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The Church Brand.

November 8, 2010

Recently, GAP clothing changed their logo, sparking worldwide debate and criticism, eventually resulting in them reinstating their original logo.  The reason?  The new logo didn’t ‘feel’ like GAP.  This feeling that logos generate in the consumer are part of the product’s brand:  “Brand is about meaning…your brand is the sum total of all the meanings that all your possible audiences carry around about you in their heads and in their hearts… Brand gives you stability, growth potential, loyalty and longevity.” [1] If you have a good brand, you create a following of faithful consumers who not only actively choose your product over others but also advocate on your behalf (think Apple).  In addition, brands help you to sell more than a product – you sell an experience.  For example, Starbucks used to brand themselves as the ‘third place’; after work and home, Starbucks is the third place one would choose.  And because one is not just offering a cup of coffee but also a place, £3 for a coffee-based drink seems legit.  Brands are vital in a consumer world as products compete for a limited number of buyers.

So why consider branding in a blog about theology and the arts?  A church near where I grew up has recently re-branded, including changing their name and visual identity, most interestingly dropping the denominational affiliation from their name.  Here is the reason for this change according to their website: ‘Greater CLARITY in our communication, cause, and our convictions. Greater UNITY in our fellowship. Greater VISION about who we are and where we want to go. Greater SYNERGY which leads to greater effectiveness, partnerships, and results.’ This change to their name, as expressed by the minister, has been a five-year process of discerning both the right name and the right time.  In addition, they claim that despite the drop of the denomination, they are ‘more Baptist than ever.’  A quick Google search shows that this is not an uncommon phenomenon with many websites and blogs provide how-to guides for a church’s re-branding process, some even recommending that it should be done every 2-4 years.  The reason according to some: ‘People like seeing that the church knows itself. And, if you don’t give yourself a brand, then others will. Brand yourself before you get a nickname!’

While it is important that a church be clear in its communication and provide an accessible way-in for those in the community, I’d like to pose three questions in regard to this interesting phenomenon:

1. Does re-branding, especially in cases where the denomination is removed from the name, assert an autonomy against the church’s history?  One’s denomination is not only a theological affiliation but it is also a historical affiliation that places a church within a trajectory of church history.  Is something lost in public perception when that historical and theological orientation is visually diminished?  Does the church name risk becoming generic and thus ceasing to communicate the richness of its historical past?

2.  Does an emphasis on branding assume a competition between churches?  I ask this because at the basis of branding is positioning oneself over and against the other products on the market so that a consumer will choose yours over the competitors.  By introducing branding into the church sphere, are we inadvertently introducing language that could be detrimental to church unity?

3.  As was seen with GAP, Apple, and Starbucks, consumers identify with the brand and what that brand represents.  When it comes to churches, what are we asking people to identify with – our church’s ‘brand’ or the Christ which we seek to follow?  How do we insure that the latter remains the focus in our aim to attract?

Image Credit

[1] Simon Middleton, Build a Brand in 30 Days (Chichester: Capstone, 2010) 2, 7.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael & Lesley Stevens permalink
    November 8, 2010 10:45 am

    Sara, I really enjoyed reading your post and the challenges that it poses for churches. I’ve only recently discovered the Transpositions blog, but am consistently impressed by the ideas you all put forth. Do any of you have a connection to L’Abri? I spent some time at the English L’Abri and feel that many of your posts could be developed into lengthier lectures that would be welcomed discussion material at a place like L’Abri. Just thought I’d ask.

    • November 8, 2010 10:56 am

      Thanks for your kind comment — it’s great to hear that you’ve found Transpositions to be helpful. While we don’t have an official link with L’Abri, Jim, one of the regular contributors to this blog, is currently at the Swiss L’Abri for a week, presenting a couple of lectures. Perhaps a more official connection might be possible in the future!

  2. November 8, 2010 2:06 pm

    Great post and great questions!

    Just to take up one point, it seems that sometimes it would be be wise for a church to avoid making its denominational affiliation central to its ‘identity,’ especially when there are so many stereotypes out there about certain denominations that may either detract people from coming or put preconceived notions in their mind about what a particular church is all about. It may be fine to include denominational affiliation in literature that someone could read to learn more, but in terms of what is printed on a sign and advertised in the community, sometimes this affiliation can be a stumbling block. Also, I have experienced many churches that make so much out their denominational affiliation that it produces division and even competition with other churches in their city or area.

    • November 8, 2010 3:28 pm

      If a church is making its denomination central to its identity, then it is branding itself just as much as a church that is branding itself by removing its denominational identity. Both are always a bad idea, I believe. A church should focus on spreading the Gospel, worshipping God in community, instructing people in Christian doctrine, and so forth. The distinctions between churches in the same area should be based on differences of opinion on right doctrine and practice, not branding or perceived coolness.
      Although there is nothing wrong with presenting one’s church attractively, the modern practice of branding turns the church into just another extension of one’s own identity, like choosing a Mac over a PC or Coke over Pepsi. Using consumer products to define oneself is a bad idea anyway, but bringing this into church just makes it worse. We do not find fulfillment by drinking Coke, being in a church with the cool people, or anything of that sort. Fulfillment comes in the molding of our identities into that of Christ. The only “brand” I’m interested in is the Gospel.

    • November 9, 2010 10:56 am

      Thanks for the comments and I think that you both bring up good points and ones that need to be considered especially in light of an advertising age. Do you think that we’re headed into a ‘denomination-less’ age? I ask because while it would be concerning to make a denomination a brand, it is more than just a ‘feeling’ that is constructed at the hands of marketers. It is something that pre-dates the mid-20th century surge of advertising and used to denote theological beliefs. So while a denomination might cause difficulties for an outsider, I see a similar problem developing in the other direction – ie. I know of a church who recently renamed itself ‘Crossroads’. For the outsider, there are few clues as to what the church believes (or that it is even a church). I wonder if ‘re-branding’ is a bit like putting a band-aid on a bigger problem – the need to reform the church so that who it is as a community is attractive for the right reasons.

      • Steve permalink
        November 10, 2010 4:29 pm

        The “Crossroads” name is actually kind of problematic for anyone familiar with myth (think about Oedipus) or folklore (who do characters meet at crossroads, especially at night?). There is always a danger that in trying to imply too little, we end up implying too much.

  3. November 8, 2010 3:07 pm

    Sara, great content! Several years ago, Grace went through a name change (as you likely know), but in hindsight, it appears we didn’t accomplish all that we had thought we might. I am using your post as a catalyst to prompt renewed discussion about identity. In Jesus’ day, people were drawn to him because he had a power to change lives, and then they were drawn to his subsequent church because it had a power to transform a community and the world. We’re striving to be a people where Christ is changing lives and his church is changing the community. Thanks for prompting a discussion on our end.

    • November 9, 2010 10:48 am

      Thanks, Brent, for the comment and I’m glad to know that the post was helpful! I hope and pray that further discussion is fruitful and you’re able to discern how to move forward in this way.

  4. November 8, 2010 4:41 pm

    Hi Sara,

    Fascinating article.

    Many thanks for quoting my book Build A Brand In 30 Days. I’m so glad you found the book of interest.

    Regards

    Simon Middleton, founder and principal, Brand Strategy Guru
    http://www.brandstrategyguru.com

    • November 9, 2010 7:58 pm

      Thanks, Simon, for your comments and connecting with Transpositions!

  5. November 9, 2010 2:35 pm

    I’m someone whose thinking and habits are certainly affected by branding, but branding and the Gospel seem to be a bad combination. hard to think that something branded is meant for anything other than consumption.

    I strongly agree with the implication in questions #1 and #2 that the only people concerned with a church’s brand are ‘church people’. we end up speaking a language to which those we most want to attract are deaf.

    my experience in ministry shows that a congregation’s real brand is forged over years of relationship-building and ongoing acts of care and commitment within a community. it’s a real help for me to think of us as a ‘congregation’ rather than a ministry center, organization or institution.

    • November 9, 2010 8:03 pm

      Thanks, Ryan, for your comment! You mentioned that in your experience of ministry, the congregation’s ‘brand’ develops over time. Do you think that there is value in creating a ‘look’ for a church that reflects the ‘brand’ that develops over time? Or, in your opinion, is this an incompatible relationship – church and branding?

  6. November 9, 2010 9:12 pm

    I love the idea of giving visual artists a real voice in as many aspects of church life as possible. so yes to the question of creating a visual representation, a look. I’m still leery of the ‘brand’ terminology because it’s so heavily consumer-driven. but yes to the idea. it’s up to leadership to exercise care in how (and why) we go about creating and using the image.

    I’ll also add that we’re part of a denomination about which I feel very good and have found a solid home – the Brethren in Christ. but similar thinking applies – if we live the BIC theology and values, then we have the best possible brand. if we aren’t living it, no amount of ‘branding’ will do the job for us.

    I guess I’d say ‘branding’ (as I understand it) puts the cart before the horse. it makes much more biblical and historical sense to be who God calls us to be, then muster all our creative energy to continue telling that story.

  7. Steve permalink
    November 10, 2010 4:39 pm

    Some time ago, I was in a leadership role in a church that considered “rebranding” itself, and a name change was (privately) discussed. It never went anywhere, and the church name remained, but I found myself taking a conservative position on the issue over against some of my elders. Although the church’s name had become somewhat sullied in the community due to some internal power struggles, I thought that it still accurately reflected the church’s location (city name) and denomination (Baptist). I suppose there are times when a congregation’s identity has changed so much that a name change is warranted for honesty’s sake. But honesty isn’t the issue here, is it?

    I’m reminded of a passage from the Screwtape Letters, in which Screwtape says, “The Enemy loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action, He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions: Is it righteous? Is it prudent? Is it possible? Now, if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions.” I think I know which category Lewis (via Screwtape) would place the “re-branding” questions in…

    • November 11, 2010 1:23 pm

      Thanks, Steve, for your comments and for bringing Lewis in on the discussion. What I appreciate about what Lewis suggests is that by asking questions, it alludes to the possibility that in the right circumstances, something like ‘re-branding’ might be necessary, prudent, and maybe even righteous.

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