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From Abstract to Tangible: Why Sustainable Brands Should Embrace Hierophanic Marketing

Brand Strategy - branding - Ethical Branding - opinion


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There is a surprising parallel between the evolution of green marketing strategies and the development of ancient polytheistic religions.

In these early belief systems, a sky god would be established as the world’s creator, but people would then gradually abandon this deity and move on to the daily worship of more down-to-earth phenomena.

Could a similar shift be taking place in sustainability communication?

The Problem with Abstract Environmentalism

In his 1957 book, The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), arguably the most ground-breaking historian of religion of the 20th century, explains why sky gods rose and fell. The list of celestial deities – kings of their respective pantheons – includes Maori Iho, Babylonian Anu, Andamanese Puluga, along with the more familiar Greek Zeus and Roman Jupiter.

As people tried to relate to the world around them, the sky immediately appeared infinite, transcendent, and wholly different from their immediate surroundings. That is where the sky god resides, and everything must be his creation.

However, while the cults of Zeus and Jupiter evolved and retained their significance, in most cultures these sky gods would eventually disappear from everyday religious practice. As humans started to show increasing interest in all that life had to offer (the beauty and fruits of nature, the unbreakable power of stones, the mysteries of sexuality, the cycle of life and death), their religious experiences became more intimate and powerful. If we can find solace in a wine god who brings us laughter after a challenging day, or seek guidance from a hunting god, why would we worship a distant, unrelatable, and somewhat generic sky god?

The funny thing is that we are not so different from our ancestors in this regard. This explains, I think, why ‘sky god strategies’ in green marketing and sustainability-themed purpose branding are often ineffective. We are all familiar with the preachy script: brands talk about the planet and its challenges (global warming, pollution, declining biodiversity) and then list the annual ‘sacrifices’ they make (cutting emissions, planting trees, recycling) to honor it. 

Much like a distant sky god, these environmental messages are too abstract and intangible to feel pumped up about.

Green marketing is effective when brands move beyond the sky god strategy and manage to reveal the ‘green magic’ in our immediate environments.

To understand this alternative strategy, we must first dissect another concept used by Eliade and other scholars: Hierophany

Hierophanies: Sacred Things You Can See and Touch  

Eliade was primarily interested in understanding (instead of judging) the authentic worldview of the ancient people belonging to archaic religions. This worldview, he argued, was shaped by two alternative modes of being: the profane and the sacred. 

Most of the world around them – what we today consider objective reality – was believed to be Chaos, a random, unjust and painful world, a profane realm devoid of meaning. And because it was meaningless, this chaotic world wasn’t considered real! What was absolutely real, however, was Cosmos – a parallel supernatural world that was ordered, eternal, perfect, or, in a word, sacred. 

The problem with Cosmos, of course, was that it was not easy to access. But not impossible! What was so fantastic and magical about their otherwise impoverished everyday world was that there were secret connections between these two wholly different dimensions, Cosmos and Chaos.

These connections are called hierophanies (from Greek hiero-, “sacred,” and phainein, “to show”) – manifestations of the sacred, cosmic interventions into our chaotic space, breakthroughs from plane to plane.

The very essence of ancient religious life was built around these hierophanies: discovering them, worshiping them, developing rituals around them, and adhering to them as models of behavior and orientation in the surrounding Chaos. 

Depending on specific belief systems, anything could be a hierophany – a tree, an animal, a stone, a star, a sexual encounter, or a meal. 

One example will suffice to illustrate the importance of hierophanies in the lives of ancient people. According to Eliade’s account, the Achilpa, a nomadic Australian tribe, used to regard a specific wooden pole as their most sacred hierophany. It was believed that a divine being called Numbakula created (or cosmicized) the Achilpa world. Afterwards, he made a wooden pole called kauwa-auwa, which he used to climb into the sky. 

Now, because they still had the kauwa-auwa in their possession, they felt safe, real, and full of life – they may have been surrounded by Chaos, but theirs was a sacred territory and culture. Whenever the Achilpa ventured beyond their territory, they carried the pole with them and went in the direction in which it bent. Traveling is so much nicer if you are always on a sacred path! 

Renault Cars, Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, and Hierophanic Marketing

In order to be impactful in their green campaigns, brands should move beyond sky-god strategies towards hierophanic ones. In fact, some have already done so. 

Take Renault and its 2023 “Plug Inn” campaign, for example. The leader of electric cars in France, Renault, faced a problem: Primarily, urban owners of these cars could not travel freely and comfortably across France due to the lack of public charging stations in rural areas. Through Renault’s innovative “Airbnb for Plugs” initiative, drivers can now take advantage of the network of private home chargers hired by people living in rural areas. First and foremost, it is a solution to a practical problem. But these home chargers can also be seen as secular hierophanies. 

Eliade writes, “The sacred tree, the sacred stone are not adored as stone or tree; they are worshipped precisely because they are hierophanies because they show something that is no longer stone or tree but the sacred.” Similarly, the home chargers are also manifestations of a principle that has rightfully become ‘sacred’ to our modern societies: the principle of electric transition. Just like the Achilpa people would not enter the Chaos without their pole, most Renault drivers would not dare abandon their sacred electrified territories to explore the rural unknown. Renault cosmicized parts of the world that, in the eyes of brand ‘believers’, were previously seen as chaotic and not part of the ‘new progressive reality’. 

Hellmann’s Mayonnaise multi-year “Make Taste, Not Waste” initiative can also be interpreted as an amazing case of hierophanic marketing. What it did was transform the most profane thing one can think of – a jar of mayo – into a powerful hierophany, a manifestation of another ‘modern-sacred’ principle (food waste prevention). A fridge full of leftover food has always been a chaotic sight! But, with Hellman’s, one can always ‘cosmicize’ this Chaos and “transform all that nothing into a delicious something” while helping the planet. 

As we learned earlier, hierophanies are always about “turning nothing into something” (as Hellmann’s jingle goes). In the Vedic rituals, one takes control of an alien chaotic territory and makes it sacred by erecting a fire altar dedicated to the fire god Agni. What was nothing is now something, part of our sacred world. With a jar of Hellmann’s, a modern hierophany, we can finally take control of our fridge chaos in an active, playful, and purposeful way. 

That is the real power of hierophanies. They are manifestations of the most powerful principles and causes, but they also include us in the game and give us real agency.

My hope, therefore, is that the concept of hierophanic marketing will assist experts in the field of sustainability marketing and empower brands to serve the planet better. 

References and Credits
  • Eliade, M. (1957) The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion (Translated by Willard R. Trask). New York: Harvest, Brace & World.
  • Cover image credits: Photo by Greg Rakozy

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