The use of brands as an extension of personal identity dates back at least as far as the postwar strivers of the 1950s, angling to clamber into Cadillacs. By 1980, Lisa Birnbach's "Official Preppy Handbook" offered a masterly sendup of a widely imitated social set largely defined by its labels - Brooks Brothers, BMW, Lacoste.
The 1990s brought a hail of new firms and wannabe brands. Many evaporated, but first they threw off real money and spawned conspicuous consumers eager again to line up behind hot brands for the purpose of belonging to a tribe.
Since then, the work of the mythmakers out to spin metal, fabric, and plastic into the participatory stories we know as brands has only become harder. Especially during a halting economic recovery, too many mentions of Manolo Blahniks on a saucy HBO series invites parody, not aspiration. Too deep a trickledown - boutique goods heaped on tables at discount chains - can effectively strip away cachet and "meaning."
In "The Culting of Brands," Douglas Atkins outlines what might sound like an old saw - ensuring brand longevity through the nurturing of a core of true believers. But then he takes the reader deep into the tactics of successful brands. He finds clear illustrations of crossover thinking between what he calls the sacred and secular realms.
During his research, for instance, a Macintosh computer user told him that "PC users must be saved." And from the other direction, "a young cult member insisted that his religion is a 'brand.' "
Atkins takes pains to try to destigmatize the word "cult," noting that group buy-in does not necessarily denote weakness of mind. "All great social and religious movements have started with bands of devoted followers chastised for being different," he writes.
"Meaning-based brands" like The Body Shop, the ecofriendly seller of cosmetics, have actual, defined "belief systems" to which they hope to draw adherents. And many other successful brands - from Harley-Davidson and Saturn to eBay and jetBlue - are what Atkins calls articulations of more basic beliefs (in quality, for example, or efficiency) to which people hunger to subscribe.
Consumer communities naturally thrive under firms whose offerings represent widely sought qualities expressed in neat, understandable symbols, Atkins explains. Being perceived as different - a subculture - carries its own special allure, and Atkins tells how the best firms artfully play their "deviance" from cultural norms.
"You can be too different like Napster and be crushed by the recording establishment, or become overly familiar, like Snapple (which, under Quaker Oats ownership, lost its cult status and the stock price plummeted). The objective is to balance your brand's tension."
Atkins's book is a lucid explanation of what casual observers of the megabrands may have already intuited to be true: Consumers embrace the idea of belonging to brands that appear to have meaning.
• Clay Collins is editor of the Monitor's monthly Portraits section.