Simple Church Branding, Part 2: The Truth Will Set You Free

You have decided that there is value to implementing simple branding for your ministry (If you missed part 1 where we looked at 3 good and 3 bad reasons to consider branding, check it out here). You may be ready to jump into the exciting design phase, but design is not the starting or ending point.

The quote guiding this series is from Seth Godin, and it reads in part, “if someone knew the truth they’d want to work with us.” Before we can tell others the truth, we need to make sure we understand the truth ourselves.

The Starting Point of Branding

Any attempt at branding before answering some basic but critical questions is a waste of time (and potentially money). You could go with your gut. Some people have great taste and intuition, but even then you’ll likely end up with what you want and not necessarily what will help you meet your goal (which is hopefully more Great Commission and less trendy social club). The more information you have to work with, the easier the process will be.

Who Are We?

The first set of information we need to explore concerns our organization. Where did we come from? Who are we, and what are we doing now? Who do we want to be, and what do we want to see in the future? How do we uniquely understand the Gospel and live out the life of faith? Hopefully, you have a lot of this information already because it really comprises your history, identity, mission, vision, and theology. If you’re a bit fuzzy on this stuff, perhaps undertaking these first steps of simple branding would be a good way to clarify your church’s mission and vision! Check out this list of suggested questions that can help guide the process.

Who Are We Trying to Reach?

You may complete that first step and again want to jump right into the design phase. What you’re forgetting is that branding is also about building a relationship of trust. Relationships are two-sided, and they need input and engagement from both sides. The more you know about your community—its history, its identity, its demographics, its wants and dreams, etc.—the more you’ll be able to tell the truth about your organization in a way that matters to them. Again, I hope that you already have a good understanding of these things as they should factor into your mission and vision. One of the benefits of being in a denomination or church network is that the leadership likely has a way to help you gather this information. As a United Methodist pastor, my churches had free access to MissionInsite, which uses the same data that major companies use to understand their markets.

Clarity and Specificity

From here, you enter a process of focus and refinement to become as clear and specific as possible. Take the understanding you have of your own organization and distill it down to its simplest and most potent form. Think of it as your “elevator speech.” What words, images, feelings, or actions best describe your church?

Then take the understanding you have of your community, and decide which segment you most want to target. Do you want to target generationally? Do you want to target families? Do you want to target culturally? Do you want to target based on faith or church experience (or non-experience)? One exercise you can try is to describe in detail one or a handful of people who would fit in your target segment. For example:

Ana is a 27-year-old single woman who lives in the city. She has an advanced degree and is a driven professional. She has been in church on and off her whole life. Her seasons of doubt and disengagement come during times when she feels the church is asking her to turn off her brain and “just believe.”

The reason you want to focus in on a specific group is that it will shape how you communicate. For example, when I was shopping for a car, I took my dad along because he is a “car guy,” and I am not. He and the salespeople could talk at length about details while I tuned out. Going over the details with me would be telling the truth of the car, but it wouldn’t make me want to buy it.

3 Potential Points of Conflict

The process of focus and refinement has the potential to be a point of conflict in churches for three main reasons:

1. Church is for everyone!
This is both correct and incorrect at the same time. The Church (big-C, universal Church) is absolutely for everyone! Perhaps you can even argue that your denomination or network of churches is for everyone. But your church—your individual local church—is not for everyone. It is open to everyone, but it is not for everyone. If it were, every visitor would come back, and I guarantee that there isn’t a church in the world where this is the case. Pentecost, arguably the first public preaching of the Christian Gospel, was a grand and miraculous beginning where thousands joined the church, but you know what? There were still people there who said, “They’re drunk,” and walked away unmoved (Acts 2- look it up!). If the Spirit of God coming visibly upon the very people who walked closely with Jesus wasn’t “for” some people, your church won’t be for some people either.

2. Everything is important!
In both the refinement of your identity and the target audience, you will have to place priority on some things and not others. You may have a really great music program, but if you are trying to reach people like Ana in the example above, an emphasis on passionate worship wouldn’t work. It would be much more effective to highlight the church’s commitment to discipleship and challenging people intellectually. It is also important to remind potential critics that a focus on a target segment doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to others as well. Here’s a fun game—identify the target audience of a TV show by seeing what commercials are shown during its broadcast. As a 30-something-year-old, when I see commercials for reverse mortgages and denture cream, I know I am not the target audience. I watch plenty of shows where the commercials don’t apply to me, and you probably do too.

3. Everyone must agree!
Let’s keep this one shorter. Lots of churches like to work by consensus. There are times when this can be helpful, but we have all been in meetings where the need for everyone to agree waters down the results.

If we give into these good-intentioned temptations, we will pay a price. There’s an old advertising adage that says: when you try to reach everyone, you reach no one. Similarly, generic branding is known as “blanding.” A recent public example of this was when GAP attempted a rebranding in October 2010. Check out the two logos below.

The first is the familiar one, which they used for decades and switched back to following public outcry. The second is the attempted rebrand that caused the outcry. The rebrand lacks any personality at all. There is no sense of who GAP is or who their customers are. No one is going to be interested in, much less connect with, the second logo.

At the end of this process, you should come away with a clear, specific, and focused description of your organization and how it overlaps with the interests of the target audience you want to reach. One last tip, which may sound like a saying from Yogi Berra: you want to be as broad in your specifics as possible. Look for different ways to describe the focused picture—adjectives, actions, emotions, details, images, stories, etc. For example, you can describe an apple using everything from taste to chemical composition to memories of an apple tree you had in your yard growing up, but be sure you’re describing the apple and not a generic fruit.

This hard work on the front end will inform and shape the design process, which we jump into in the next part of this series!

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