By Kent E. Fillinger
“Christianity has an image problem.” This is the first sentence in UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity . . . And Why It Matters. The book chronicles the negative perceptions and skepticism that Americans ages 16-29 have of all things Christian: the faith itself, the people who profess it, the church, the Bible, and even Jesus.
Authors David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons summarize the most common points of skepticism and objections raised by outsiders into the following six broad themes: hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, antihomosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental.
The authors of UnChristian present readers with the following choices:
You can deny the hostility, you can refute its causes, you can harass those Christians who are trying their best to represent Jesus in a completely new context, or you can deal with the increasing hostility of outsiders in ways that honor God.1
What is the connection between this and branding? Similar to an outsider’s negative view of Christians and the church, many church leaders and Christians have a negative or skeptical perception of branding and marketing.
Ministers and church members often equate branding or marketing as a secular business practice that should be reserved for the marketplace. They conclude that the goal of branding is to package Jesus in an attempt to sell him.
Even those who embrace the concept of branding in the church often mistakenly connect branding simply with a church’s logo. But branding represents much more than a logo.
WHAT IS BRANDING?
Branding is about perception. Branding deals primarily with the perception people have of your church. Branding is about a church’s reputation in its community and what the average person believes about the church and its ministries.
If I surveyed your church staff, elders, some longtime members, and some new attendees, how would they describe your church’s mission and ministry? What would they say is unique about your church? While their answers and insights would be valuable in the process of developing your brand, their feedback would provide only part of the picture.
The more critical question is: If I surveyed people from your surrounding community, how would they describe your church’s mission and ministry? The Web-based church marketing group, www.ChurchMarketingStinks.com, asked the question, “How often does your church consider a comprehensive rebranding?” The majority response (43 percent) was, “We would have to have a brand in order to rebrand.”
The truth is your neighbors already have a distinct impression of who you are and what you do, even if they have never been a guest in your church. The question is—do they have the right impression?
Media consultant Phil Cooke puts it this way:
The key thing to remember is that a brand is not what we say it is, it’s what they say it is. The importance of perception is so misunderstood in the church. . . . Perception plays a role in that if people don’t like you or don’t consider you credible, they won’t ever hear your message. Once you get your voice heard, then you can share your message.2
If you are serious about reaching your community for Christ, then understand why and how to develop your church’s brand. The church is not called to serve the saved, but to reach outsiders. Therefore, it’s essential for church leaders to understand the perceptions of your neighbors.
The authors of UnChristian clarify four reasons why perceptions matter:
1. What people think about Christians influences how they respond to us.
2. What people think about Christians should help us be objective.
3. What people think of Christians can change.
4. What people think about Christians reflects personal stories.3
In addition to the image problem we face as Christians, I am convinced your church probably also faces a perception problem. I am also confident God could use a brand development process to increase your church’s evangelistic effectiveness because, as Kinnaman and Lyons state, “People’s attitudes drive their actions.”4
Branding needs to be approached two ways: as a noun—the mission, values, and personality of your church; and as a verb—the process of communicating your brand internally to your church and externally to your community. (This happens two ways: through the personal discipleship of your members and through your corporate communication. Your church members, church name, building, logo, sign, Web site, printed publications, newspaper ads, etc., all create and reinforce a perception.
YOUR BRANDING PROCESS
Here are some suggestions to guide you in the process:
Commit to a comprehensive rebranding of your church. Relevance is relative. Relevance is in the eye of the beholder.
Pepsi recently spent five months to revamp its famous logo for the sixth time. Pepsi’s objective was to make its logo “more dynamic and more alive.” I want to reiterate that your church’s brand consists of way more than your logo, but as Milton Glaser said, “A logo is the point of entry to the brand.”
In addition to viewing your logo, more outsiders are exploring your Web site before they ever enter your doors. Keith Baldwin said, “The Web site is a window into the heart of your church.”
Unless you have completed a branding process within the last three to five years, you are ready to review and revamp your church’s brand.
For the branding process to be both successful and effective, your core leadership needs to be committed and involved in the process. Due to the all-encompassing nature of the brand, this is not a responsibility that the lead minister should delegate to a team within the church. But neither is this a process that should be undertaken alone. Instead, recruit a small, solid team to partner with in the brand development process and give your church six to nine months to work through the process.
Create a strategy. Your brand is a combination of everything your church says and does. Building a brand is similar to building a house: you need a plan or blueprints before you get started.
The process should start and end with your church’s unique vision for making an eternal impact in your local context. It should also consider who you are called to serve and the unique strengths of your church. You want to be able to convey the benefits of your ministry to your neighbors and communicate your distinctive vision as a church.
A useful way to think about the concept is to use a brand framework.
A brand framework starts with your church’s core—its vision, mission, values, and personality. When you have a clear understanding of who you are as a church, then it will create a natural flow for your verbal expressions—church name, key messages, tone of voice—and for your visual expressions—logo, color palette, typography, design elements, photography, and illustrations.
Strive for consistency. Brand consistency is also essential to effectively creating a positive perception. Scott Flood, a freelance copywriter, says inconsistency is the biggest misstep you can make:
You want to make sure that every contact with your customer (community) is consistent. Your ads should sound like your brochures, should sound like your Web sites, should sound like your employees (staff and church members).5
Consistent Christian lives and consistent church communications can positively change people’s perception of your church and Christianity.
Gain an external perspective. Recently, I was a first-time participant in a board of director’s meeting for a Christian nonprofit organization. The group was discussing the branding and marketing of the organization. I noted that the organization’s outdated publications did not accurately reflect the modern ministry approach the organization employed inside its walls. One of the longtime board members responded by saying, “I thought this publication was pretty good stuff.”
The reality is, “You can’t read the label from inside the bottle.” When it comes to issues in which we have a huge personal investment, we risk losing our objectivity. It is nearly impossible to self evaluate how people see your church.
As Richard Reising said, “You see your intentions; others only see your follow-through. To look at your church ‘on the outside,’ you need the help of outsiders.”6
1David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity . . . and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 40.
2“Being Heard in Today’s Culture,” Rev! Magazine, www.rev.org, 2 February 2009.
3Kinnaman and Lyons, UnChristian, 37, 38.
5“To ‘brand’ a company meld image and message,” The Indianapolis Star, 29 October 2007, C3.
6“Branding is the next level in church communication,” Church Executive, March 2006, 47.
Kent Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting (www.3strandsconsulting.com) and outreach minister with Connection Pointe Christian Church of Brownsburg, Indiana.