Fanboys, smartphones, and cultural Mormons

By: Andrew S
July 2, 2011

Steve Jobs as religious saint?A while back, there was news that showed that apparently, Apple products and brand motifs trigger religious responses in Apple fans.

How silly, I thought. Of course, it’s not something that I would doubt. I know about the long lines to stores when Apple is set to release a new product. Yet, I’d like to think that these fanboys are just for Apple.

And yet, the research has intrigued me. One thing that really made me reconsider my involvement with the church and with Mormonism was comparing and contrasting it to a corporation. From very young, I recognized how corporately the church was run, and I admired that for a time. I found myself appreciating (and testifying on those fast Sundays) the pragmatic skills I was developing through the Priesthood, because for me, the spiritual was silent and invisible.

Eventually, I came to realize that organizational efficiency and corporate effectiveness mean nothing without a corporate strategy that one believes in, and that’s where I realized the religious values of Mormonism chafed against me. This is not a Prop 8 post, but while I trembled in awe about the campaign and activism the church inspired, I also trembled in terror to the effect it sought.

The idea bore a hole into my mind, however…that of a church as a corporation, and of church membership and involvement as the support of a brand. I didn’t see the point in brand loyalty for the sake of brand loyalty alone — I saw it as always a negotiated process: you support the brand when it means your needs, and when it doesn’t, you leave without looking back. And since I found myself having less use of the Mormon brand, I disassociated from many parts of the institutional church. (Although I still find myself trying to take ownership from some shadow of a non-institutional identity, but maybe there’s more shadow there than identity.)

I think it’s very popular, actually, to dislike the corporatism of the church. Some say it stifles the spirituality, keeps the church in the past, prevents it from addressing modern concerns. Maybe, maybe. Some people say this and leave because of it; but some people say this and stay in spite of it, perhaps hoping to change it.

What determines the difference? What makes some people think that they can stay in hope that things will get better, or even more ambitiously, what makes people think they can change things from inside?

I have never began to appreciate it until I approached it from a different aspect.

Palm PreLess than two years ago (but my Sprint contract is telling me that it’s coming up to two years soon), I bought a Palm Pre. I was really excited by the idea of webOS in an era when I didn’t quite see the big deal with Google and Android, and had a bad taste in my mouth with respect to Apple and iOS.

But you know what? That was all ok, because webOS was going to take everything by storm!

The Palm Pre came out, but it didn’t take everything by storm. In fact, the Pre didn’t exactly have glowing reviews. While people said there were things about it that had promise (its card multitasking system, intuitive gestures system [which Research in Motion seems to have borrowed/stolen with reckless abandon for its Playbook even while HP has begun rolling back gestures in the TouchPad], and synergy features), professional reviewers pointed out very worrying red flags. The Pre’s build quality was extremely questionable, and Palm took so much time between the initial announce of the Pre and its launch that the hardware was aged shortly within launch.

People who bought the Pre as early adopters or as close enough had reason to know about these problems — after all, the reviewers were generally in agreement about these problems. But they insisted that things might not be so bad, or maybe, things would get better.

Over time, things didn’t really get much better. In fact, many people did have to return or exchange their Pres (because of the build quality issues…let’s just say that “oreo” should NEVER describe what happens to the two halves of a phone), and the app situation didn’t get much better, even while iOS and Android reached into the thousands.

As you may have heard, HP bought Palm recently (and by recently, I mean the announcement and completion was a year ago. Oops). And so, early adopters had reason to trust that things would get better.

And HP said it would.

In the coming months.

The words became anathema to many webOS fans. So much waiting, for new phones. For new software. For more apps.

HP TouchPadAs you may or may not have heard, HP released the TouchPad this weekend. The release of the TouchPad brings webOS to a new form factor — the tablet — and is the beginning of HP’s commitment to pull webOS back into competitiveness in a market where iOS and Android are on everyone’s minds, people are starting to forget once sure-and-steady BlackBerry, and Microsoft is quickly coming back up with its Windows Phone 7.

Yet, for webOS fans, the year since HP’s acquisition of Palm hasn’t brought us all we’ve been hoping for. This operating system still stands with fewer than 10,000 apps, while upstart Windows Phone 7 has now surpassed 25,000.

And the TouchPad doesn’t seem like a hit out of the ballpark. Sure, as with other products, people express hope in the potential. People say that the operating system is still intuitive, a joy to use…but that there are flaws in the product as of now that make it not the one. Not the one to defy the iPad 2 for sure, but perhaps also not the one to be a decisive second place, either.

Being a webOS fan at this point is difficult. Many people are moving away. Many people already have — they have migrated either temporarily or permanently to iOS, Android, or Windows Phone 7 because of lack of cutting-edge new webOS phones (even when new phones do come out, they don’t come out for all carriers.) And in light of the reviews, many people have canceled their TouchPad preorders or are otherwise reconsidering purchase.

It seems much like a repeat of the Pre launch. Yet, some people insist that things can get better. That HP will make things right with the community, and will listen to the community’s needs and correct that problem points that reviewers mention. They are sticking in, even now. Others recognize that they were burned once, and don’t want to be again.

Why do people stay in such a condition? Why don’t more people recognize that other products serve their needs better and move on? How does brand loyalty surpass a mere present value cost-benefit analysis?

And I’ve begun to feel foolish. How is it that some people have more loyalty to a company brand or an operating system or a small community than I have to my religious community? How is it that people are willing to sacrifice more (in productivity loss, or in the stress of occasional bugs or software hangs) than many are willing to sacrifice for a faith community?

I know that the answers others have may be different. After all, many people don’t look at religious affiliation in pragmatic terms. It’s about truth, and if someone doesn’t believe it’s true, no utility can make up for that. But for someone who evaluates in terms of utility, I have to wonder why that still isn’t compelling enough. And why, in fact, I am sometimes suspicious of others who would want to make Mormonism a more welcoming place for those who take different approaches toward it.

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13 Responses to Fanboys, smartphones, and cultural Mormons

  1. Will on July 2, 2011 at 9:07 PM

    The purpose of a corporation is to make money. It is to meet the needs of consumers. Good examples include Walmart, Exxon Moblie and UPS — three of the best companies in the world when it comes to profitability. Others, such as Microsoft and Apple created a market and have been extremely successful.

    The mission if the Church, on the other hand is to prefect the saints, preach the gospel and redeem the dead. It is not, and should not be, around to do what is popular or follow the latest trend. Ultimately the purpose of the church is to teach the true gospel of Jesus Christ. The true gospel of Christ will separate the wheat from the tares. It will distribute the souls of men in the hereafter. It will act as a great sieve.

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  2. Andrew S on July 2, 2011 at 10:16 PM

    Will,

    An interesting thing is that one can speak of preaching the missions of the church in marketing terms. Namely: to preach the gospel, one IS trying to find a way to present the gospel in a way to reach the most people effectively. The church doesn’t want to save a focused *niche* of people; it wants to reach *everyone*. In this way, it very much wants to be popular, because it’s target audience is every sinner (e.g., everyone).

    To the extent that the church fails in its goals, then the things that you mention will happen (separation of wheat from tares, etc.,)

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  3. blearyeyed on July 3, 2011 at 7:38 AM

    Interesting post Andrew S! I think the difference deals with many complex issues, but the two I think play a central role are 1. How people make their decisions and 2. How well was the previous experience with the brands products. People who stay loyal to a brand (ie the church) despite the flaws and imperfections might have many good memories to reflect upon use of their products.

    For example they may feel some loyalty to this brand because they have been given great customer services over the years and this generally makes up for the flaws. They may also realize the benefit of being part of the same “network” as most of their family and friends, and the cost of being “out of network” is very high. After a cost-benefit analysis, they settle to be annoyed but still pick products from a brand they don’t really enjoy, simply to receive the benefits of being in the network.

    Some consumers have a hard time with change because they don’t really like the product they are using now, but haven’t really been able to find a new product that really fits their needs. In this case the threat of the unknown problems with an unfamiliar product is enough that customers keep using the current products from a brand… at least until they find the products that fit more of their needs and feels more familiar then the other brands previously considered.

    Lastly, people make decisions based on different thinking processes. Logos and pathos can help make my point. Does the customer make decisions using deductive reasoning with little thought to how they “feel” about the brand or are their choices often based on their emotions? I think people often lay on a spectrum that is mixture of these two, with one being more predominant in how an individual makes their choice. This can also explain why some individuals continue with their current products or choices a different brand altogether, even when both individuals have been presented with all the pros and cons of the products from a certain brand.

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  4. Andrew S on July 3, 2011 at 8:30 AM

    blearyeyed,

    Great thoughts there!

    I really think there’s something to your third paragraph in particular: the unknown aspects of an unfamiliar product can be far worse than even known problems with a product one is familiar with.

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  5. Irony on July 3, 2011 at 11:10 AM

    Will:

    “The mission if the Church, on the other hand is to prefect the saints, preach the gospel and redeem the dead.”

    How do you reconcile that mission with a distinctively corporate mindset. Speaking strictly in financial terms, the Church goes out of it’s way to make money on projects which have nothing to do with the mission of the church.

    Andrew:

    I honestly glossed over part of the write-up where you began to blather on about HPs tablet and OS. I had no interest in it, for reasons you’ll see below.

    The unfortunate part of technology is that, to keep abreast of most trends, you need to devote a substantial amount of your time both following, digesting and processing those trends.

    This time commitment segues into your questions on the matter:

    “Why do people stay in such a condition? Why don’t more people recognize that other products serve their needs better and move on? How does brand loyalty surpass a mere present value cost-benefit analysis?”

    I think that many people stay in whatever status quo they find themselves in because it’s more comfortable, it’s a “known known” (to borrow Rummy’s language) as opposed to either an “unknown known” or an “unknown unknown”. The Church is a LOT of things, but one thing it isn’t is progressive. It’s not on the cutting edge of society, it’s not a trend setter, it’s not a path blazer. It’s a stodgy, staid corporate structure entrenched in tradition. It does things the way they’ve always been done, for the reasons they’ve always been done and seeks to conform every member to those ways.

    If you contrast/compare that with your brand loyalty question, many people are afraid to question to the status quo, let alone actually do anything in their own lives to leave it behind.

    It’d be like a dedicated iPhone owner leaving Apple altogether because Apple’s corporate philosophy was changing and becoming less of a trend-setter. It’ll take much more for iPhone uses to leave Apple than mere corporate philosophies… it’ll probably take something to do with popularity (i.e. if Apple gets seen as passe by the majority of America) or utility (i.e. if the iPhone becomes too restrictive on what apps can/cannot be used) or something like that.

    I just purchased my first smartphone (a Google Nexus) and went with the Nexus because the iPhone was too restrictive with my carrier (i.e. I updated software for the jailbroken phone and it disallowed my SIM card following the update). So I jumped for the more “open source” model and went with something that would work for my carrier.

    That said, if we tie this rambling comment back into religious issues, the Church (IMO) is being too restrictive for my spiritual carrier. It’s imposing rules, conformity and expectations that are both over-the-top and beyond it’s stated mission.

    I don’t know what I’ll do with my physical presence in the church (which is still there on a weekly basis), but my spiritual presence is already on the sidelines. I’m no longer “emotionally” connected to the church/brand. I no longer feel the need to defend or pimp the Church like so many of my Facebook friends insist on doing with the mainstream news feting Mormonism in various ways.

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  6. shenpa warrior on July 3, 2011 at 12:05 PM

    I think brand loyalty in itself probably provides benefits that could be added to the cost-benefit evaluation… and then there is identity. I grew up with Apple products. We had Macs back in the day when they were NOT popular AT all. I suppose going through that makes me like them even more now.

    Still, I agree that if Apple really wasn’t meeting my needs or wants I’d let it go, at least for a time. For example, I currently have a macbook, an iPad, and an iPhone. I’m definitely considering giving up the iPhone in favor of something pre-paid and a lot cheaper. I have the iPad with me a lot more now and in places I wouldn’t normally take the laptop, so having a smartphone as well is redundant.

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  7. Mike S on July 4, 2011 at 1:20 AM

    I was an early Palm adopter (my calendar has been on it since 1997) and my first “Palm” was actually branded “US Robotics” (pre-Palm). I hung on, but subsequently bailed to Android. My calendar / contacts / etc now live in Google’s cloud. But I really did like Palm.

    Great post.

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  8. Mike S on July 4, 2011 at 1:29 AM

    Regarding the “corporatism” of the Church – I think it is real. The upper echelons tend to be filled with business-types. The leadership tends to dress like 1960′s IBM workers. And the franchise model is alive and well. There is much from the world of business that is adopted in the Church.

    But it goes both ways. There are concepts developed in the Church that become a marketable business. On my mission, the process we were taught was to help someone have a spiritual and emotional experience, have them ponder that experience as a confirmation of a truth and hence knowledge, and then try to get them to act on that by making specific commitments and ultimately be baptized.

    Now read the following:

    Our unique strength is the ability to touch the hearts and minds of our audiences, evoking first feeling, then thought and, finally, action. We call this uniquely powerful brand of creative “HeartSell”® – strategic emotional advertising that stimulates response.

    While this sounds like the missionary model, it is actually a Trademarked model sold by the Church’s for-profit business, Bonneville Internnational (link here)

    So, it goes both ways.

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  9. Andrew S on July 4, 2011 at 8:52 AM

    re 5,

    Irony,

    Sorry the HP part bored you ;), but I think you still got the point I was trying to make through it all and its analogy to the church. Especially your last two paragraphs.

    re 6:

    Shenpa,

    I guess that’s why a lot of companies are now talking about “ecosystems” instead of products…so that even if you had a tablet, having a smartphone of the same brand would still add value.

    re 7/8,

    Mike,

    (That’s pretty vintage Palm ownership, hehe).

    I’ve always wanted to read books about the shift of the church to its now corporate mentality (I have heard there are some pretty good ones, but I never get around to reading any of the several books I ought to).

    I feel quite uncomfortable to see “emotional advertising” from church-related entities trademarked. I mean, while plenty of people insist that the spirit is something more than just emotional experience, how then can they reconcile that the church talks about strategically stimulating emotional response?

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  10. Dan on July 4, 2011 at 11:46 AM

    dude, Andrew, why do you leave the safe confines of Apple’s fantastic products! I’m no fanboy. I stick with Apple’s products because they are vastly superior to anything out there. The producers of vastly superior products should be rewarded for their ingenious ideas and products. If Apple starts to produce crap, then I’ll back away from them and find something else.

    The same can be said of church, I suppose, since our church is a corporation. If the church is not producing good results, we should search out for something better.

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  11. [...] Andrew’s post at Wheat & Tares, “Fanboys, smartphones, and cultural Mormons,” compared the Mormon brand to Apple or iOS loyality.  He asks Why do people stay in such a condition [adhering to a brand with bad product]? Why don’t more people recognize that other products serve their needs better and move on? How does brand loyalty surpass a mere present value cost-benefit analysis? [...]

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  12. [...] supporters seem almost religious in their devotion to the platform [and I've written about that fanboy/religion connection at Wheat and Tares]…all the way up to my analogizing what religion different mobile OSes would be, with [...]

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  13. [...] between the LDS Church and technology firms at least a couple of times, once by comparing Mormons to webOS fans, but then once in response to a series of posts that analogized Mormonism to Linux. Today, I read [...]

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