Captive to Capitalism, part one, introduced the reality of the church’s formation by capitalism.
Often without us noticing it, this all-encompassing capitalist system shapes our cultural identities and practices. Branding is a core element of this capitalistic formation. In our contemporary world, branding is pervasive—from big brands like Nike and Apple, to small brands and online courses teaching us how to brand ourselves. As church attendance and religious affiliation have continued to decline, churches have increasingly embraced marketing techniques to stay current in attracting people to their church. But how does branding fit with the work of the church? What might we need to understand theologically as we pursue branding strategies?
First, we need to recognize that marketing techniques aren’t simply neutral tools that can be applied to different ends like businesses, ourselves, and our churches—they were developed in a particular context to serve specific needs. Therefore, they can’t or won’t necessarily meet other goals without changing the nature of the organization, how we view God, and how we interact with each other.
Marketing techniques aren’t simply neutral tools that can be applied to different ends like businesses, ourselves, and our churches—they were developed in a particular context to serve specific needs. Click To Tweet
In this article, I’ll describe some important elements of branding. In a piece to come, I’ll sketch a brief theology of branding that draws out some implications for the church’s consideration.
What Is Branding?
We might think of branding simply as logos—like the Nike swoosh. However, contemporary branding has developed well beyond that. Companies initially developed names and markings in the early twentieth century to distinguish between otherwise similar packaged products.
However, the goal of marketing is customer retention—it is cheaper and more profitable to retain an existing customer than to get new customers. As the variety of products grew, and pricing and quality converged, companies have turned to creating emotional connections with customers to generate what one branding expert calls “loyalty beyond reason.” This is the meaning of the modern brand.
Branding experts tell of certain brands providing a spiritual uplift or of people waxing evangelically about brands. They’ve found that people join brands for the same reason they join cults—to find belonging and meaning. Therefore, brand managers are actually community leaders. Brands use storytelling, myths, emotions, and images to get customers to associate expressive values with their brand; to answer questions like “What kind of person do I want to be?” We add a little of the company’s values, a little of their glow, to ourselves. Buying these brands then helps us express ourselves, create our identities, or find a community for self-actualization.
Building Brand Loyalty Boosts the Bottom Line
Consider the common example of Nike. Nike puts images of its swoosh and shoes on top athletes doing exciting moves —like Michael Jordan suspended in flight—or paired with stories about people working hard and overcoming odds. The purpose is to attach those values and experiences to their brand. Consciously or subconsciously, these are ideals that consumers hope to associate with when they buy Nike products.
Without this created ethos, Nike and its logo mean nothing. When founder Phil Knight launched Nike, he halfheartedly chose the name created by an intern and the logo created by a graphic design student at Portland State University. Knight finally had to make a decision to go with these to meet a printing deadline for shoe boxes. This uninspired beginning indicates how the name and logo were empty until branding professionals created the identity.
That created identity is a significant financial asset for the company. The intangible value can be quantified so that it can add to the financial value of the company on the stock market. In the case of Nike, the personality and values of the brand, which are technically not about the products or based on the sales of the products themselves, is worth over $30 billion, according to Brand Finance, a brand valuation firm.
As another example, consider Perrier and BMW, both powerful brands. Why do customers pay more for carbonated water bottled in France and sold around the world or buy a premium imported car when others are equally functional? True, there may be some differences in quality between various products, but the majority of the difference is based on how consumers feel about the brand and if they believe in its values and personality.
A brand and its financial value are essentially a combination of what it means to consumers who believe in it and will be loyal to it in the face of other products, values, and options promised by others. Therefore, in many ways, the beliefs and actions of consumers produce the financial assets of the firm.
A brand and its financial value are essentially a combination of what it means to consumers who believe in it and will be loyal to it in the face of other products, values, and options promised by others. Click To Tweet
How Brand Loyalty Costs Us
Brands claim to be for us by offering resources for constructing and navigating the self through the details and questions of life—to create our identity in a consumer capitalist world. Brands offer conditional promises: if you do this, buy this, or think a certain way, then you will feel better, healthier, happier, or more secure. Along the way a brand demands faithfulness to itself and its products and services in order to achieve the benefits. So while brands claim to be for us and help meet all of our needs, what they are doing in reality is capturing our love, loyalty, and longing for the sake of profit.
There’s another word for this faithfulness and loyalty to a particular brand: worship.
While brands claim to be for us and help meet all of our needs, what they are doing in reality is capturing our love, loyalty, and longing for the sake of profit. Another word for this faithfulness and loyalty: worship. Click To Tweet
In the next article, we’ll consider what the worship of brands and the communities they create might mean as churches consider developing a similar brand loyalty. It’s important to note that companies follow different branding approaches, and not everything falls into this category. But this is the strategy of the vast majority of big brands and generally how branding is taught.
When the church develops a brand strategy, it needs to recognize this is the theory, practice, and the world that we operate within.
Take some time to think about your own relationship with brand loyalty and how your church incorporates branding in preparation for the next article specifically on church branding:
- What value (consider attention, trust, loyalty, community, or identity) do you place on the brands you buy? What about for your church brand?
- When you think about church branding, what plans or goals do you have in mind? How does it shape your communication and relationship to the congregation or neighborhood?
- How might the identity of a diverse church created and sustained by Christ through the Spirit differ from a church identified by a brand?
- Who is and isn’t included in your church branding strategy? Why?
 Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson, Nike Culture: The Sign of the Swoosh, Sage Publications, p. 17