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Beyond a Brand

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine regarding all things church related.  In this conversation, I used the phrase ‘the Anglican brand’ to refer to my own understanding of Anglicanism as opposed to other liturgical traditions.  I have used this phrase quite a bit.  I have even questioned whether we need to‘re-brand’ the Anglican Church.  To this phrase, my friend cheekily but insightfully quipped:

“You mean, like a pair of Jeans?”

That comment got me thinking about the notion of brands.  Brands are everywhere. We see it on the billboards we pass, the magazines we read, the programs we watch, and the clothes that we wear.  Not only are brand everywhere, but they are directed to all people. Over the past few years, my wife and I have noticed that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find ‘brandless’ attire for our son.  It seems the notion of a ‘plain white t-shirt’ is almost non-existent these days.  Every shirt contains a reference to a popular toy, or a famous movie, or a current trend.  And guess what? My six year old son notices.  I can still remember when he came home asking for something with ‘Spider-man’ on it.  Followed came the statements ‘I wish I had a backpack with X on it’ or ‘why can’t I have a toy that does y’.   For my son, the identification of brands brought also the understanding of what it meant to be devoid of the brand.  Even at a young age, our son intrinsically picked up the culturally-conditioned mandate that to wear a shirt without Disney characters, comic book heros or avians with anger-management issues, was to be different from those who did.

And in the world of branding, different equals bad.

This is why big manufactures, large-scale companies, and even celebrity stars and starlets spend countless resources on the developing, honing, and marketing of their brands.  In doing this, they create completely fabricated notions of popularity and quality.  The shirt with the brand is deemed more valuable than the one without.  By extension, those who wear the branded-shirt are seen as more valuable, more in tune, more popular than those who do not.  What is more, every time we identify ourselves as ‘Team Edward’ or ‘Team Jacob’, ‘ House of Gryffindor’ or ‘House of Slytherin’, we buy into a specific brand as it is sold to us.

It’s interesting isn’t it?   Essentially, the brand is not about the product what-so-ever, but about how the product is thought of, commodified, and ultimately consumed.  A white t-shirt depicting the image of a web-slinging super-hero is no different than a plain white t-shirt; it’s just that we have been told to value one more than the other.  The not-so-subtle suggestion in all of this is that our identity, worth, and value as individuals is found in the brands that we consume.  The self is abdicated in place of the brand.

All of this is a preamble to say that I have now started to question whether speaking of an ‘Anglican brand’ is appropriate, given what a brand represents within our current culture?   If we understand that a brand is more about how something is sold and bought, rather than the actual fabric or identity of something, should I be using this phrase to speak of my involvement in church?  Does speaking of my Anglican tradition as ‘a brand’ move me away from the call to community and into the commodification of the church?   What is more, if it is true that the branding serves to link our sense of self-worth and value to the identification with product and merchandise, do I unwittingly suggest that ones God-given individuality is of less importance than their acceptance of all things ‘Anglican’?

These are definitely things that need some deeper pondering.  Thus, the question for us might be:  how can we look beyond a sense of Anglican brand, and into the full nature of Anglican identity?   While brands are ultimately self-focused, we as the body of Christ are to be focused on the other.  While brands are dedicated to the proliferation of their own identity, we are called to give ourselves in service to those beyond our own borders.   “Our attitudes in this world should be the very same as Christ Jesus, who being in the very form of God, did not consider his identity with God as something to be wielded, but made himself as nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.” (- a loose translation of Philippians 2:5-7)  More so, how do we communicate to a world that can be so ‘brand-centric’ that our value and worth is not found in the images in which we attire ourselves, but in the image of which we are cast?   After all, our call in this world is to be a people of God, not just a product.

I await your thoughts.

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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0 Responses to Beyond a Brand

  1. There is nothing wrong with using the word “brand” to mean “easily understood shorthand for what you stand for”. And yes, we totally need to rebrand the ACC, first in Québec where French speakers won’t touch us because we’re seen as the Anglo Church, and then everywhere else, to own our leftwing bent and stop apologising for it. We should position ourselves away from the CofE, which is failing in its role as the moral leader of the Anglican Communion. I became an active member of the Anglican Church precisely because of its compassionate and welcoming stance on many of the great moral issues of our age — for example, we are LGBT positive, and our head doesn’t explode at the thought of women Bishops. I wish the rest of the Communion well, but until the other Churches get their act together, I say we rebrand the ACC as “the nice Church” and go on from there.

  2. You know, Kyle, I really didn’t like the work “brand” when it first came up in discussion. I had identified it with the kind of commercial branding you mention above. But I was thinking about your blog last night, and specifically the fact that you’re writing from Cow Town. That fact alone has changed the way I understand the word.

    Hear me out: a brand, at least in its traditional, agricultural sense, is a mark of ownership. So whatever brand we wear is a marker of who we belong to.

    That means a number of things to me, because my identity is grounded in baptism, Christ’s death and resurrection. As Anglicans, we choose to wear that brand in a number of different expressions and contextual variations: it might involve a sprinkle in a hospital room or a community gathered by the river; it might involve marking ourselves with the sign of the cross, either as a liturgical expression or as a physical symbol; it might involve going beyond ourselves and living in the resurrection, whether that means advocating for justice, caring for the sick or poor, or forgiving others we simply don’t think deserve it.

    I think the disconnect you’re teasing out is one between tradition/ritual and sacrament. When i stumbled across the Anglican church, that’s what drew me in: visible signs of invisible grace. And I think that’s our strength. At the same time, if we’re participating in actions and traditions that don’t point us or others to who we belong to, then it’s probably not sacramental. And we’ve probably lost sight of our brand.

    Thoughts?

  3. You are right,  people love being branded, and it would be interesting to have an algorithm  to describe the dynamics involved. “Anglican” is not a brand, it’s a code word  for  insiders. Our market share is almost non existent. That being said, sometimes people want to change the product, rather than sell it on it’s own qualities. Hoping,I suppose, that we be more obvious if we do what someone else is doing better (see Burger King)  We are not “big Box” Christians, we don’t offer that. But on the principle that a brand needs to deliver on what it advertizes (value for money), it would behoove us to develop a brand that says what we aspire too, as well as differentiating us from the competition. Most businesses when they’re in trouble go back to their roots to define their key presence and mission. We might do that, if we can keep ourselves from envy as we do.

     

     

  4. Kyle Norman

    Jesse,

    Thanks for your post.  While I was writing the blog, I did think about the whole idea of ‘branding’ as you mentioned.  The notion of marking yourself in allegiance to someone or something has a strong place throughout history, not just for cattle, but also for people (“my ears you have peirced ” . .)

    So I think you are righ in calling me (and us) to not necessarily abandon the talk of brand, but to look deeper.  I think this is what I was trying to get at (unsuccessfully) with the differentiation between brand and identity.

  5. No, no. Successfully. You definitely led me to see the difference, anyhow.

    I guess the next question is how we link the two, especially within the context of theological and liturgical diversity? As I think you and others have identified, we tend to associate Anglicanism with a certain kind of worship practice, a certain use of reason, etc… but such things are not always the case. So what becomes of branding? Do we try to point specifically to our identity in Christ, and let ecclesiastical cards fall where they may? Do we make diversity our brand (as some have tried)? Do we define ourselves as what (or who) we are not? Do we fall back on congregationalism, letting each community fend for itself?

    Perhaps I’ve brought the question full circle, but I’m curious about how others would answer the big picture (national, communion-wide) “brand” question.

  6. No, no. Successfully. You definitely led me to see the difference, anyhow.

    I guess the next question is how we link the two, especially within the context of theological and liturgical diversity? As I think you and others have identified, we tend to associate Anglicanism with a certain kind of worship practice, a certain use of reason, etc… but such things are not always the case. So what becomes of branding? Do we try to point specifically to our identity in Christ, and let ecclesiastical cards fall where they may? Do we make diversity our brand (as some have tried)? Do we define ourselves as what (or who) we are not? Do we fall back on congregationalism, letting each community fend for itself?

    Perhaps I’ve brought the question full circle, but I’m curious about how others would answer the big picture (national, communion-wide) “brand” question.

  7. Whether an entity defines it or not, it has a brand defined by what people think of the entity. For example, I worked with a large non-profit that wanted to rebrand itself. We started by asking our potential customers what they thought our brand was. The difference between what the customers thought and the brand we believed we were promoting was startling! Knowing what the potential customers thought informed our marketing and communications strategy to redefine – in the customers’ mind – our brand.

    Reading the conversation above made me wonder what we – the organization, the clergy, the members – think our brand is and what our potential customers think it is.  We might then be able to define what we want it to be.

  8. Kyle Norman

    Fabulous insight Catherine!

  9. @Catherine_Bryant, do you think it’s possible for us to hear one public interpretation and present one brand? If not, does majority rule?

  10. Yes, Jesse, majority rules but it has to be a significant majority. If there are too many views in the general public and one does not dominate then there really isn’t an identifiable brand and that is an answer in itself.

  11. Thanks Kyle, branding is one of my favourite topics and in my non-profit career I worked with a number of organizations on branding issues. It would be awesome to work on the ACC brand! I’m hoping to get our council to do a little work on our parish brand in time for our 200th anniversary. I’ll let you know if I succeed.

  12. Kyle Norman

    In her book “Celebrity Inc. “, Jo Piazza argues that one of the reasons why Hollywood rejected Lindsey Lohan was because she offered an insistent brand.

    I wonder if that might be true with how people view the Anglican Church.  Do they see us as inconsistent?  Maybe that’s why the more fundamentalist denominations seem to grow while we face decline.

    Interesting thoughts.

  13. I completely agree with Catherine.  As we are looking at “re-branding” PWRDF over the next few years, it has become clear that people out there (well, at least those who have heard of us) have an opinion of who we are and what we stand for.  My goal, as the “driver” of the PWRDF brand, is for us as an organization to be involved in the conversation and helping to shape how we are viewed by Anglicans and beyond the Anglican Church.

    An excellent book about the history of modern branding and marketing (but written in an easy-to-read, conversational style) is The Age of Persuasion by Terry O’Reilly and Mike Tennant (the creative team behind the CBC show of the same name).  I’m working with Mike around our branding project at PWRDF.

    Thanks for posting this blog entry- it’s great to hear how others in the Church are approaching this issue- I’ll be recommending my team of volunteers reads this thread :).

  14. Thanks, @Simon_Chambers ! Terry O’Reilly keeps me company in the car quite often. I’ll have to find the book.

  15. Thanks, @Simon_Chambers ! Terry O’Reilly keeps me company in the car quite often. I’ll have to find the book.

  16. Like several people, I’m hesistant about the term brand as applied to a church. Setting aside the obvious connotation of commodification, I think that it is simply too narrow a concept to embrace the diversity of opinion and theologies in any living community. Are we looking to give a single, univocal impression of who we are? If so, which one? The evangelical? Anglo-Catholic? Broad Church? And what do we do if someone doesn’t feel represented by the ‘brand’?

    For that matter, I’ve started to wonder if our focus on the Anglican identity is too narrow as well. Don’t get me wrong. I know that there is an Anglican past and we need to understand that and see where we fit, but the over-riding consideration for me is that I am an Anglican Christian. That is, the issue for me isn’t so much the Anglican brand or even the Anglican identity, but it is living out my life as a Christian in prayer and action. Where identity becomes important is to see what in the Anglican tradition (as I’m affiliated with that one) will help me to do that. If I didn’t think Anglicanism didn’t have something to say about that, I wouldn’t be worshipping in an Anglican Church.

    That, then, may raise the question in a different way. What is it about Anglicanism which helps me become a better Christian? There are many answers to that, of course, (and that is only for me), but I think it is those answers which are the relevant ones when we are considering how to talk about ourselves.

    Peace,

    Phil

  17. Well said, Phil. I’m glad to hear that you have found meaning and purpose in the Anglican tradition/expression. What your post confirms, for me, is that one size does not fit all. That’s why I asked @Catherine_Bryant about the importance of majority. It raises a series of questions for me: what becomes of those who fall outside the majority? Is popular opinion always correct/best? When it comes to our brand and marketing, how do we draw the line between presenting who we actually are and what we perceive that people want to hear?

    I love the fact that the Anglican tradition uses democracy as a means to hear the voices of the spirit, but I wonder how we live that out when it comes to branding? Do we consider the the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason as we develop our brand, or do we give priority to public opinion?

  18. I think that one of the problems that we have is that not only do we have the Anglican brand, to use the terminology of this topic, we also have to contend with what people perceive the brand of Christianity is in today’s society.  How many people are going to just say, “oh, there’s another Christian nut job” because of a lot of the rhetoric we hear about in the news that comes from extremists? Once that happens it becomes much more difficult for us to present our message / messages.

    Another problem, which has been alluded to, is that there is discord among Anglicans around a number of issues and it is what divides us that seems to garner attention, not all that we have in common. Overall we are in agreement about much more than we are divided about. How do we present this to the wider world? I don’t have a quick answer to that, but I have been giving it a considerable amount of thought and prayer lately.

     

  19. Thanks for the neat post, Kyle. An item of related interest: a definitive text on the subject, “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding” by Ries & Ries (HarperCollins, 2002) begins by linking the modern day business concept to branding on the ranch — exactly as per Jesse, above — and continues with the notion of singularity: the goal is to create the perception that there is no equal or substitute for your product or service. As a result, the authors claim it is impossible for a single brand to have universal appeal. If that’s true, then branding, as understood in this book, might not be a good fit for what the Church does. But, it would nevertheless be a fun exercise to examine how Ries & Ries’s “laws” apply to ministry, especially their follow-on 11 “laws” of Internet branding. Yeehaw! Or, perhaps, Yahoo!

    I am also reminded of various sources who refer to a 20th Century global shift from the Culture of Character to the Culture of Personality. It seems branding is very important in the Culture of Personality.

  20. On the other hand, by that model, branding might be very useful for niche ministries–those with a specific community in mind. I’m not familiar with the book, but it strikes me that perhaps branding might be more useful to those who don’t seek to be all things to all people.

  21. And Jesse has hit the nail on the head – Anglicanism cannot and probably should not strive to be all things to all people.  Even Christianity would have a hard time with that. But within Christianity, there is no “equal or substitute” for the “via media” brand of Anglicanism. Then within Anglicanism, we can have different expressions of the brand.  Here’s a commercial comparison: Kraft peanut butter – there’s smooth, crunchy, whipped, all natural, unsweetened, extra-creamy, light, etc.

    So to brand ourselves, we would decide what it means to be Anglican (and not Roman Catholic, or Presbyterian, or Baptist, etc.) – for example, we are the via media (and we define what that means). Then each expression of Anglicanism may be different but all hold to the core values of the brand.

    I remember one person talking about branding a membership organization and saying that we must have a “well-lit” exit sign” – everyone is welcome but if you don’t feel that you fit with the brand, you are also welcome to leave and find a brand that does fit you because no one organization can be all things to all people and nor should they try.

  22. Matthew Griffin

    I was struck, @Catherine_Bryant, by your last paragraph: it made me remember a comment of a seminary professor who argued that the Nicene Creed’s place in our worship was less about prayer and more about self-exclusion.

    I’m not convinced that brand identity is helpful if it pushes out people uncomfortable with the brand itself.  Rather, I know I benefit from people who disagree with me.

     

  23. Kyle Norman

    Wow!  I would never have thought that a random quipp from a pal of mine would turn into such a discussion. I love it!!

    For any good that brands offer, for me there is still an uncomfortable association with the notions of consumption and dominance.  Commercial brands are for the purpose of  marketing and consumerism.  The brand of Kraft Peanut Butter serves only to elicit sales. They want you to buy. I would also argue that branding of cattle is about ownership not identity.  Both serve to dominate the lesser being (animal or consumer) for the purpose of the ones in power.

    Also, as Michael suggested – at what point does a brand become more about marketable personalities rather than the character and identity of the community? (happy to see you here Mike)

    Matthew, I love your comment about the Nicene Creed.  The question I had was, is the creed just part of the brand?  If we say yes, do we cheapen the significance of the Creed as the Affirmation of the Church’s fath?

    Interesting questions indeed.

  24. Kyle Norman

    Wow!  I would never have thought that a random quipp from a pal of mine would turn into such a discussion. I love it!!

    For any good that brands offer, for me there is still an uncomfortable association with the notions of consumption and dominance.  Commercial brands are for the purpose of  marketing and consumerism.  The brand of Kraft Peanut Butter serves only to elicit sales. They want you to buy. I would also argue that branding of cattle is about ownership not identity.  Both serve to dominate the lesser being (animal or consumer) for the purpose of the ones in power.

    Also, as Michael suggested – at what point does a brand become more about marketable personalities rather than the character and identity of the community? (happy to see you here Mike)

    Matthew, I love your comment about the Nicene Creed.  The question I had was, is the creed just part of the brand?  If we say yes, do we cheapen the significance of the Creed as the Affirmation of the Church’s fath?

    Interesting questions indeed.

  25. I am also of the mind that the Anglican church shouldn’t try to be all things to all people. I fear that what Christian denominations do is fight with each other, saying we are the best/only way. I choose to go to an Anglican church not because it is the best but because it is the best for me.

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