Losing my religion
What terrorism, Tony Robbins, furries and the evangelical movement taught me about branding, tribalism and human behavior.
Trump Rally, Pensacola, Florida — November 2, 2016 — Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Last Christmas, anticipating the arrival of the Trump-voting evangelicals in my life and still in a state of raw grief from the election, I vowed to find a way to deal — I mean, engage — with a culture I had left far behind. You see, I grew up a hard right, uber-conservative evangelical. Inextricably intertwined together, my political and religious thought as an evangelical was an expression of my identity, my community, nay, my entire life. I had all the certainty in the world and everything I needed. But when I stepped away, I lost everything.
But this isn’t actually a story about my journey through and out of the religious right. This is a story about tribalism, about cultishness, about fandom and what brands, politicians, sports teams and religions can learn from my experience with the ultimate brand of being an evangelical.
I work in market research. In the world of marketing, folks use all kinds of models, metrics, and measures to appreciate how people think, what influences them and to what effect, and how to move the whole process along so that folks essentially do what you want them to do and think what you want them to think. In this world, one of my favorite models is the Duffy Brand Cycle.
The Duffy Brand Equity CycleUsing a deceptively simple circle, the Cycle describes the process of customer acquisition from the moment of brand awareness through to the development of customers as brand advocates, illustrating how brands cultivate customers for life through different stages of a relationship. This model is a pushback against the popular sales funnel — the idea that folks are coming through a funnel leading to a sale and then that’s it.
What I love about this model is that it shows that while the sale is certainly important, it is just one part of the larger customer experience. There are the beliefs that a customer has before and after exposure to a brand, there’s trust to be earned and loyalty to be gained and the sharing of values between a brand and a consumer. Whether consumers are aware of it or not, brands permeate multiple facets of their physical and emotional lives. And if you’re a brand, if everything goes well, a customer will buy from you and will stick around for a long time.
Observing the polarization in American politics today, I’m not the first to say that folks who were and are fans of Trump seemed to be members of a tribe, that many members of that tribe are evangelicals, and that the tribe is a brand that seems to be meeting a lot of the emotional needs of its members (this dynamic can exist on the left as well, of course).
I wondered if an analysis of my experience as an evangelical, overlaid onto the Duffy Brand Cycle and what I knew about human behavior from my research, could somehow illuminate a way to extricate others from their hard-line beliefs and get them to see things a little bit differently. I know — once an evangelist, always an evangelist. But I was desperate to find a new way of looking at my old way of life, and quite frankly, to find some peace. We so often fall into the same conversation patterns when we get into these political exchanges with others, and it seemed like it could be an opportunity to more deeply understand the deep emotional needs satisfied by being part of a tribe and more deeply understand my own experience of growing up as an evangelical — why I was so loyal to begin with, and why it was so hard for me to get out and change.
“I was desperate to find a new way of looking at my old way of life, and quite frankly, to find some peace.”
After all, what makes someone become so devoted to something that they can’t imagine life without it? What makes a fan a fan for life? Or in my experience, what makes someone join a particular religion and stay around forever, unless and until they painfully extricate themselves?What makes those experiences different from the everyday transactional buffet where a person will try but not be particularly loyal to any one product or experience?
In my experience, there were four key areas that had a big effect on my doubling down into evangelical life. They were the initial point of entry and the heightened emotional state I was in at the time, the transactional elements of the experience which made my life easier and helped me feel secure, the community aspects which gave me a sense of connection and a place to express and share my values, and finally the feeling of being on a sacred mission, which gave me a sense of purpose and bound me tightly to my community. Let me tell you about each of them.
POINT OF ENTRY
The first area was the point of entry — how I got folded into the world of evangelical life and went from a moderate to a hard-core evangelical. As a child, I grew up in the church. It was my whole life. I lived and breathed the church’s teachings — it was a part of my daily existence, whether it was a prayer before dinner at the family table, bible study, weekend kids clubs like Awana, or Sunday morning service. It was a system, it was a lifestyle and it was all-encompassing. When my family moved away from my hometown less than 12 hours after I graduated from high school, the emotion around the move, the upset and the feeling of being entirely vulnerable had me reeling and looking for some kind of certainty. I wanted to believe that things could be okay and that everything happened for a reason. One night, lost and lonely, I was invited to a good old-fashioned Southern Baptist revival. In an evening, I was hooked. I made a decision right then and there to double down on my beliefs and dedicate my existence to spreading the gospel. The world may be uncertain, I thought, but I can count on God.
“The feeling of being entirely vulnerable had me reeling and looking for some kind of certainty.”
This feeling — of coming into a new experience after a spark of significant emotion — is written about as the “moment of inertia” in the brand cycle. It’s the “aha” moment, the moment where something or someone has your attention and you look up. In leading life coach Tony Robbins’ world, it’s called a significant emotional event — a moment where everything can change, and, according to science, your brain can literally be rewired to think and feel differently.
Brands can take advantage of or try to create this moment in a variety of ways. First, they come out with a unique emotional ad or experience which is disruption in action. They put together a memorable, emotionally-charged Super Bowl ad or they come up with a message at a time of high emotional resonance. Consider the brand play that Nike got after revealing Colin Kaepernick as the face of their 30th-anniversary ad.Despite the controversy, they gained tons of attention and ultimately were rewarded for it.
There’s another aspect of this initial moment of exposure, which is the age or malleability of the person you’re trying to influence. Many religious groups will work to bring young people into the fold while they’re still highly influenceable and more open to new ideas. The NFL famously works very hard to recruit fans while they’re 17 and under, and the military will recruit young people, not just because they’re typically stronger and fitter than the average 30 or 40-year-old, but because they are more open to new ideas — even if those ideas involve physical danger. Getting young eyeballs to see your brand and buy-in at a young age is key into building a cult brand.
The next aspect of evangelical life which was pretty compelling was the belief that by going to church, saying the sinner’s prayer and believing in all of the tenets laid out for me, that I was going to heaven and not to hell. When I left the world of evangelicalism, this was a tough cord to cut — because let’s be honest, who wants to go to hell? Talk about a unique value proposition.
When it comes down to it on the brand side of things, brands which succeed and become cult brands understand, on a deep level, the unconscious emotional needs that people have — in marketing speak, we say, ‘jobs to be done’ — that a brand can fulfill. And if a brand does fulfill those needs, either on a transactional level by actually meeting the need or effectively signaling through their messaging that they are capable of filling that void, that’s another layer that makes a brand experience sticky for a consumer.
COMMUNITY & CONNECTION
Which brings me to my next point — emotional needs. We all have them. And in my experience as an evangelical, my life in the church fulfilled nearly all of them. One of the biggest was an instant community — an instant connection with others. From my first arrival at my Christian club in college, I had a built-in set of friends with whom I ate brunch, went to church, met up with on Friday nights for group activities, met up with on Tuesday night for Bible studies…these people were my entire world. And it was lovely.
According to Dr. Emma M. Seppälä, Psychologist and Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, social connection is a core human need that has a massive impact on one’s health, the length of one’s life and sense of well-being. Being a part of a group that’s oriented in the direction of helping you and each other, whether it’s to babysit your kids, to bring a meal after a family member dies or even to have a place to visit during the holidays — is not just nice, but necessary. These days, while social media is ubiquitous and presents us with the idea that we are more connected than ever, in many ways, we operate in ways that feel increasingly physically detached. In fact, Cigna, a health services organization, recently came out with the results of a 2018 survey which indicated that most Americans are lonelier than ever. In walking away from evangelical life, I was breaking up with my entire community. It was incredibly hard — this was my world.
“We operate in ways that feel increasingly physically detached.”
For brands, leveraging this idea of connection to build a more loyal consumer can operate in different ways. For some, it’s the existence of an online community. Arguably, Facebook is the best example of this, where people can be connected and socially affirm each other’s lives in an addictive, omnipresent sort of way. For others, it can be a physical club, like the Harley-Davidson biker clubs where members can gather and share their lives. Fans of sports teams do this with tailgating and sports bars and parties at home.
When you see folks who share similar interests and values with you, not only does it give you an opportunity to share your common bonds — which is a need in and of itself — to take the energy and enthusiasm you have for something and follow through on that feeling with a physical action — it also fulfills our fundamental need for social connection. When the ability to share how you feel about something is done in connection with others as part of a brand experience, it’s a powerful combination for consumers.
A SACRED MISSION
Lastly, one of the most compelling aspects of my religious experience was the feeling that I was on a mission from God to do something good in the world and to save lives — a higher cause, if you will. This feeling, coupled with ongoing messaging from the church that the church was disadvantaged and looked down upon by others — even persecuted — was a heady mix that instilled a belief that it was us against the world. I was a warrior for God and nothing would stop us.
It’s interesting, because looking back on this, you can see how this dynamic of us against the world results in an incredible amount of social cohesion and loyalty. Oppression, real or perceived, is a form of pressure which causes groups to cohere.
Members of the Furry Fandom
In 2017, my firm, Olson Zaltman, did a study on Furries, where we explored the thoughts and feelings of folks who identify as a Furry — someone who dresses up as an animal version of him or herself and interacts with others who do the same, both online and in-person. In this study, we found that those who identify as Furries make up an incredibly tight-knit community where people have each other’s backs, no matter what. Many of the community members come to the Furry Fandom for solace and for growth after experiencing bullying. The negative experiences many of them had both before and after becoming Furries caused them to bind together tightly in a very powerful way.
Fraternity brothers participate in hazing during a ‘Law & Order: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT’ television episode called “Brotherhood.”
When you look at hazing, there’s the same effect. In my work studying hazing at Cornell, we found that while hazing can be a very negative act, it is frustratingly excellent at bringing people together.
Luke Skywalker, en route to blowing up the Death Star — Star Wars
Finally, consider terrorism — I know, bear with me on this. Amaryllis Fox, former CIA undercover intelligence officer, suggested in an Al Jazeera video circulated in 2016, that what Americans don’t often understand is that “everybody believes they’re the good guy.” While Americans think of themselves as the rebel heroes in Star Wars, scrappily fighting to take down a large, tyrannical enemy whose rule of law is making life hell for them and those they love, terrorists think of themselves as the rebel heroes as well. This idea of being disadvantaged, whether real or perceived, and of coming up against the world despite the odds and persisting, is a powerful feeling that can motivate people to do just about anything.
Now, I’m not suggesting that brands act like terrorists, that they bully or that they haze their customers or subject them to any kind of hardship. But I am saying, just as with the Furries, consider the power that brands have when they give their consumers a mission, when they tell their consumers that the brand sees them as they are, understands them in a very special way, identifies their points of vulnerability and says, either implicitly or explicitly, ‘I’ve got your back and so does everyone else in our community, and we’re going to take on the world together.’ As a brand, Oprah does this extremely well. So does SoulCycle. And so does any successful political movement. Pretty powerful stuff.
When I look back on my experience leaving the evangelical community, it was because of these four factors. While I doubled down on my evangelicism because of a significant emotional event, I started to leave when a family member I deeply cared for died of AIDS and wasn’t shown any remorse because of his orientation. Another significant emotional event. While I committed to being an evangelical because of the values I perceived it to represent, I left when I saw those values not being lived out across gay rights and women’s rights and became disenchanted with the religion’s unquestioning support of everything Republican.
While I joined and stayed with the evangelical community because of the community and my desire for connection, I left when my relationships took a beating over my association with gay community members. A community that wouldn’t welcome all, became a community that I no longer wanted to be part of.
And lastly, I started to see for myself that Christians, at least in the United States, weren’t really persecuted, not in a meaningful way. But even beyond that, that things weren’t as simple as I was initially told they were. Leaving was a process, and it was a painful one.
Given that evangelicals hold a disproportionate amount of power across the U.S. electorate, it’s critical to not only understand how they think, but also, the deep emotional needs that are being satisfied by their faith. Much of our public discourse is over policy, or even surface-level beliefs, but what we don’t often get to are the deep emotional needs which drive the tenor and force of the discourse driving us apart from each other. Whether we’re politicians, sports teams, brands, or just people, if we can understand the deep emotions that motivate people — we can better understand each other.
For brands, deeply understanding your consumer and going beyond the transactional can change your offering from just a product or a service to a way of life. And for people, if we understand each other just a little bit more, then maybe, just maybe, we can get along a little bit better with the people in our lives — even if they do support Trump.