I’m really enjoying The Paradise, a drama series about a department store set in the north east during the late nineteenth century.
Last week’s storyline revolved around a baby that someone had left at the door of The Paradise, leading the owner to remark that once upon a time, people left unwanted babies outside the parish church; now they leave them at department stores.
This comparison between church and department store (or shopping mall) has been made in sociology since the early twentieth century. Both are places in which people from varied backgrounds regularly come together in one place at particular times to perform common sets of practices, rituals and identities. Such behaviours mark out the church and department store as different from elsewhere. In anthropological terms, each falls within the sphere of the sacred – the ‘extraordinary’, whilst other spaces outside fall within the sphere of the mundane – the ‘ordinary’.
In church and department store, the extraordinary is embodied within objects. Sacred objects in churches include icons, crosses and wine. Yet original intentions were not that they should be revered in themselves. They were not seen as intrinsically sacred, but important because of what they represented: Christ and his blood. Yet over time, people have given them intrinsic meanings, to the degree that they become sacred in themselves (or fetishes as anthropologists would call them).
We can translate this to some of the objects we buy. Think of a particular brand’s smartphone. To some people, it may merely represent communication, speed, connectivity and entertainment. That is, it points to something else. Yet processes of branding a smartphone (and other objects) should involve much more than mere representation. It should also involve giving the smartphone inherent qualities, which people in turn should ascribe to it. Some of this may lay in the apparent capacity of the smartphone to do particular activities (connect, communicate etc), but its value to people should exceed the value of being able to do these things. A measure of the success in achieving this ‘excess’ value is that people express desire for the particular smartphone, celebrate it, revere it, set it apart, display it, extol it, and eulogise it (think of the religious overtone of ‘brand ambassadors’). Further, just as icons can elicit emotions, so should the particular brand’s smartphone.
Groups and communities are essential to how religions operate (e.g. the church or synagogue). In turn, people also give brands and branded products central roles in communities. Most obviously we see this is ‘brand communities’ such as around Apple and Harley Davidson motorcycles. More interesting though is how people give roles to brands within their own communities, as our Community Igniter research shows.