Branding Religion: Christian Products
Branding Religion: Christian Consumers' Understandings of Christian Products
Eric Haley, Associate Professor
Candace White, Assistant Professor
Anne Cunningham, Doctoral Candidate
University of Tennessee
Paper submitted to the Advertising Division's Special Topics Session of the
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication 1999 Conference
Please direct all inquiries to:
Dr. Eric Haley
Department of Advertising
476 Communications Bldg.
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, TN 37996
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Branding Religion: Christian Consumers' Understandings of Christian Products
Recent years have witnessed a boom in Christian marketing, both the marketing of
Christian products and the use of "Christian-owned" as a loyalty building tool
for businesses. Despite the enormous growth in Christian retailing, researchers
have paid little attention to the phenomenon. This study offers an entr e into
the subject by examining how self-described Evangelical Christians, who are the
primary consumers of Christian products, make sense of their purchase and use of
Christian products. This study is important in that it examines a growing
multi-billion dollar per year product category, one of a few consumer categories
identified with strong ideological values. It also extends our understanding of
Recent years have witnessed a boom in Christian marketing, both the marketing
of Christian products and the use of "Christian-owned" as a loyalty building
tool for businesses. Rather than resisting the merging of marketing and
Christian values, some Christians have embraced marketing as a tool to make
Christian values more appealing to American youth. And it seems to be working.
Despite the enormous growth in Christian retailing, researchers have paid little
attention to the phenomenon. "Religion, especially contemporary religion, is
among the most understudied topics in American Studies, compared to its weight
in the larger culture" (Hulsether, 1995, p. 127). This study offers an entr e
into the subject by focusing on one of the central targets for the marketing of
religion, young adult Christian consumers. Specifically, this research examines
how self-described Evangelical Christians, who are the primary consumers of
Christian products, make sense of their purchases and use of Christian products.
This study is important in that it examines a growing multi-billion dollar per
year product category, one of a few consumer-oriented categories that is
identified with strong ideological values. Therefore, the study extends our
understanding of branding from the context of product and service marketing to
the marketing of ideology.
The Christian products market
Recent figures from the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) put sales in the
Christian retail industry, which includes Christian books, music, gifts,
clothing and jewelry, above $3 billion in 1996, up approximately 9% from 1995
(Lee, 1997). The CBA also estimates that up to 3,500 specialty Christian
retailers now exist nationwide (Dressler, 1996, p. 5). Even mainstream
retailers such as Wal-Mart are devoting more shelf space to religious products
("Christian retailing," 1998, p. 63). As Richard Heaton, marketing director for
witness wear manufacturer, Exodus, explains, "'It's the Kmartization of
Christian retailing.'" (Dressler, 1996, p. 5).
While the CBA says that the average Christian shopper is a well-educated
Caucasian, age 30 to 49, with a net income of more than $40,000 ("Christian
retailing," 1998, p. 63), one of the newest Christian crazes, "What would Jesus
do?" apparel and jewelry, particularly targets teens and young adults. As
reported in The Seattle Times, "The latest in 'witness wear' for Christian teens
is a bracelet inscribed 'W.W.J.D?' If you ask what the letters stand for, the
wearer might just whip it off and give it to you, along with the answer - 'What
would Jesus do'" ("Christian jewelry," 1997, p. B7)? W.W.J.D. can now be found
on everything from jewelry to bumper stickers to clothing. Sales of W.W.J.D.
items for one manufacturer topped $9 million last year (George, 1998, p. 4).
Given that little attention has been gone Christian marketing in the academic
literature, the researchers prepared for the investigation by consulting the
literature on symbolic communication, clothing and communication, and religious
symbols in clothing. The purpose of the review was to sensitize the researchers
to issues and themes that may emerge from the qualitative investigation. As is
standard in emergent qualitative investigations, additional literature was
consulted after the data were analyzed. This literature is presented in the
discussion of the findings section of this research report. Marketing religion
Moore (1994) offers one of the few examinations of contemporary religion,
particularly as it relates to American consumerism. In tracing the history of
American religion, Moore argues against the popular belief that religion has
become secularized in the past century. "The argument is not that religion has
only recently found it necessary to embrace techniques of commercial expansion
to get ahead. Commercial aspects of religion are traceable in any century" (p.
7). Even so, since the 1950s, religion has seeped further into the mainstream.
For many Americans, the spiritual help available in churches or in movie houses
or on television or in a best-selling book or at a businessman's prayer
breakfast tended to become equivalent. Organized religion had not made full
peace with popular culture, and some small denominations remained at war with
it. From one perspective, however, it was becoming hard to view religion as
something distinct from popular culture (p. 241).
Moore concludes with an important question about the impact of religious
commercialization on American society. "Having issued _tardy reminders about
the charitable activities and spiritual life of American churches, we must still
wonder whether they have been rendered less effective by the processes of
commercialization that support them. Is religion somehow not religion in the
way that it was" (p.273)? Moore suggests no answer to this question, but leaves
the reader to decide.
Communicating with symbols
Since the beginning of organized Christian faith, symbols have been used to
communicate religious ideas, whether through objects, art or rituals. One
perspective that gives insight into how people make meaning of the world through
such symbols is symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism, a term coined
by Herbert Blumer and developed as a theory by George Herbert Mead, refers to
the symbols used to create and express experiences and understandings (Baran and
Davis, 1995). Objects, gestures, logos, and even brands can symbolize ideas and
beliefs. McCracken (1988a) notes that the meaning of objects first travels from
the culture to the object, and then from the object to the individual who uses
the object. In many cases, advertisers and marketers attempt to control this
process to create desire for objects.
The transfer of meaning to the object defines the object so that it symbolizes,
and therefore can communicate, a complex idea, belief or ideal. For instance,
the American flag as an object is pieces of red, white, and blue cloth sewn
together. However, the flag as a symbol represents a nation; displaying the
flag communicates ideas such as patriotism and pride in the nation. Sewing an
American flag to the seat of one's pants, on the other hand, communicates other
sentiments. Communication through symbols relies on shared meaning; those who
share the meaning can read the symbols just as we can read and understand
language (Cunningham and Lab, 1991).
Clothing as symbols
While the Christian products category consists of books, music, and many other
products, Christian clothing is perhaps one of the most visible products in this
category. Most social scientists take for granted that an individual's clothing
expresses meaning (Rubinstein, 1995). Clothing can communicate personal worth,
values, religious beliefs, and group association. In all cultures through the
ages, people have decorated their bodies to signify status or beliefs. Hood
(1984) notes that the character of an individual is often the symbolic
interpretation of physical appearance and dress. Consciously or unconsciously,
an individual chooses clothing with a particular meaning. Most people dress
according to their tastes and pocketbooks without deliberate concern for what
their clothing communicates, while others intentionally make a "statement" with
their attire as is apparent in the dress of status and brand conscious
consumers, rebellious teenagers, and nuns and monks of certain religious orders.
The language of clothing is symbolic. Clothing, more than any other artifact,
symbolizes the relationship between people and their sociocultural environment
(Cordwell and Schwarz, 1979). Symbols, however, are not as exact in meaning as
language and are only recognizable to those who share their meaning. Therefore,
clothing can be worn to communicate to a subgroup (Cunningham and Lab, 1991).
Examples are Masonic symbols and the attire of gang members. The valid
interpretation of these symbols requires understanding the sociocultural context
within which the image appears (Cunningham and Lab, 1991).
Sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) posited that tie-signs and tie-symbols in
clothing are used to define individuality, create associations, reflect group
affiliations, and reflect our beliefs. Tie-signs in clothing provide
information about a desired or existing social identity such as group identity,
social status, or occupational role (Cunningham and Lab, 1991). Examples are
the readily identifiable clothing of the Hell's Angels, the wearing of expensive
brand labels, and military uniforms. Clothing tie-symbols are expressions of
support or association with a particular idea or cause (Goffman, 1959).
Examples today would be the X on Spike Lee's cap which serves to associate him
with Malcolm X or exhibiting red AIDS or pink Breast Cancer Awareness ribbons on
Symbols and their adoption as a means of self-association and self-expression
are personal choices. In a social context, clothing can serve to connect people
to a reference group using symbols which are recognized by others with shared
values (Rubinstein, 1995). Clothing symbols can also be used to validate the
personal identity of a person or to promote an internal sense of belonging or
well being (Cunningham and Lab, 1991).
Religious symbols in clothing and other products
Literature about the history of fashion and clothing and costumes is prolific.
Much has been written about the use of clothing to symbolize religious beliefs.
However, much of this body of work looks at ecclesiastical dress and liturgical
vestments, primarily worn by religious leaders or members of religious orders
(Mayo, 1984; Littrell and Evers, 1985). Studies about clothing worn by lay
persons to convey religious meaning focus on "costumes" such as baptismal and
wedding gowns, communion dress, or modes of dress such as that adopted by the
Amish and Mennonites (Rubinstein, 1995).
In his work on conversion rituals, Hood (1981;1986) suggests that gestures,
acts, and signs such as clothing may be used to mark the transformation of a
religious convert. "[C]onversion rituals have emerged in America as a means of
giving evidence that an internal change has occurred within the individual"
(1981, p. 1). As this relates to clothing and jewelry, Hood (1986) writes:
William James introduced the concept of the "material me" into thought about
representations of the self._Christians accumulate tokens of the conversion
experience. In denominations a common practice is to issue a certificate of
Christian baptism. Some persons choose to witness to their faith through
wearing a necklace with a cross pendant or a lapel pin. (p. 7)
These acts are to be seen by others as an expression and validation of the
wearer's Christian faith.
In the sociology of religion literature, one study was found that looked at the
wearing and displaying of clothing and items such as bumper stickers, T-shirts,
jewelry, etc. that depict religious symbols - items that might be called
"witness wear" by marketers today. Wicklund and Gollwitzer (1982), in a study
designed to explore the concept of symbolic self-completion, asked subjects from
varied religious backgrounds how often they wore or displayed clothing or items
that could be considered symbolic of their religious beliefs, and where and how
often they used such items. The study found that subjects from heterogeneous
religious backgrounds (both parents and family members of the same religion)
were more likely to wear clothing or display items with religious symbolism.
The researchers concluded that those with social and familial networks of
similar and strong religious convictions were more comfortable and complete in
their religious convictions.
In general, the literature supports the idea that products such as clothing can
function symbolically to communicate personal identity, affiliation with groups,
and even to communicate personal beliefs. The Wicklund and Gollwitzer (1982)
study found that directly addressed the use of Christian products. The study
precedes the recent growth of the Christian product and sheds little light on
the meaning of Christian products to users, which is the purpose of the present
This study of the meanings of Christian products to consumers is based in a
constructivist research paradigm (Guba, 1990). Constructivism is a set of
assumptions that holds realities to be multiple and socially constructed.
Reality is not inherent in objects, rather it is created in the interaction
between the object and the interpreter of that object, i.e. the individual
(Taylor and Haley, 1994) As such, it can be expected that there will not be a
singular meaning of the products. Constructivists also believe that the nature
of knowledge is subjective. That is, all knowledge is the product of human
constructions; therefore, absolute objectivity is impossible. As such,
abstraction of the phenomenon into supposedly objective measures does not serve
the purpose of the research. Finally, the object of a constructivist inquiry is
phenomenological understanding of how the subjects of interest construct or make
sense of the phenomenon of study. In this case, how do Evangelical Christians
make sense of Christian products?
Why study Evangelical young adults?
In determining the best sample for this study, eight interviews with owners and
managers of Christian retail stores were conducted. These managers suggested
that, while the average store shopper was an upper-middle class, female in her
30s or 40s, the most "influential" market segment was the younger demographic,
primarily 16-25. Store owners and managers also identified the primary user of
Christian products as "Evangelical." When asked to define "Evangelical," there
was little consensus about which religious denominations were considered
"Evangelical." Interviewees revealed that while most Baptists may consider
themselves "Evangelical," not all would define themselves as such. Similarly,
some concluded that while most Presbyterians would consider themselves
Protestant rather than Evangelical, some would describe themselves as
Evangelical. Given this, we defined our population of interest as Christian
young adults who describe themselves as Evangelical. Because of difficulties in
securing parental consent for interviewing minors, all participants were over
What tool to use to study the phenomenon?
To accomplish the study's mission, the long-interview method was employed. The
long-interview as been described as one of the most powerful tools in the
qualitative toolbox (McCracken, 1988b). The interview can take you into the
mind of the participant and glimpse the logical categories through which that
person creates the world. The long interview is a semi-structured interview in
which the interviewer is free to follow the respondent's train of thought. We
developed a discussion guide based on a review of relevant literature and
anticipation of how a conversation about the topic of interest might proceed.
However, the interviewers maintained freedom to modify the guide and incorporate
unanticipated subjects, discard questions that proved to be unimportant to the
subjects, and change the order of questions in order to capture the way in which
each individual makes sense of the subject of interest.
Respondents were recruited through known members of Evangelical churches in a
mid-sized, conservative Southeastern U.S. city. These church members were asked
to recommend young adults whom they felt would be willing to talk to the
research team about Christian products. Each interviewee was asked two
screening questions: age and church affiliation. When asking about church
affiliation, potential interviewees were asked to categorize the church to which
they belonged as Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical or other. Only those who
classified their church as "Evangelical" were asked to participate.
Interviews were conducted until a point of information redundancy was reached.
McCracken (1988b) suggests that redundancy may be achieved with as few as eight
interviews depending on the homogeneity of the population. In this study,
information redundancy was defined as the point at which no new unique
understandings of Christian products emerged from the interviews. Redundancy
was apparent after eight interviews, but interviews were conducted past the
point of redundancy to ensure that information saturation had been reached. In
total, the results of this study are based on 15 one- to two-hour interviews
with self-described Evangelical Christian young adults between the ages of 18
To ensure that the research was as accurate a representation of the respondents'
views as possible, two trustworthiness measures were incorporated into the
research design: transcription verification and a member check (Lincoln and
Guba, 1985). The transcripts were verified against the tape recorded
interviews to make sure that the respondents' words were correctly recorded when
converting the data from oral to written form. The member check involved
sharing the transcripts with the research participants to make sure the
interview accurately reflected the participants' views. Participants were
interviewed after they reviewed their own transcription and given a chance to
make additional comments or clarify statements. These additional interviews
were recorded and transcribed and became part of the data set as well. Only in
one case did an interviewee wish to modify earlier statements.
The data were analyzed using analytic induction. Analytic induction involves
line-by-line reading of transcripts to develop themes and categories that emerge
among interviews. These categories were expanded, contracted or merged as
additional transcripts were read. Negative cases that contradict the categories
were sought within the transcripts in order to expand the analysis (Corbin and
Strauss, 1990). The final analysis is a composite representation of the
divergent meanings of Christian products to self-described Evangelical
So what do Christian products mean to self-described Evangelical Christian
young adults? Christian products such as witness wear and music hold varied
meanings for these Christians. First of all, it is important to note that while
the predominant user of this product category is Evangelical, not all
self-described Evangelicals buy or use products from the category. In order to
understand the varied meanings, the understandings of both users and non-users
of these products will be examined.
In the study seven of the 15 participants said that they personally did not buy
or use Christian products. Among these seven participants were self-described
fundamentalists, moderates and liberals. Within this group of divergent people,
a dominate theme emerges. That is, this group could not cognitively reconcile
perceived conflicts between Christian ideology and marketing.
Jesus wouldn't buy the T-shirt
"Products are not the way I choose to express my spirituality. I do have
difficulty reconciling marketing with spirituality. When religion becomes a
marketing campaign I get a little turned off. For centuries, many churches have
profited by the sweat and suffering of many. I do not condemn all organized
religion. Mother Teresa was truly an angel. Jim Baker on the other hand_..Be
it T-shirts or condominiums, these things are incongruent with the teaching I
The above comments from a married, 31 year-old business woman, wife and mother
for whom church is not among the most important events in her week were echoed
by a young man in his twenties who described himself as a "strict
fundamentalist" who is at church "every time the door is open and sometimes even
when it's not."
"Treasures in heaven, not treasures on earth. That's what we're supposed to
strive for. Jesus destroyed the temple when it was used for selling stuff. The
bible, the unadulterated word of God, that's all we need. Not T-shirts, or
bracelets or CDs, or none of that stuff. It's profiting from the blood of
Jesus, and that isn't right."
The perceived contradictions between Christian ideas and marketing are only an
example of a larger issue, according to the following male college student:
"What I get so burnt on is that we're taught through advertising and everything
else that the only way to show somebody you love them is to buy them something.
The more expensive the item, the more you love them. Now, it's like that with
faith. It's like they're telling you that you don't have strong faith if you
don't buy or use these T-shirts or buy these records or whatever."
Similarly, other non-users objected to the equation of things with faith, as the
following young, single woman stated:
"There are so many ways to show a person's faith: kindness, love, compassion,
patience, a pat on the back, a smile, a kind word. No thing that you can buy
can replace these real expressions of faith."
Another male non-user noted:
"Actions, not symbols, are true reflections of somebody's beliefs. I hope that
I don't need a T-shirt for people to know that I'm a Christian."
A married, professional female non-user had strong words to say about users of
"I think they are hypocrites. I think a true believer would wear a $10.99
T-shirt from a discount store to keep their body covered, warm and protected,
and use the other $9.01 they would have spent on the W.W.J.D. T-shirt in the
collection plate on Sunday, or better yet, spend that money on food for the
local pantry. I don't proclaim to be a saint myself, and I certainly understand
the dynamics of American society today. It is the hypocrisy that offends me.
If you ask me 'what would Jesus do?' I don't think he'd buy the shirt."
In summary, these non-users cite conflicts with teachings and the value of
things as expressions of beliefs as the primary reasons for not using Christian
products. Despite their different backgrounds and the differing role of
religion in their daily lives, these Evangelical Christian non-users hold a
common meaning of Christian products as inappropriate expressions of Christian
Now that the understandings of non-users have been explored, what do users of
these products believe? The dominate reasons for buying or using Christian
products for those Evangelical Christians who did so related to affect. That
is, buying and using Christian products meant feeling good. Feeling good
through the purchase and use of Christian products was expressed in three main
ways: feeling good by belonging, doing the right thing, and expressing pride in
being a Christian.
I'm on the winning team: Belonging
Christian products like T-shirts, bracelets and music are symbols of affiliation
for many users:
"I love wearing my Jesus T-shirt. It says 'hey, I am supporting the winning
With affiliation comes comfort for some wearers:
"It's a great feeling to see someone I don't know wearing a T-shirt or W.W.J.D.
bracelet because I know that I'm with a brother or sister."
"It's a good feeling to know someone is a Christian and that they are proud of
it. It's so comforting for believers to know that they are among believers."
"I think that these bracelets and things are great for teenagers especially, it
helps them know that it's ok to be a Christian."
"The W.W.J.D. bracelets are great because they can be a catalyst for bringing
people closer together."
"Sometimes you feel the world is against you and then you see somebody being
proud about their faith and that helps you know that you're not alone."
"It's such a great feeling when you're wearing something like the bracelet when
you realize that wow, you're part of something greater than anything of this
"Looking down and seeing my bracelet on my arm makes me feel better because it
reminds me that Jesus is with me."
In addition to affiliation, buyers and users of the product category say that
they feel good because the products help them to do the right thing. For users
of Christian products in this study, feeling good equated to "doing the right
Spreading the word: Doing the right thing
"If you're doing good, it is only going to make you feel better."
For users, "doing good" was equated with "spreading the word of God" and "doing
what Jesus would do." Christian products were assigned the function of helping
spread the word.
"You need to witness to other people and it's just a way of witnessing really.
By wearing shirts like that, you bring attention to other people that you're a
"It's a great feeling to see people reading your shirt. You know that you're
Some users say that they are often uncomfortable in fulfilling the mandate to
witness, and cite Christian products as making up for their inadequacies thereby
helping them feel good about "doing the right thing."
"I'm really not all that comfortable telling people about my beliefs and I know
that I should be so that makes me feel bad. But the great thing about the
T-shirt and stuff like that is that it's an easy way for me to spread the word
and that makes me feel good."
"I love it when somebody asks me about my W.W.J.D. bracelet. I'm not good at
going up to people and just talking about Jesus. It makes me feel good to tell
them that it means 'what would Jesus do.' I don't ever say much more than that,
but still, it makes me feel good to know that I'm doing what I should do."
Similarly, other users say that using devotional calendars and bracelets for
personal guidance throughout the day makes them feel good in doing the right
"My favorite thing is seeing my little table-top devotional calendar every
morning. I just start the day in a good mood and I'll think back on it all day
long and that helps keep me in a good mood. I look forward to it every
"I like wearing my W.W.J.D. bracelet. It keeps me from temptation. Without it,
I might not be as strong. You know, I can feel good about myself knowing that
I'm not straying."
Wooed by the spirit: Excitement about one's beliefs
The users of Christian products also explain feeling good as showing pride and
getting excited about being a Christian through use of the products:
"The great thing about Christian music is that it gets you excited about being a
"Christian music lifts me up. It's edifying, it fills your soul. Secular music
drags you down."
"Christian products are good because they show your spirit and how proud you are
to be a Christian. I think it's a wonderful thing."
As discussed above, the dominant theme in the discussions with users about
Christian products is the affective dimension of "feeling good." Cognitive
factors did emerge at times, but usually in response to a question by the
interviewer that addressed more of a cognitive issue. For example, given that
in some interviews with non-users the criticism of profit and worldliness was
dominant, the interviewers were curious to see how the devout users of Christian
products make sense of the criticisms. These criticisms were addressed only
after the interviewees had exhausted what they felt were the important aspects
of buying and using Christian products.
When asked about who profits from Christian products, the devout users who have
been represented thus far in the section labeled "users" responded in the
"If the makers were not doing a good thing, God wouldn't let them be profitable
and continue in His name."
"You know, if they weren't fulfilling a need, then they wouldn't be making
money. And they have to make money to fulfill their ministry, so the fact that
people are making money is necessary and probably good. I'm sure they are
donating some of that money to the Church or something."
"I wish I had thought of it. I'd be rich by now."
"I suppose it could be bad if they were only doing it for profit, but I know
that there is divine inspiration in there. I can feel it. Those who don't have
divine inspiration don't talk to people in ways that people will respond to, so
they won't stay in business long."
In the above quotes, it is apparent that the users who had an opinion regarding
profit did not see a conflict between marketing and Christianity as did the
non-users. When asked about the people who criticize Christian products, the
devout users responded:
"There are right and wrong reasons for using these things. The wrong reasons
are if they are just a fad or fashion or something. I'm critical of those
people because they aren't living up to what they are advertising. If you're
going to advertise Jesus, your actions had better be worthy. I would guess that
the people who are critical are just seeing those people who are giving religion
and Jesus a bad name by claiming they are Christian but then not acting like
"The people who make fun of W.W.J.D. and say it means 'we want Jack Daniel's'
and stuff like that, they are just weak in the faith. Their faith is not as
strong as it should be."
Not all users of Christian products were without reservations about the
products. Among users, there was a group of "lighter users" who were not as
devout about the role and function of Christian products. These buyers or users
may have received a Christian product as a gift or purchased something for their
children, but are do not report wearing and using Christian products frequently.
The less devout users cite their primary concerns as not wanting to be pushy
with their faith and sending an incorrect messages.
"Some of the T-shirts are ok, but I really have a problem with some of them and
a lot of the bumper stickers. Some are really mean-spirited and too pushy.
There are too many people trying to wage religious war through bumper stickers.
And I don't like when religious stickers are criticizing politicians. Jesus was
about making peace, not war."
"I think many people just use these things to look the part so they don't have
to act the part (of being a Christian). Our culture worships people with strong
convictions, so people want to look like they have strong convictions even when
they don't. So it can be good and bad and I'm not really sure which it is."
"It's important to express your beliefs, but you can't step on the toes of
others. I guess the T-shirts and things are less pushy than leaving leaflets or
bible verses in your work space. We have a guy at work that does that and it
really bothers us."
"I don't think that the bracelets are harming anybody. My children have them,
mainly because the other kids have them. But before I'd buy them, I made the
kids learn what the W.W.J.D. meant and that they would be expected to act
accordingly if they were going to wear them. I guess they learned the lesson.
The other day my youngest one got into trouble and I asked him what he was
thinking. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes and said, 'but I wasn't
wearing my 'what would Jesus do' bracelet.' I don't want to send the wrong
message by letting my kids use those things without understanding them."
In summary, the primary difference between non-users and users of Christian
products is in the dominant way the two groups think about the products. The
non-users think of the category primarily in cognitive terms and are unable to
resolve the intellectual inconsistencies they perceive between marketing and
Christian teachings. For these Evangelical Christians, the products are an
inappropriate expression of values and beliefs. The devout users, on the other
hand, think of the category primarily in affective terms, responding to the
feelings generated by the products. For users, using Christian products means
feeling good about themselves. Among the less devout users, the affective
evaluations of the category are somewhat tempered by cognitive considerations.
When looking at the diverse types of products that make up the Christian
products category, (e.g., books, music, gift ware, jewelry, clothing, etc.), the
unifying element is the fact that these products are identified as "Christian."
In listening to the devout users discuss these products, the meaning of the
product is derived from the product's identification as "Christian" more than
from the significance of the product alone (i.e., a CD or a T-shirt).
Similarly, the non-users do not object to CDs or T-shirts, rather to the
labeling of those items as "Christian." In this sense, the issue seems to stem
from the use of "Christian" as a brand for products.
The functions ascribed to Christian products by devout users are similar to the
various functions of brands in general. Can "Christian" be seen as a brand? In
many respects, yes. From the branding literature, we know that brands are
composed of both cognitive and affective components, and the concept of brand
involves any aspect of importance that the consumer attributes to it. The
importance of a brand is defined within the consumer's mind (Farquhar, 1989).
From the words of the consumers in the present study, "Christian" when
associated with products does carry both cognitive and affective significance.
However, the cognitive and affective dimensions have different meanings for the
users and non-users in this study, such that they form different attitudes about
using the products.
According to Park, Jaworski and MacInnis (1986), brands can be viewed by
consumers as functional, symbolic and experiential. Clearly, the users of
Christian products in this study attribute all three functions to the
"Christian" brand. In terms of functionality, users of Christian brand
products see the functionality as gifts, or as protective clothing, etc.
However, in support of Holbrook's (1994) contention that the functionality of a
product may be separated from the consequences of the brand, some users of
Christian products in this study were able to separate the functionality of the
product (e.g., a T-shirt as something to cover your body) and the consequences
of the brand (e.g., a Christian T-shirt as a way to feel good about yourself).
In fact, with Christian products the practical functionality of the product
changed when it was branded "Christian." Once a bracelet was branded
"Christian," its function grew from one of adornment and self-pleasure to one of
fulfilling a religious mandate. The bracelet is now a teaching tool, not just a
piece of jewelry. This ideological aspect of the Christian brand may
differentiate it from other brands like Polo or Marlboro in that the brand
actually changes the practical functionality of the product, not just the
affective consequences of the purchase.
Users of Christian brand products often speak of what Park, Jaworski and
MacInnis (1986) label the symbolic function of brands. According to Park et al.
(1986), Biel (1993) and Aaker (1996), brands act to symbolically link users with
a group or emphasize the brand's relationship with self. In the case the
Christian products, the users talk at length about how Christian branded
products make them feel a part of a larger group. This parallels the function
that Rubinstein (1995) assigns to clothing in general. In keeping with Park et
al.'s (1986) contention that brands can define the users relationship with self,
users of Christian products in this study talk about the role of Christian
products in helping them to see that they are not alone in their beliefs and
helping them to feel more confident in their own personal beliefs. Again, in
the clothing literature, Cunningham and Lab (1991) suggest that clothing can
provide validation of personal identity.
Brands may also have experiential function (Park, et al., 1986). The
experiential aspect of the "Christian" brand was the overarching function that
consumers attributed to the use of Christian merchandise, that is, feeling good.
This ultimate function of "feeling good" incorporated getting excited, showing
spirit, doing the right thing, and was also closely related to the comfort found
in the symbolic function described above.
In summary, it can be concluded from this study that users of Christian
products do view "Christian" as a brand and ascribe meanings to the Christian
brand that parallel the general meanings of brands, in general. However, as
noted above, the use of "Christian" as a brand may be somewhat different than
other types of brands. Specifically, the "Christian" brand is an outgrowth of
an ideological system, whereas other brands are created to give meaning to
products. The brand "Coke" was built to differentiate one carbonated beverage
from another. As a strong brand, it is a complex system of associated meanings,
but the sole intent of creating those meanings is to make the product more
significant to the consumer. The brand "Christian" is also a complex system of
associated meanings ascribed to products in order to market them. However, the
brand is also an extension of a larger pre-existing belief system.
This study is among the first in the marketing and consumer behavior literature
to examine consumers in the fast-growing Christian products category. The
category is one of a few consumer-oriented categories that is identified with
strong ideological values. Some categories may appeal to ideological values
like environmentalism, but the Christian products category is unique in that it
is purportedly driven by a specific belief system. Numerous other products not
touched on by this study, such as tours, financial planning, self-help seminars,
etc., appeal to the Christian consumer and, therefore, warrant examination as to
how consumers make sense of these products in light of the ideological context
of the religion. Is a "Christian brand" financial planner understood in the
same manner as a Christian brand T-shirt? Is a claim that a business is
"Christian owned and operated" interpreted in the same fashion as a Christian
brand bracelet? Clearly the functionality of the financial planning service may
be very different than that of a T-shirt, but do the affective consequences of
the Christian brand (i.e., feeling good) transcend product categories? Or is
the blending of the witnessing mandate, the functionality of the product
category and the affective consequence unique to products like T-shirts,
bracelets and music? Future research can further explore these questions.
This study is also interesting in that it represents the blending of two
institutions and two ideologies: a system of market and a system of religion.
Hamilton (1932) claims that we live in a web of institutions. Changes in one
institution will inevitably bring changes in others (Carey, 1960). Future
studies from a critical perspective could examine more fully the effects that
the marketing and religious institutions have on one another.
Parallels could also be drawn between this study and the function of products
(clothing, music, etc) in other social movements like gay rights, other social
groups like gangs, or other contexts like political contests or sporting events.
For instance, showing spirit, pride, and comfort through affiliation, which
users ascribed as functions or meanings of Christian products, may be applicable
to the function of pride wear among some in the gay community. Clothing also
serves a major role in gang affiliation and clothing also brings unity and
encourages excitement and spirit during election campaigns and sporting events.
This study provides a unique perspective to understand the role of Christian
products in the lives of those who use them. Managerially, it is important to
understand the motivations behind the use of the products. Academically, it is
a unique context to examine the role of branding and the relationship of
traditionally dueling social institutions, marketing and Christianity. Study
in this area may also broaden our understanding of the role of brands in other
social and political movements.
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