Sunday, May 15, 2005


Intra Christian Branding

Yesterday, I introduced the concept of "branding" and started to wonder about how it is affecting Christianity.

You'll recall that the concept of branding was orginally a way to distinguish similar, but not necessarily identical products. For example Green Giant Brand vegetables were of very high quality, while the grocery store brands were usually somewhat lower.

Many people have said that in Christianity, the various denominations are just different brands. Traditionally, I think there was some truth in that. There were genuine distinctions, and the denominations were labels to attach to those distinctions. For example, Presbyterians could be counted on to be Calvinist and engage in infant baptism. Lutherans, of course, pulled their theology from Martin Luther.

For a minute, I need to refer back to the book that started me thinking along these lines, Branded Nation : The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld by James Twitchell. We'll get into the megachurch thing in a minute, but I need to take great exception with something he said in that book. Twitchell argues that the "product" which church has to sell is "epiphany." That is to say, "good feeling about God and themselves." Therein lies the problem.

I strongly disagree with this. The product that the church sells is God. Some might say, "Don't you mean salvation?" No -- I mean God, salvation is a by-product of us "buying" God. Think about it. That is why the traditional denominational distinctions matter, they are based largely in theology, and theology is what we think about God -- thus there are genuine product distinctions, even if they are in many cases subtle.

Twitchell is right when it comes to megachurches in general. When I say "megachurch," what comes to mind? For most people I think one of two things, either "successful," or "comfortable." Both of these things are great for brand identity and that are great if your product is indeed "epiphany," but they say absolutely nothing about God.

This truly is branding in its modern form. The brand is more important than the product. The brand no longer marks distinctions, instead it is the story that you sell and the product itself is relatively unimportant. Thus a "swoosh" sells not just shoes, but clothing, sports equipment, and even drinks. And what is the "swoosh?" -- Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods.... You are now selling a logo that is associated with an image and the product simply does not matter.

In general, with the megachurch, you are selling the image of success and the feeling of comfort, you are in fact selling "epiphany," but what about the real product? Does anyone ask what the theological stance of a given mega-church is? Does it matter? Oh yeah it matters.

Now, truly, we are not saved by theology, God is not subject to our understanding -- but theology in the proper perspective matters tremendously. Remember, it is nothing more than a "college" word for "what we think about God." It matters because in the proper perspective it is about GOD. In other words theology is about the product, not the brand.

Now, I will grant you, the mega-church has risen out of the failure of the traditional denominations. The old-liners lost their quality control. Consider this, franchising is just a way of selling a brand. Franchising operations fail when they lose their quality control over their franchisees -- the brand loses it's story. The theological unity that once marked the protestant denominations is now gone. Why I heard a Presbyterian pastor proudly declare a while back that he was most decidely not a Calvinist. He even admitted that 10 years earlier such a statement might have cost him his job.

Because of a lack of quality control, the stories associated with the mainline denominational "brands" have eroded. But you know, some brands that lost their sparkle, have been known to revive. Holiday Inn is a classic example. They had gone to the dogs, but they have cut loose the old line bad franchisees and modified the logo, and they are back in business strong. They did this by recapturing what their brand always stood for -- quality affordable lodging -- not by trying to become Hilton.

Now, or course, a lot of old line denomination congregations think they are doing the same thing by imitating the megachurches, they think they are recapturing their brand. But they aren't -- they are trying to horn in on someone else's brand.

No the key for the old liners is to recapture what their "brands" used to stand for.

Which brings me to the "Emerging Church." This too is rapidly becoming a brand. And what is the "story" associated with this brand. First of all, I think it is pretty identifiable. This post from a blogger called The First Epistle of Mark readily identifies what all emerging church blogs say, over and over again. (HT: SmartChristian) It's a pretty tight story.

But it is this post from Jesus Creed that I think really defines the brand. (again HT: SmartChristian)
Emergent is a reaction to what the Church has to offer and what the Church is today, and what it has to offer is not enough, not good enough, not biblical enough, not spiritual enough, not radical enough, not relevant enough,...
In other words, the "emergent" brand is simply "not church." Call it the anti-brand.

It would seem at first glance the the emerging church might be the answer. If branding is the problem, reject the brand. But it's not, because again, it is identified not by the product, but by the brand story.

The bottom line is this. Christianity is not about branding, marketing, or packaging. We can produce a lot of "success" with those tools, but can we produce the product? I don't think so. We don't need new brands. we just need to remember the product. We just need to call on God.

The next post on this will be about "Christian" as a political brand.


DJ Chuang looks at the application of business practice to church building in general in this post from yesterday. (HT: SmartChristian) Andy says it well
The branding concept is just one example of a greater issue.


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