Branding: The Next Level in Church Communication
What is branding? Take a piece of iron, shape it through fire and toil and place it on the raw flesh of an animal. That’s branding. It’s a pretty painful process. So is branding your church. However, in both cases, it leaves an indelible impression that deepens a sense of belonging and sets one apart.
I can hear the shrieks of horror. I know, I actually said “church” and “branding” in the same sentence. If you think marketing is a controversial word in the church world, try talking about branding. The reality is that branding is critical for your church. A well-branded church is one that is current and attractive, where people are proud to attend, where they feel connected and they see the vision clearly. Modern branding is not just about slapping a logo on something; it’s about making the vision plain for all to see. It demonstrates a sense of who you are and where you are going as a church. The pure essence of branding is communicating the essence of who you are in all you do.
Allow me a moment to dispel the concept of branding and break it down. What is a brand? To the person outside the organization, it is the perception of what the organization stands for and is all about. We trust the name, Dell. We feel safe in a Volvo. We feel hip if we have an iPod. We believe in the longevity of Craftsmen tools. A brand has meaning. A well executed brand has the precise meaning that the organization desires us to embrace.
In a similar way, all churches have their own brands whether they know it or not. Some are appealing and some are repugnant. Church “A” might be the church where all the upper-class people go. Church “B” is that “seeker church” that does not go very deep. Church “C” is that flamboyant church where the services last for three hours. Every church has a brand—every church has a vibe within its community. What are some of the “brands” of church in the community around you? What is your brand? Are you communicating it effectively? You might say that a church that no one knows about is without a brand—nope, its Church “D”—the church that no one knows about. (Be leery of that one!)
So if a brand is how you are perceived, then just what is branding? It is the use of design and communications consistency over time to create a deliberate impression. Design plays a part; architecture plays a part; communications play a part; and church culture plays a part. If you are being strategic, the line between who you are as a church and your target audience becomes the plumb line for your communication and your brand.
To be effective with branding you have to integrate your look and your message into every touch point you have with people. Go to your local Cadillac dealership, soak in the atmosphere and then grab every brochure you can find. Now, go to a Saturn dealership and do the same. Guess what? Cadillac stuff looks and feels like Cadillac stuff and not like Saturn stuff. Now go one step further… Go into your church and pretend you were seeing it for the first time—grab all of your handouts, fliers, bulletins and brochures. What story do they tell about you? What about your signage, your website, your foyer? What message are you consistently sending? Is it cohesive or is it hodge-podge. Wondering why no one knows what to think about you and you struggle to get people to follow the vision? You have to make it plain when you set it before their eyes (Habakkuk 2:2).
Why then, do we have six different logos and fourteen different layouts and six paper types and nine color schemes? Why is our website outdated and unrelated to everything else. Do we not realize how much time and money we would save if we just chose “our style” and “our logo” and stick with it? Why are we re-inventing the wheel over and over?
One of the reasons branding is not utilized in the church is because it forces us to take a determined stance on who we are. It is risky. Branding is essentially a highly concentrated use of communication. It has only one downside. To the extent a well-crafted brand can assist in growth, an un-strategic or even poorly aimed brand can keep people away and even disassociate your members. I’ve seen it happen!
So how do you create a branding strategy and ultimately a brand that is truly effective? This is a portion of the process we walk through with churches as we help them to establish a branding strategy.
First, become determined. Branding does not just happen. It will require a major commitment. It takes setting your sails hard. It requires a sense of integrity (consistency). It requires knowing who you are and who you are trying to reach. It requires making decisions with short and long term goals in tact.
Second, make sure you connect. If you are not achieving at least a 10% growth rate before you start your branding initiatives, you might have issues with connecting. If your members are not actively inviting people, or visitors are not staying, there are reasons why that have nothing to do with design. Advertising and branding will not help a church in this position; it will only expose the disconnection between you and the outside world—causing visitors not to return and to tell all their friends to avoid your church.
Third, renew a commitment to the lost in your community. You start with who you are trying to reach. What do they think about you church? If you want to affect what they think, you have to know it. What are there needs—perceived and real? Where do they shop? What do they eat? What do they wear? What are their challenges and their successes? You need demographic information on them, but it won’t suffice. You actually have to learn their lifestyles well enough to “become as one” as Paul challenges us to (1 Corinthians 9:20).
Fourth, know your strengths and your weaknesses. Remember, man looks on the outside. If you do not take stock in what you have been showing people—the good and the bad, you will not know the basis for how to connect with people. This means knowing who you are most adept at reaching in this season of your church. This is not being “exclusive”. Be like Paul. He was “all things to all people”, but he was also the “Apostle unto the Gentiles”. Know when to be broad in your reach, and know when to communicate to the red hot center of those with whom you have influence.
Fifth, connect the dots. The successful brand for you lies on the bridge between who you are as a church and the people you are called to reach. Make sure your communication does not abandon who you have been. You need to hold the hand of yesterday while you reach out for tomorrow. If you don’t, you will disassociate your congregation and confuse those around you.
Sixth, gain an external perspective. You will be more accurate if you enlist third party assistance in determining your branding strategy. Why? "Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). God and the precious believers around know our hearts—but the outside world does not—it is their very nature to look on the outside. What this means is that it is nearly impossible to self evaluate how people see you. You are too close to the action. You see your intentions; they only see your follow-through. To look at your church “on the outside”, you need the help of outsiders.
Whether you realize it or not, your church's marketing materials tell a story. They are windows into your culture and tell us what you value. They are not always read, but they are always evaluated. Are your materials telling the story that is on your heart? Are they conveying the experience with excellence? Are they relevant to me as an outsider? What do they communicate to the unchurched? The mischurched? The member? The staff? What do they say about you? Is it consistent? Do you really know who you are and who you are called to reach? Do you know what to tell them? Are you doing it in everything you do? Define it. Design it. Train it. Maintain it.