (e.g., faith is one of these foundational value sets).
While we use common words to describe the NAM Core 4 Values, the concepts are not simple. Each common word—like family, community, faith, and sustainability—has been given dimensions and packed full of new meaning. Each word means something different in one place than in another. From one social group to another. The meaning shifts based on context. Even a choice of media channel can shift the form of expression (e.g., what is OK on Instagram is not always OK on LinkedIn). Marketers who think they know what the word family means need to reconsider; they need to rethink how new consumer sentiments impact their branding and marketing strategy. These words have outgrown their former containers. We need to repot a few concepts. Faith is certainly one of those root-bound words.
The New American Middle believes in something bigger than themselves. They may or may not consider themselves religious, but they have a belief in an overarching something.
In this article, we will call this something Faith or Spirituality when referring to the NAM Core 4 Value. The two words are almost synonyms. Each word describes a nuance of the same thing. So it’s not always easy to pinpoint the differences between them.
Moving forward, we will tend to use the word Faith for simplicity’s sake.
The word faith includes traditional faith, with the usual and various houses of worship. Faith is something that is more often formally articulated than the word spirituality. To many, the word spirituality is fuzzier and more undefined. Bringing up their children in some form of defined system of faith is easier than to bring them up in the cloudier world of spirituality. We should be careful, though, to avoid reducing the notion of faith to mere sectarian doctrine. Even formal systems of faith have become far more fluid than in the recent past. Faith does not always mean religion. The word spirituality might be better applied to various types of self-actualization, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, health, and wellness. Larger social movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter are efforts to express truth, cultural meaning, and healing too—even if the message is messy and confusing to some. All efforts to capture faith and spirituality must work their way through initial resistance.
Faith among the New American Middle has a broad spectrum of applications. It is centered on a spiritual quest for meaning, but today’s NAM consumer looks for answers in many places, not just places with an altar. Modern life is now filled with plenty of options and alternative sources, so it should be no surprise that the search for meaning is also informed and expressed in many ways. Inspired by new ideas and resources, it also follows that old authority structures come into question, and held to new levels of accountability. Even commercial brands can become extensions of a person’s faith. Does a brand articulate and support important issues like the environment? A brand might not represent the ultimate shiny core of truth, but it is expected to help the NAM consumer pull in a common direction toward a better world.
Faith is really the search for a shining center or the source of perfection. We all realize perfection is unattainable. But we also know that progress is made one step at a time. That knowledge gained adds to or subtracts from our enlightenment. There are enough compromises just getting the kids to school, then when there is time for a real choice, we will choose progress over more conflict. Communities and brands that help us along the way become the go-to choices.
Author Brene Brown writes: “Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.“
Do not think mere positioning will naturally result in consumer loyalty. Consumers are smart and can sniff out disingenuous poseurs. With access to social media and online search, consumers hold big brands to a higher standard than they used to. Big brands must act and think locally. This means serving communities in relevant ways. We have all heard that corporate responsibility is “good for business.“ That’s a start. But real authenticity is when a brand is inherently responsible for the sake of being responsible. Choosing to do the right thing. Consumers can sense that too.
Too idealistic? Sure. Everyone makes compromises—even to their core beliefs. And yes, it’s true the NAM will look for low-cost products and convenient ways to get them. The NAM buys plenty of “mere products“ that do not reflect their deepest sentiments. But low cost and convenience are not satisfying to them. They want to support good brands, meaning the brands that reflect their own values. But brands that make low price their whole story fail to fit into the story the NAM is writing for themselves.
Brands that survive on the repeat sale of important goods must approach this population in ways that are very different from the “commodity brands.“ These commodity brands cycle in and then follow their spiraling prices to the bottom. Brands that better reflect the NAM Core 4 Values—brands that take a stand for something—find longer periods of loyalty and higher profits.
The word religion can confuse a discussion of this sort. Overall, it is not a word many members of the NAM might choose to describe their experience. We suggest we all expunge the word as a default description of the NAM Core 4 Faith Value. Traditional religion is still important to the NAM. But there has been a consistent decline in membership in religious organizations for decades. If we set aside the challenges of church attendance due to the pandemic, we are left with a spectrum of influences for this decline. These influences include the lavish lifestyles and moral misdeeds of “TV evangelicals,“ abuse at the hands of clergy, and a culture of denials and cover-ups. And yet, compare this decline in attendance the Pew Research Center study done in 2018 indicating “the vast majority of Americans believe in some kind of higher power“—but not necessarily in a God as described in the Bible or by big traditional institutions. This one point of view might be summed up by the following paraphrase.
“The church lies about its own sins; how can I trust that it is telling the truth about the most important truths of all? I have the internet. I will figure it out and decide for myself.“
Think about it. The ultimate authorities in our lives are now being challenged and questioned, and new opinions are formed. It’s awesome, but access to so much information does not include training on how to interpret and fact-check. Some pretty wild conclusions can be the result. Doctors used to represent the “voice of God,“ but now we all go to WebMD.com to do our own diagnosis. Big pharma further erodes a doctor’s authority by suggesting through their ads that we go in and tell the doctor that we want their particular drug. So why not research matters of faith and decide for yourself? We’re all experts these days. “Google knows pretty much everything, I’ll look there.“ Given a few more years—plus AI—and we’ll be able to google just about anything.
We all know that politics and religion are not topics among polite society. To be clear, we are not advising marketers to design overt sectarian brand messaging. Like all the NAM values, Faith is a strong common thread that ties together the NAM consumer group. Brands need to understand how to respectfully engage consumers in a two-way dialogue about what it means to aspire, to push the edges forward, to live and even be better. Consumers will increasingly reject brands that are too big to care. But they know big brands can make a big difference too. If you are a big brand, there are plenty of ways to bridge the gap. Big brands with their power and resources are the ones expected to build the bridge. Consumers then “support“ those brands that make an authentic difference.
For the 2018 Super Bowl, Toyota created a TV spot in which a rabbi, a priest, an imam, and a monk ride together in a Toyota truck to a local high school football game. The ad’s tone isn’t serious or reverential; in fact, it’s a play on the old joke “A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar.“
The ad’s power, and its humor, comes from the core principle of the NAM’s faith—effective marketing reflecting consumers’ real lives back to them. Most brands refuse to engage with religion, which is an important part of life to many NAM consumers. No one is asking for McDonald’s or Levi’s to start quoting Bible verses in their marketing. But NAM consumers are expecting brands to acknowledge that most people are more than transactions. People are spiritual in some shape or form, and buying a mere product isn’t very satisfying. Many times, intangible meaning is just as important as tangible product. (Unless you’re buying Cheetos, etc.)
A March 2021 Gallup report stated: “The U.S. remains a religious nation, with more than seven in 10 affiliating with some type of organized religion. However, far fewer, now less than half, have a formal membership with a specific house of worship.“ We might conclude that spirituality is alive, but church attendance? Not so much.
England’s royal family is a big corporation frequently rocked by scandal. Do they continue to be relevant or not? The monarchy itself holds over £67 billion of value. On the other hand, they also bring in almost £2 billion annually to England’s economy. Then there are other benefits, like hundreds of millions of pounds in “free“ media awareness around the world. Admittedly, not all the press is good. However, the royal family also supports a massive array of charities. Along with the beloved Sir David Attenborough, Prince William is featured in the five-part BBC series Earthshot: Repairing Our Planet. The series recognizes and rewards innovators and pioneers addressing the global climate-change crisis. The monarchy may be big (and as some say, have outlived its purpose), but Prince William is using his influence for one of the most important issues of our day, climate change. As in Earth. Where each one of us lives. It’s a big thing, yes, but it’s also really, really personal. I even forgot there was trouble in his family. But, hey, don’t we all have issues we’re dealing with? Save the planet? OK, we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt—and hope you can patch things up with your brother. (And thanks for kicking out Prince “Epstein“ Andrew too.)
Effective messaging reflects a relevant experience. Sure, we all need to self-indulge and blow off steam. Self-indulgence usually involves a product of some kind, from a six-pack to a sports car. But the flip side is harder to achieve. In a world where people are looking inward, they consider many things to be a distraction. Consumers look at that kind of marketing and think, That’s not the world I want to live in. And to practical managers used to creating tangible products, talking about the spiritual nature of marketing might sound like voodoo. There are those pesky opposing forces again. But maybe it’s not really “just“ business anymore? Maybe everything is connected to everything else?
A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 80 percent of adults in the United States believe in God, and among that 80 percent, 56 percent believe in the God described by the Bible, while the remaining 24 percent believe in some sort of higher power. Further, the survey found that 60 percent of agnostics, people who described their spiritual beliefs as “nothing in particular,” still believe in the existence of God, a higher power, or a spiritual force.
Take beliefs about the afterlife, for example. NBC News reported that 80 percent of Americans believe in some form of an afterlife. According to Daniele Mathras of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, “Religious beliefs about the afterlife may reduce death anxiety, thereby reducing the need for consumers to purchase luxury, branded goods when death is made salient.” In other words, if a consumer believes that life doesn’t end in death, they will be less susceptible to a marketing-based #yolo philosophy, which focuses on momentary, fleeting pleasures. These consumers are less materialistic, less concerned with status, because, as the saying goes, you can’t take it with you. Yes, you only live once, but that once sets the stage for everything else to come.
Mathras also notes that “religious values provide normative guidance to individuals about what to consume, how much to consume, and when to consume it.” What Mathras is pointing out here is that people who live their lives according to a more spiritual path value self-control, following rules, and, for lack of a better phrase, “being good.”
So if a brand is marketing a product like beer to this audience, it might be a bad idea to create ads that seem to celebrate overconsumption. While the example given in the linked content might be OK for bachelors, it’s probably not the best use of media money for the NAM. Instead, the brand should also create ads that show consumers enjoying their product in moderation, in the context of other core values. Ad men, relax. There is room for some bad-boy behavior, but the alternative doesn’t need to be boring or prudish either.
Knowing what the customer wants, what it’s worth to them and then supplying it, is basic to business success. Old news. What they really want now is not so obvious. This is because they are not buying just anything, but they really are buying everything. Yes, they buy product features and benefits, but they are also buying the entire brand experience. They support brands that represent and articulate their own values. They place their faith in these brands. This is not sacred religious faith; it is the faith that these brands have dug deep and found ways to address the most important issues of all. And these core issues, so important to individuals, are also important to the NAM super group. Demographic details help marketers target interests of individual and smaller clusters, but knowing the NAM Core 4 Values gives an underlying and uniting line beneath multiple NAM demographic clusters. It is a way to be relevant to a large population, but to also do so at scale.
To many, sacred faith and commercial marketing may seem like an unholy alliance. But if marketing is defined as communication and faith is a central motivator, then why would it be a problem? Of course, if marketing is just a disingenuous packet of trickery deceiving all that’s holy—well there’s a valid point. But when marketing connects a thing with the desire by someone who wants or needs that thing, it’s a service. The fact is, most consumers look to brands to help articulate their values. Values-based marketing has been a thing for decades, but not all marketers have caught on just yet.
“Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it.”—Publilius Syrus, first century B.C.
In the Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Brand Trust in 2020, it is clear that consumers expect brands to positively address many of the global challenges we face:
The Edelman Trust Barometer for 2021 reflects both the expectation and the disappointment of big government, institutional, and media “brands” in addressing the effects of the pandemic. Only business brands retained an elevated trust level. Consumers retained a high level of faith in commercial brands through the pandemic.
The brands measured in the Edelman report include business, government, NGOs, and media. Big brands are already held in suspicion by the NAM. So any faith placed by the NAM in these big brands is inherently challenged:
So, yeah! NAM consumers expect a lot from brands. Consumers don’t want to just sign up, they want to join. They don’t want to buy from a brand. They describe their purchases as “supporting” the brand. Confidence in big (responsible) brands—fairly or unfairly—follows the general trust curve. Smaller brands are not expected to perform at the same big scale. They can dodge the feet of the giants, just like everyone, so they are sought out and trusted more. But they are still expected to provide some leadership where they do business (e.g., voluntarily limit revenues by distancing tables, switch from distilling artesian spirits to producing hand sanitizers, or highlight the work of local heroes in their local ads).
Knowing the importance of “local,” even Amazon (the place most of us compromise core values for convenience) has made changes. They now employ local drivers using local delivery trucks to place engineered boxes using less cardboard on our doorsteps (and they take a photo in order to discourage thieves and false claims). The thinner boxes, regional distribution centers, and local employment of drivers help to assuage our guilt. On a larger scale, Amazon has put major operational changes in place, including a goal of net-zero carboy by 2040. Amazon, they’re the biggest, but they’re acting small too. Dang! Love ’em. Hate ’em.
We opened with the first-century adage of “Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it” because it especially rings true today. The NAM consumer is, in fact, thinking about everything to do with their purchases.
The classic, simple “4 P’s of Marketing” model taught from the 1960’s through the 1990’s has been replaced:
A real living brand can best be described by the various opposing forces that surround that brand. These forces, often conflicting, hold a real brand in a kind of living tension. Creating and maintaining balance is the marketer’s objective. The shift in paradigm from 4 P’s to 4 C’s illustrates this dynamic. Adding consumer expectations to the company’s internal objectives marketing is making a necessary adjustment. Brands can remain in business only by giving consumers what they expect.
There are a lot of boxes to check, but if a brand checks the most important boxes, then the NAM will pay for it—or at least choose that brand over others.
Faith has survived and been changed through the ages of time, but faith is also interpreted and prioritized differently by age brackets, regional influences, and gender and racial differences. In 2018, the Vice and Insight Strategy Group presented a white paper on marketing to millennials and Gen Z at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Their research found that the best way to reach these younger audiences is through spirituality.
One of the survey respondents said, “We have a spiritual way of approaching brands today. If you are able to find comfort in yourself or others by affiliating with a brand, it’s a less dangerous leap of faith than organized religion.”
The report also listed the top ways that these generations engage with the core value of Spirituality and “take care of their soul”: listen to music and attend concerts and festivals, engage in self-care, talk to friends, hike and take long walks, create art and write.
We’ve all heard about it. When offices opened back up, employees didn’t want to go. COVID-19 produced a very restless workforce. Many workers spent so much time by themselves thinking instead of racing to work, they came to realize there may be options. Employee attraction and retention has since become a significant problem for many industries. This new search for meaning is being expressed in a wide range of spiritual experiences.
Recently, the trend leader reported on the value of spirituality and matters of faith. Here are a few excerpts from the September 2021 report:
The WGSN report offers the following suggestions for brands. We have added examples for each suggestion.
As marketers, we have all learned that the customer’s journey has many waypoints. Initial awareness of need, various level of active consideration, and, finally, a transaction—and, hopefully, influence on other consumers. We’ve all learned that the best journey includes an aspect of the consumer’s own self-discovery (e.g., don’t tell them, show them). Assisting the consumer as they seek a better, more meaningful life is an opportunity for every brand, not just the obvious healthcare brands. The Core 4 Values inform the NAM decision process. Faith and Spirituality bring inspiration and empowerment to the other three core values. Brands that align with these values vastly increase their chances of success.
WGSN is a wonderful source for smart marketers who seek to understand the consumer and what they want and expect. We are a paid subscriber and not affiliated with WGSN in any other capacity other than being a fan.
Outdoor Voices, a hip athleisure brand, understands these new expressions of spirituality, and provides content that celebrates how its young audience feeds their souls. The Recreationalist, the brand’s blog, is filled not with content that advertises the brand’s products (it rarely mentions the brand at all, actually). Instead, the blog is filled with stories of people who inspire others to lead more meaningful, healthy, and spiritual lives: a story that celebrates Jane Fonda and the early days of holistic exercise, a story about a young Houston-based yoga instructor who stresses “accountability,” an interview with a famous trail runner and the connection between spirituality and running.
If you peruse the brand’s website, it doesn’t “tell” consumers that the brand is spiritual—it “shows” consumers that it is deeply spiritual by the content it produces.
A few years back, we did a survey of what brands post on their Facebook pages. The brands that were doing the best at the time (e.g., Burberry, Ralph Lauren) posted events and lifestyle content. Concerts at the Burberry flagship store. Design inspiration for Ralph Lauren, plus images of that Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic coupe, one of three on the planet. Brands that were struggling (e.g., Henri Bendel and other bands that were struggling at the time) posted images of product after product. Messaging has since become more omnichannel, but the lesson today is the same as then. Everyone has products that targets buyers. The successful brands have a strategy of targeting lifestyle users who are buying more than just products (i.e., something to believe in).
Here at BMDG, we love working with brands that express the core value of Faith and Spirituality in authentic and meaningful ways. BMDG helped Enewton, a boutique jewelry brand based in Atlanta, tell its spiritual story to more consumers. Elizabeth Newton built the brand on the dual foundations of acceptance and belonging, and she creates jewelry so people can have an affordable way to celebrate and lift up the people they love.
The brand’s Christian heritage is expressed through its beautiful cross necklaces, but Enewton also manages to take the core of that heritage and create pieces that will resonate with non-Christian consumers as well. Alongside more religious-themed pieces, Enewton also offers hope bracelets and respect charm bracelets.
During the pandemic, Enewton launched a special effort by donating guardian-angel necklaces to nurses and frontline workers. It was a way to say thank you and to remind them that people are praying for them. Someone had to nominate a friend or coworker by submitting their name and address. A 14-karat gold necklace with an angel charm was then sent to them with a note of appreciation, including a reminder that someone was praying for them.
Faith in a higher power, with the ability to protect and guide is nonsectarian. The word pray might be considered a religious word, but it is a nonsectarian concept. It is claimed by all denominations, sects, and religions. The words pray, hope, and trust are widely accepted words that express and encourage the common core value of Faith. Pray is a word that both inspires and lifts the consumer and opens the door to the entire NAM population. As it has been said before, there are no atheists in foxholes, and prayer will always be present in schools as long as teachers give tests.
Enewton is a perfect case study in how religious brands can expand their core audience and appeal to consumers that value a more nondenominational spirituality. Like all brands that successfully engage the core value of Faith, Enewton offers its consumers ways to lead more meaningful, loving, and spiritual lives.
Title Nine is female-owned company that organizes its brand around the 1972 Title IX law that made it illegal for any public institution to limit participation in sports based on a person’s gender. Prior to that, men’s sports were the focus of most funding. By associating itself with this social movement, the brand’s stand for fairness and activism has served it very well over the years. Issues of equal pay were also taken up by Title Nine, endearing the brand to female athletes everywhere. Their commitment to remain independent and not be acquired by big investors also resonated with their audience.
Big societal influences—mostly coastal—Los Angeles and New York consider most of the country to be the middle of nowhere. The NAM members respond by saying, “Middle of nowhere? We’re the center of everything.” To this, we add, “The female consumer has historically been, the middle of the middle.’”
Title Nine recognizes this with these important qualities:
Title Nine has benefited from a commitment to a common cause among NAM females everywhere by keeping the faith for equal treatment for female athletes.
Back to Brene Brown. With a social media following of over 11MM followers (as of 3-9-22) she has insight into what helps people become more resilient and able to overcome the many stresses they live with. It has to do with faith and a sense of spirit. Here’s how she described it in her book The Gifts of Imperfection:
According to people I interviewed, the very foundation of the “protective factors”—the things that made them bouncy—was their spirituality. By spirituality, I’m not talking about religion or theology, but I am talking about a shared and deeply held belief. Based on the interviews, here’s how I define spirituality: Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.
Without exception, spirituality—the belief in connection, a power greater than self, and interconnections grounded in love and compassion—emerged as a component of resilience. Most people spoke of God, but not everyone. Some were occasional churchgoers; others were not. Some worshipped at the fishing holes, others in temples, mosques, or at home. Some struggled with the ideas of religion; others were devout members of organized religions. The one thing that they all had in common was spirituality as the foundation of their resilience.
From this foundation of spirituality, three other significant patterns emerged as being essential to resilience:
Faith is all about connecting. We may not be able to put our finger on the highest source of faith every day, but we can connect with people and organizations that are all pulling the same direction. By finding what unites us—the center scaffolding of faith—instead of what divides us, brands can succeed, yes, but we can also build a better world in which we all live. Values marketing is a powerful tool for any brand that wants to be invited into the homes of the purpose-driven and ever-mindful NAM consumer.
By Jeff Britton, CEO and cofounder of Britton Marketing & Design Group and [B]RIGHT Brand Performance Group
Family is the core of everything. Brands that want to succeed must understand the “Core Four” values, and reflect them back in every aspect of their marketing.
While face-to-face is the essential element of community, we now live in a digital age, where community can be anyplace you find other members of your tribe of interest.
Faith among the New American Middle has a broad spectrum of applications. It is centered on a spiritual quest for meaning, but today’s NAM consumer looks for answers in many places, not just places with an altar.
How sustainability and environmental stewardship plays a major role in the brand decision-making experience and in the life of the New American Middle.