The things we buy from appliances to accessories are full of meanings. Some of these meanings are more obvious than others, but often if you dig deep enough you can gather a lot of insights from what seem to be very mundane purchases. A person who splurges on a juicer or an exercise bike may be making a statement about health as a priority (whether he actually uses the device is another story), while the prominent display of a pricey Sub Zero refrigerator or a Viking gas range may say more about the desire to telegraph the owner’s ability to afford these toys than his or her culinary skills. Indeed, in developing countries everyday objects such as refrigerators, satellite dishes (that may or may not actually be connected) and even toilets function as status symbols.
Even so it’s clear that some products, services and experiences are more meaningful than others. Marketers need to be aware of these because these insights can make a huge difference in how they think about what they sell – and how they package these meanings to their customers. Sometimes these hidden meanings come to light only when a company overlooks them: Nike had to pull a new line of Pro Tattoo Tech Gear clothing line for women after the news came out that the graphics it used came from a sacred Samoan tattoo that only men wear. Consumers started a Change.org petition online and bombarded the brand’s Facebook page with negative comments.
One important, yet often overlooked dimension of meaning is the dichotomy that anthropologists term Sacred vs. Profane. Sacred consumption occurs when we “set apart” objects and events from normal activities and treat them with respect or awe. Note that in this context the term sacred does not necessarily carry a religious meaning, although we do tend to think of religious artifacts and ceremonies as “sacred.” Sacred objects and experiences don’t have to be expensive or luxury items; for example, a person’s cherished matchbook collection that he proudly displays on a shelf might be sacred in this context. What is sacred essentially is in the eye of the beholder.
Profane consumption in contrast, describes objects and events that are ordinary or every day; they don’t share the “specialness” of sacred ones. Again, note that in this context we don’t equate the word profane with obscenity, although the two meanings do share some similarities. In the old days at least, the two domains didn’t mix. References to organized religion in the service of selling material goods were traditionally taboo (not counting Christmas sales, perhaps).
Making The Profane Sacred Through Marketing
Our pervasive consumer culture imbues objects, events, and even people with sacred meaning. Many of us regard events such as the Super Bowl and people such as Elvis Presley as sacred. Even the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, maintains a display that features such “sacred items” as the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, a phaser from Star Trek, and Archie Bunker’s chair from the television show All in the Family. When Captain Kirk’s weapon is displayed with the same reverence as the Mona Lisa in the Louvre (which in turn is virtually inaccessible these days because of the hordes of tourists who are eager to take a selfie with the tiny masterpiece), we know that things are changing.
Marketers can sometimes find opportunities to make a product sacred. For example, the increasingly common practice of selling limited-edition items – so-called “product drops” — can accelerate this process. When Rimowa created a suitcase collection in collaboration with the street brand Supreme that carried a hefty starting price of $1600 that it announced only three days prior to the release date, the entire line sold out in 16 seconds. Or, travel marketers can turn vacations into sacred (i.e., special) events, even when a customer’s minister may not remotely think of his or her escapades as holy – after all, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
Another innovative strategy is to “productize” sacred places and experiences. When Ajax, the local football team of Amsterdam, moved from their old stadium, De Meern, to a larger, more modern stadium (De Arena), the turf from the old stadium was carefully lifted from the ground and sold to a local churchyard. The churchyard offers the turf to fans willing to pay a premium price to be buried under authentic Ajax turf! Great minds think alike: When the old Yankee Stadium in New York City closed to make way for a newer facility, an enterprising company secured the rights to the original sod that it sells in a freeze-dried “shrine.”
The message is clear; find a way to make your brand sacred.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Michael Solomon, author of The New Chameleons: Connecting with Consumers Who Defy Categorization
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