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In Brands We Trust: Why Companies Are the New Communities

Brands have a powerful opportunity to fill the void in belonging and meaning left by the decline of religion and eroded faith in government.
Source: Courtesy
  • Doug Stephens

TORONTO, Canada — Moscow's Red Square is virtually impossible to photograph in a way that fully captures the magnitude of the place. To the south, sits the immediately recognisable, 16th century Saint Basil's Cathedral with its colourful, bulbous, ice cream-like spires. To the west, shrouded behind tall brick buttresses, lies the monolithic Kremlin. And to the east, sits the Moscow Gum, a beautiful 19th century shopping complex which up until the 1920's was known as The Upper Trading Rows. Today, the Gum is an uber-luxury shopping centre housing what is arguably one of the most prestigious assemblies of brands to be found anywhere.

As I stood in the middle of the square, it struck me that I was surrounded by a perfect symbolic representation of the key pillars of today’s society, not just in Russia but around the world — a physical trinity of Church, State and Commerce — which got me thinking about how the relative power of each pillar is shifting.

We are losing faith in our governments at an alarming rate. A 2019 Pew Research study indicates that only 17 percent of Americans believe they can trust the government to “do what is right.” Consider that in 1964 this figure was 77 percent. Similarly, a poll of over 33,000 UK residents found that more than two thirds do not feel represented by any of the main political parties. Adding to our anxiety, the fact that the institutions we’ve traditionally relied on to maintain our sense of civility and community — government organisations, have themselves become so divided, polarised and partisan that they very often end up widening the ideological chasms they sought to bridge. One recent study suggested that “72 percent of US consumers believe political leaders are playing a significant role in dividing society.”

In many parts of the world, the power of religion is also faltering. According to a 2018 pan-European study by Saint Mary's University, London, the percentage of young Europeans declaring “no religious affiliation” is on a sharp rise. 75 percent of Swedes aged 16-29, for example, claim to have absolutely no religious affiliation at all. According to the same study “60 percent of Spanish, Dutch, British, and Belgians in the same age group — say they ‘never’ attend religious services.” In North America, there is a comparable decline in those identifying as Christian and a corresponding incline in those identifying as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”

The decline of religion and eroded faith in the state has created a societal vacuum for courageous brands to fill.

But declining trust in institutions like the state and the church doesn’t quell our fundamentally human desire for affiliation, purpose and meaning. The need to belong to a community that aligns to our values and beliefs lies so deep in our DNA that no amount of social or political disaffection can drum it out of us. We must believe in something.

So, what about the third pillar? Commerce. The decline of religion and eroded faith in the state has created a societal vacuum for courageous brands to fill. In fact, a 2018 global study by Edelman of 8,000 consumers across eight markets suggests that almost two thirds of us make buying decisions based on a brand's position on social or political issues. More importantly 53 percent of us believe that brands can do more to solve social problems than governments.

Let that sink in a moment. A majority of us now place more faith in brands to change the world than traditional social institutions.

On reflection, it's a shift that makes perfect sense. After all, a powerful brand is, in many ways, no less potent than a religion. At the core of every great brand sits an ideology. If you're Nike that ideology is rooted in the universalism of sport and a resulting mission: "To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world." It's worth noting that "athletes" according to Nike, are not defined as Republican or Democrat, male or female or any other gender identity. Athletes are not Labour or Conservative, young or old, rich or poor, Christian or Muslim. No. According to the mantra made famous by Nike Co-Founder Bill Bowerman, "If you have a body, you're an athlete." It's a level playing field where everyone is welcomed, and everyone is equal.

At the core of every great brand sits an ideology.

Next come associated symbols and rituals like the Nike swoosh for example. An immediate and distinctive emblem signifying to others that you are a believer. And finally, there’s the acceptance into a community of likeminded devotees, like the Nike Running club, for example. A community that understands, appreciates and supports you. In other words, brands like Nike have moved beyond simple communities of customers and become global ideologies based on our shared interests, aspirations and the deep human need for connection and belonging.

As for the issue of affecting social change, while our political leaders seem to equivocate on almost every issue, Nike has boldly opened a discussion around racism, patriotism and police brutality with its Colin Kaepernick campaign. A position that appears to have been richly rewarded by Nike consumers, many of whom are young and non-white, with a 31 percent rise in revenues consequent with the campaign. One could similarly point to Patagonia's stance on climate change, Walmart's action on gun sales or Chobani's advocacy for immigrants and refugees. Brands are affecting change and social discourse where governments and religious institutions have failed.

And so, brands find themselves facing a unique and historic opportunity. The opportunity to move beyond running clubs and yoga classes, and become global “brand-nations,” filling the void in values, in meaning, in belonging that has been left by government and religion, and recruiting millions of followers in the process. Followers who, powered by their faith and sense of community, can raise their voices in unison to become the most powerful media channel a brand can harness.

Of course, such opportunities are not without risk. Values are called values because there’s a price paid by those courageous enough to possess them. But in a crowded and competitive marketplace, I would argue that the price of standing for nothing — is far dearer.

Doug Stephens is a retail industry futurist, founder of Retail Prophet and author of ‘Reengineering Retail: The Future of Selling in a Post-Digital World.’

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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