Is a Denomination a Brand or a Something Very Different?

Earlier today a package from a friend at UMCom showed up in my mailbox. It was a CD of materials for a “multimedia package” for congregations to use during the Advent season. The good folks at UMCom have provided a theme for the season, “A Life-giving Christmas — Keeping it Real” and will be offering a package of resources connected to that theme for a very reasonable fee. As I reviewed the resources (video, print, Powerpoint backgrounds, etc.) I was pretty much pleased with the production values, which UMCom does well. The material was well written, although I confess that the theme didn’t grab me and that I prefer to avoid conflating Christmas and Advent as the same thing. Given the “seeker” audience (who are the “seekers” anymore, by the way?) I was willing to put aside my holding onto the more ancient traditions in an attempt to reach out to those who have little religious background. All in all it was well worth considering, and yet as I reviewed there was something that bothered me. I wasn’t quite sure what it way, but there was a nagging unease that brought out the natural skeptic in me.

Then it hit me. It was the branding of every piece of print material. Every last item included the ubiquitous “The people of the United Methodist Church: Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors) AND the reThink Church logo.

Now I suppose that there is nothing wrong with this, in fact is is to be expected given that the communications agency of the denomination is producing these resources and distributing them for next to nothing. But I found myself longing instead for blank spaces for congregations to leave their own mark. Of course, I am sure they have a customizing program (again, for an additional fee) but I found myself wondering WHY do we feel like we need to include this generic branding information on everything rather than knowing that our individual United Methodist congregations will be the entities that in all honesty convey what the United Methodist Church is all about.

And then it hit me again. UMCom and the general agencies as a whole are engaged in creating a national brand, a generic version of what it means to be United Methodist. “Does a denomination really need to be a brand,” I began to ask myself, “…or is it possible that we have misunderstood who we are and are trying to be something we are not?”

There is another way to think of this: Are we a franchise operation such as McDonalds or are we a holding company or conglomerate like Proctor and Gamble? Now I know that moving from theological language to the language of business is problematic, however I find little in the current United Methodist “campaign” approach to providing resources for evangelism that is rooted in a theological perspective. In fact, Rethink Church is (by admission) driven largely by things like focus groups, demographics, and other marketing tools with a veneer of theological reflection, and very little about the church as ekklesia or “the beloved community.” Thus, as we think about how we “market” the church (demonstrated in the branding of the worship and promotional resources I mentioned above) the powers that be seem for have determined that the theological images are found wanting, and that the language of the marketplace is more effective. This, for the purposes of these reflections I want to use that language to think about whether our current strategy of homogeneous branding is the most effective means of promoting participation and attendance in United Methodist congregations, or if we may need to consider rethinking our metaphors to reflect the reality of who we rather than who we think we should be.

I will start in my next post by describing the nature of a franchise as I understand it, an image that I often heard used about the relationship of the local church and the general church (the general church as franchiser and the local church as the franchisee). I will then follow up with a reflection on the nature of a conglomerate, suggesting that this may be a more accurate way of thinking about who we really are. And finally, if I get through the other articles, I will see if we can draw some conclusions.

Little did my friend know when she sent me a review copy what it would wrought, but the risk of sharing material with a blogger is that they will be likely to ask questions.

3 thoughts on “Is a Denomination a Brand or a Something Very Different?

  1. A small matter, but: why does ReThink Church even NEED a logo? Since when was the cross and flame not sufficient to tell the world that the UMs were here? It’s this sort of naval-gazing marketing that drives me up a wall…and drove me out of the Church.

  2. As a marketer, I choose to look at the brand another way. “Open hearts…” is more a brand statement than a brand; a set of promises to the church member and the potential church member. Used properly, a brand statement helps each individual church live its own unique mission without losing sight of what ties us together. A brand statement acts like a measuring stick for decision-making. When asked by members, “why is the church doing this or that”, we can look at our brand statement and see if we are supporting its promises. The idea of a “brand” itself has so many negative connotations these days. The rise of alternative churches is fueled by people who don’t want to be branded or labeled, or who are looking to set themselves apart from the mainstream. I agree that as a church we should use care in defining ourselves, but “Open hearts, open minds, open doors” contains very livable and noble promises.

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