The Branding Iron
Richard L Reising
Some time after I graduated from high school, a precious woman in our church came up to me and presented me with a special gift. I will never forget her or her gift. She apologized for giving me a graduation gift several months late. The rea-son, she said, was that she had searched to find me something perfect. She presented me with a small plaque that said, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11 ESV).
It truly sparked something in me. I had devoted my life to Christ several years earlier and had dedicated myself at a young age to living for Him, yet I had never heard that Scripture verse. She was right. She had given me something perfect. It was worth the wait.
Initially, this verse simply meant to me that God was good and the basis of the relationship He had for me was to be out of goodness. It has many counterparts in Scripture, such as Jesus being our Good Shepherd. I began to see Him as a reli-able guide—something very much needed when one is heading to college and to the “real” world. As I grew older, I also began to see Him as a planner. I ultimately saw that He wants us to plan as well. It is often through our planning that He works interactively with us. We have our part; He has His. “People make plans in their hearts, but only the LORD can make those plans come true” (Prov. 16:1 NCV).
Depend on the Lord in whatever you do. Then your plans will succeed.
Proverbs 16:3 NCV
Those who Plan and work hard earn a profit. But those who act too quickly become poor.
Proverbs 21:5 NCV
God even tells His people to plan for growth . . .
“Sing, 0 barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the LORD.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.”
Isaiah 54:1-3 ESV
With that said, this next topic is about planning and strategy. I had the honor to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo in West Africa in the summer of 2004. I addressed about twenty-five hundred native pastors. I was humbled by the opportunity to speak to these men and women of God and yet I was secretly perplexed by how I might communicate exactly what I do. Explaining myself as a marketing executive with a passion for churches might connect with a few, but overall, I had a difficult time imagining that they could have enough context to understand well enough for me to gain and hold their attention.
Then it hit me. God showed me how to communicate this unusual function of helping churches reach lives. I reminded them of the team of spies, including Joshua and Caleb, scouring over the terrain to see into Canaan; I spoke about how they had analyzed and calculated the Canaanites, summing the data up in a report back to Moses and the Israelites. “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it” (Num. 13:30).
As I began to study this out, I saw something incredible. The very instructions that Moses gave the spies sound remarkably like what we call market research, demographics, and psycho-graphics today. Moses told them:
See what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many. How is the land in which they live, is it good or bad? And how are the cities in which they live, are they like open camps or with fortifications? How is the land, is it fat or lean? Are there trees in it or not? Make an effort then to get some of the fruit of the land.
Numbers 1 3 : 1 8-20 NASB
Our weapons are not carnal like they were in Moses’s day. But research still proves critical in knowing how to take the land for God.
I shared with them that God allows me to work with churches as a spy sent out to survey the land—to study the people they are called to reach. My job is to analyze the inhabitants and to report to the church what I see. I then have the honor to challenge them to accomplish their visions and take the land. My job is also to suggest what weapons they take into battle, to advise them that they might have to put down one type of weapon and pick up another, and that they might have to focus on areas of strength or build up areas of weakness.
Proverbs 20:18 (NCV) tells us, “Get advice if you want your plans to work. If you go to war, get the advice of others.” What is a term for “advice on war”? It is strategy. Our precious Congolese brothers got my message in a way that few American ministers even do. I believe God gave many of them great strategies to expand their reach.
I know there are some that might still be having a difficult time with planning as it relates to reaching souls. If so, here’s a great biblical example that proves both sides correct. There is a beautiful picture painted about church growth by Christ in John 21. You know the story, but take a second to look at it from a different perspective. The disciples are fishing their way and catching nothing: “Early the next morning Jesus stood on the shore, but the followers did not know it was Jesus. Then He said to them, ‘Friends, did you catch any fish?’ They answered, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they did, and they caught so many fish they could not pull the net back into the boat” (John 21:4-6 NCV).
Now look a little closer than you have before. It was the disciples’ plans that morning that had put them there. Some might say that this shows that growth comes at God’s whim or will, and I agree it does. But think about what had brought these men into the exact position they needed to be in to simply move their nets (not their boat) to a different location. By waking up early that day and following their plans, the disciples were at the right place at the right time, just looking in the wrong direction. It is important to know that the strategic plans are there to get you in the general area; it is your obedience to God’s Word that brings growth. The fish had always been there; the disciples had merely been missing them. Had they not planned and executed their plan to be in that place at that time, the miracle could not have taken place.
The bottom line is that strategy and planning are fundamental to church growth. If you are not prepared, you will not be able to handle the precious lives God desires you to help cultivate. He needs us to plan so we can prepare for growth, so we can be prepared not only for our actions but for people’s reactions. If your children’s ministry cannot handle more children, you cannot handle more parents. It is really that simple.
When we begin to look into our arsenal of marketing weaponry we can certainly see the tools we have discussed relevance, sensitivity, and consistency as being powerful at affecting lives. There is another weapon, that when you yield it well, will leave quite a mark. The tool is “branding,” and it is a dynamic weapon used to affect perception. Wielded strategically, it is very powerful in the advancement of your church.
If you think marketing is a controversial word in the church world, try talking about branding. But the reality is, you rarely find marketing going on where branding is not also taking place. Branding stems from a school of marketing called “Integrated Marketing Communications.” It is built around the aim of using all your marketing efforts to consistently communicate a strong central image and theme. If you can grasp that marketing is the management of perception, then it should be easy to understand that branding is, in simple terms, the use of defined consistency to affect perception over time.
The Essence of Branding
The origins of the concept of branding are simple. Shape a piece of iron, put it in a fire, and shove it onto the hide of your livestock. It is a by-product of sweat, fire, and pain, but it yields an indelible impression—a lasting mark that creates a sense of belonging and sets one apart.
Over time, successful branding has become a lot more complex. You cannot simply slap a logo on something and expect it to give everyone a sense of who you are. People receive such massive amounts of communication that just rubber-stamping your materials with your name is not enough to create a vivid and memorable image in their minds. Today, branding is not just design. It is not a logo. It is not letterhead. It is the sum perception you create in the mind of those with whom you are trying to connect. Design plays a part; communication plays a part; culture plays a part; and the target audience sets the plumb line.
One of our marketing giants, Nike, is known for exemplifying the essence of branding. In their heyday, back in the early nineties, they employed over 275 graphic designers on their staff—the largest in-house design department ever established. But isn’t it funny, that with all those designers, you never ever saw one thing come from them that you did not suspect was from Nike before you saw the famous swoosh? Why is that? It is because Nike had such a tightly defined, well-ingrained sense of self that their designers soon learned that individual creativity was useless if it did not fit the definition of the Nike brand.
This concept has been the cornerstone of the world’s greatest brands, especially over the last twenty years. You see an ad and you know whose it is before the company is mentioned—why is that? It is because they are executing their marketing strategy based on their effectively defined “self.” They are differentiating themselves from others and providing an essence that draws those who favor their brand into a deeper sense of belonging.
Think about it. When was the last time you mistook a McDonald’s coffee cup for a Starbucks? You haven’t. They have their own brands—their own look, their own color scheme, their own style, their own atmospheres and cultures—and they have been successful in communicating them to the public.
Corporate players as well as smart local businesses have learned that in today’s media-saturated world, inconsistency does not work. Having a variety of logos, multitudes of type treatments, and general inconsistency in communication is considered schizophrenic, hokey, and unprofessional. Studies show that people are required to see a thing five to seven times before they begin to distinguish its source. Our need for repetition is a result of media overload.
If your church is not consistent, you run the risk of never connecting with your audience. Your multiple efforts might be perceived as coming from entirely different sources. Advertising agencies frequently follow up new commercials with surveys asking people what they had seen. A common trend is that a viewer can recall a specific commercial but attributes it to a different company in the same market. People generally attribute indistinguishable advertising to categorical leaders. This might mean that if the big church also sends out direct mail and yours is not distinguishingly different, you might be inadvertently advertising for them even though your church name is on it.
Why do very few churches actually embrace communications consistency, even though they see it utilized successfully by the corporate world all around them? After all, one would reason that using common imagery, design, and communication elements should save time and resources. Designers and administrative staff should be able to leverage aspects of a consistent brand identity without having to start from scratch on each project. So why don’t churches do that?
Many churches simply do not see it clearly. Few churches have a strong enough sense of who they are and where they are going to make the commitment to consistency from the outset. It takes setting your sails hard. It is the commitment to make decisions with both short-term and long-term goals in mind and intact.
The essence of branding is being deliberate. The cornerstone of being deliberate is knowing who you are and where you are going. Jesus set his eyes as flint toward Jerusalem; Paul was destined and determined to go to Rome. When a church sends out an unplanned, untargeted direct mail piece, the potential for a positive response is limited to those who are already in a “try-out” mode for a church. For anyone else, the impact is often fleeting—missing out on the opportunity to foster a clear identity and connect with recipient’s comer time. The foundation of being deliberate is defining purpose in everything you do. Utilizing the same purpose over time creates brand.
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.
It seems to be the default for churches to think their need in brand development is to be cutting edge. In every community that has churches vying for that position, usually only one or two ever get perceived that way and the others that try just end up looking like wannabes. Remember, the cutting edge is the first part of the knife to dull.
As a case in point, I recently had a consulting meeting with a department of one of the largest churches in the nation. They had direction. They had passion. They had a considerable budget. They had some of the greatest people in the world. They even had a defined plan of action a cutting-edge one that was consistent with some other leading churches they were in close communication with.
As is the case in all of our meetings, we began to dissect the plan through perception management. We endeavored to under-stand what the church’s community thought of them. We began by analyzing the deep-rooted thoughts of their community. By breaking it down, they realized that the millions they were about to spend on a specific campaign and building plan would result only in reinforcing the negative feelings that kept people out of their church. Every original instinct they had was natural. After all, it had worked for the other churches. In their case it took introspection and lingering with the masses to understand how to aim their building funds in a way that would benefit their current membership and create grounds for rebuilding ties with those in the community with whom they had become disconnected.
Developing a strong brand that truly works means taking into consideration all the things we have discussed thus far. It is not the job of a designer, a creative team, or even the communications department. It is the job of the church leadership team. Those I just mentioned are critical (if you have them) in carrying out a strategy, but determining the definition ofself and setting the vision must come from the very top. If the pastor and leadership team are not championing this communication effort, do not expect it to fly. No one has a stronger sense of what Microsoft is than Bill Gates or what Apple is than Steve Jobs. The highest leader must be the crusader for the integrity of the brand. He or she must embody it and train the people to reflect it.
The essence of branding is communicating the essence of who you are in all you do.
Following are some of the natural elements in the course of fulfilling your vision defined as an allegory. These should also be spiritual, but I call them natural in the sense that they are not specific to the Christian cause.
* Vision: the end result, the destination port
* Mission: the purpose, why you are at sea
* Your church building: the physical boat
* Your members: its passengers
* Your leadership: its crew
* Target audience: the community or segment of the com-munity you feel called to bring on board
* Marketing: the art of charting, tracking, and adjusting as needed to stay the course
* Brand: what others think about the ship when it passes by or when they come on board
* Branding: creating a defined sense of self in the ship’s appearance and communication
* Growth: the result of casting the net from a navigated position; it is inherently both fulfillment of the vision and fuel for the accomplishment of the vision
Every organization has, in the mind of its target audience, a definition of who they are. They all have a brand. Some organizations deliberately create it and communicate it to their audience. Others miss this opportunity and therefore give outsiders the authority and responsibility to create a definition for them. For example, if your branding efforts and communication create the image that you are the “exciting new church,” there is a likelihood that people, when communicating to others who you are, will use your definition. “That church over there? All I know is that it is some exciting new church. They’re doing all kinds of stuff. That is what everyone is saying. I get stuff in the mail from them all the time.” If your branding efforts are poor, they have no choice but to make up their own definition. “That church over there? I have no idea. One of my friends went there once and I think he kind of liked it. I think it might be decent. I’m not sure.”
Which marketing message do you prefer “An exciting new church” or “I think it might be decent”? You can either give people your definition or let them come up with it on their own. That does not mean you can pick any definition and make it stick. If it is not congruent with who you are as a church, you are guilty of manipulation and false advertising—which will result in looking worse than if you left it up to someone else to define you. You can’t just promote yourself as an exciting church. You actually have to be exciting, because if you aren’t, you aren’t going to fool anyone I identifying your brand and creating a branding strategy should give you the most vivid sense of where you are and where you are going that you have ever had. Difficult decisions, from promotional opportunities to carpet color, become plain, simple, and strategic. The definition of brand becomes the filter by which you, as a church, both make decisions and communicate. The litmus test becomes: is this communication or action consistent with who we have defined ourselves to be?
Branding creates a defined sense of who you are as it relates to those whom you are trying to reach. It is the definition of purpose behind things that affect human interaction. It replaces individual personal opinion with strategic intent. It predefines the desired experience, so you spend less time debating over each thing that should be done and more time focusing on moving the boat forward. It ultimately makes decisions for you.
Several years ago, I felt our firm had seen so much growth and change that it was time to recalibrate our course and reset our brand definition. Our team spent a weekend evaluating what we had learned and which direction God wanted us to go. It was a great time of congealed vision. We walked away with a strong definition of who we were. As a marketing and branding firm we felt that we were designed to be branding partners with our clients. This was compatible with most of our relationships at the time, but strategically, we decided we would no longer work on projects simply in the role of a design or technology “vendor.” We were not called to just fulfill projects as much as we were called to provide solutions, being responsible to our clients for the results that were created. We determined that our relationships would be the kind that helped ministries become all they were called to be, not just what they thought they were.
Several months later, a potential client called upon us to fulfill a Web technology project. They were a significant ministry and the project could have easily earned a six-digit fee. They brought to us a list of requirements for the software and asked us to design it to their specifications. They expressly told us they did not want consulting or marketing advice (which they needed), but the project was very substantial. I sat down with Michael, our IT director, and said, “What do you think? It will take months and a heavy commitment, but look at the opportunity.”
Michael looked at me and asked, “What has God called us to do? Who are we supposed to be?” This project was not consistent with our vision. We had determined who we were and had set our sails hard. To take this on, although initially lucrative, might have been devastating as it related to fulfilling our course. I knew immediately what Michael was saying. How did I even miss it? Now, we have a catchphrase in our office anytime we are tempted to become something or someone we are not called to be. “Is that our brand?” someone will ask. We gladly suggest alternatives and focus on partnering with those committed to effectual and strategic growth.
When opportunities arise or decisions come up, your team should get into a habit of returning to your brand definition. Ask yourself, “Is it consistent with who we defined ourselves to be? When we defined our brand, did we feel that we were in accord and God sealed it to be so in our hearts?” If so, the decision is made. It is the choice that best fits who you are as a church in context with those you are trying to reach.
In the next two chapters, we will discuss the tactical elements of the brand as we discuss putting the plan together. For now, it is most important to wrap our minds around the essence of brand.
Think of a prominent church in your community. Evaluate their brand. Not just their design, their brand. When you drive by, what comes to mind? Is it magnetic or repellent? Is it optimal? What do people you know say about them? Who is their target audience? What one thing could they change that would make the most difference in how they are seen? Do you know where they are headed? Are they creating interest in the community? What could they do to be a better all-around package?
How would someone on the outside answer those questions about your church?
Where Design Fits In
Graphic design is fundamental in helping shape the brand of your church in the mind of your audience. Often, because of its use in promotional pieces, printed materials, and your website, it sets the tone for how you are perceived. It is literally the face of your church in the absence of other communication. If accurate design can resonate with your target audience, miscalculated design can alienate you from them.
So what makes good design good? For us, we measure it in effectiveness. First off, you are battling for mindshare in the recipients so you need to captivate them and draw them in. Second, it has to connect with their sense of self, need, or style. Third, it has to communicate clearly, providing more answers than raising questions.
Effective design reels people in, conveys the essence of your brand, and provokes a predefined response.
People often ask me to evaluate their church’s design. Without knowing the target audience, the only aspects of design I can evaluate is how professional it is, what feeling it provokes, and how clearly it communicates. But, even then, I am still partially in the dark until I know exactly whom they are trying to reach and in what way.
A small church in the most affluent neighborhood of a large city called on us for branding and consulting services. Through our anonymous visitor review and our analysis of the church, we found the church to be about as quaint and loving as any church you could imagine. The church housed many older folks and a number of college and career age families, but no one in between. The affluent thirty- and forty-year-olds in this community went to the large, “happening” church of the same mainstream denomination just down the street.
As we honed in on the essence of who they were as a church and helped them to see whom they were most adept at winning, we began to realize that this smaller church was not going to be successful trying to outdo the Joneses. That is, they could not compete head to head with the church down the street. They had three hundred members; the other church had ten thousand members. We encouraged them to be proud of who they were. Their loving atmosphere was conducive to connecting with a growing group of young transient families that they had thought were only on the periphery of their target audience. It turns out that they were the target audience. The common element of this particular group was that they were young individuals and families that came from small towns and were newbies in the big city. They needed and longed for the loving “home town church in the big city feel” that this small church provided.
The consulting brought out tons of valuable information for the church, and the pastor as well as the board were elated to have their sense of self and direction clarified. Ironically, our meetings came right after the board had commissioned a new sign to be built in front of the church. The new design of the sign had been approved before our arrival—medieval lettering with a sword-cross through the word. You might ask me if I liked the sign. To give credit to its designer, it was attractive and had artistic merit. However, nothing says “we are a bunch of nice, loving, down-home folks” like having a giant sword out in front of your church.
Design, to be effective, must connect you with your audience. If you are not completely sure who you are or who your audience is, hold off on major design projects until you know. Instead of the sword, this church might have tried a cutting-edge or very hip contemporary design. In the minds of the community, this approach would have simply put them In direct competition with the church down the street. Hands down, they did not have what the bigger church had. They needed to differentiate. They needed to connect their loving church to this newbie community, not by being flashy but by being soft and real.
With that said, design has more elements than just what is professional or cutting edge. Where would a given design be rated in the scale of simple to complex? Passive to dramatic? Playful to corporate? Masculine to feminine? Traditional to contemporary? Organic to polished? I can go on and on. The important factors are the ones that affect your target audience. Do they need to see you as contemporary? How contemporary? Could you be too contemporary for a church? Where do the other churches in your community fit on this scale? Do you need to be Johnston & Murphy contemporary or Kenneth Cole contemporary? Every age group and community has its own sense of contemporary. Do you know the contemporary that your target audience embraces?
To be effective at connecting with your target audience, design needs to find its roots on the line between who you are as a church and the community you are trying to reach. Good design is not about what you and I like as church people. I dread to use the analogy of bait, but it has merit to say we have to consider first and foremost what appeals to the target audience and then design along the line of commonality that exists between them and your church. It should be about what the people you are trying to reach need to understand about you to consider you. For example, if design is based simply on the likes and dislikes of the ministry team, liturgical churches might tend to use boring graphics and highly charismatic churches might tend to put out extremely vibrant and passionate pieces. In the end, they only reinforce the stereotypes that people had in the first place. In both cases, this is hanging your personality out on your sleeve. If you reinforce the stereotypes, all you will get is people already like you.
Make sure your church is about reaching out to people with different mind-sets than you—and therefore make sure your design accommodates broader tastes than your own. Last on design, please do not simply copy other churches. You might like another church’s design, but it doesn’t mean it was effective for them or that it will be effective for you. Many successful churches grew in spite of their design, not necessarily because of it. To date, even the most successful churches are typically so because of synergies outside of design. You cannot even count on a flagship church to have truly strategic design. Be astute to know your target audience enough to develop your own brand to connect you with them. To be effective at design that works, consult an agency whose gifts are that very thing, or be willing to commit the time to thoroughly study layout, color theory, culture trends design tool, professional practices, current design elements, and more for years to get your eye sharp enough. To be most effective, develop your church’s brand statement before you do any design.
Then stop designing based on personal preferences and let your brand drive you toward your community. After all, it should be the filter through which you communicate as well as navigate.
Communication Is Only Everything
Welcome to the world of a million voices. So much communication is aimed at us on a daily basis that there is precious little we are able to process. Between work, family time, grocery shopping, advertising, commercials, Internet, video games, television, radio, taking the kids to soccer, and more, is it any wonder the biggest by-product of today’s information overload is attention deficit disorder? Can you imagine a life where you did not need a planner to keep on track?
I am a notorious thinker. My close friends often tease me because they can sense that I am having conversations in my head. As a result, I find it uncanny how my wife is never prepared for the out-of-town trip that I swore I told her about but later realized I had only thought to tell her about. That is the difference between intention and communication. It is much like the difference between a person’s heart and how they are perceived. The challenge is, until a thought is fully and clearly communicated, it really only exists in your mind. In a world where there is a battle for mindshare, the companies that have impact are the ones that communicate their message over and over again. If you missed it the first time, it will be there to be heard again.
Radio disc jockeys will tell you a similar tale about popular music. They will tell you how any hit song will begin to drive them absolutely crazy about the same time people start calling in and asking them to play it more. When a song starts to become popular, the disc jockeys are already burned out on it. They have played it over and over while listeners are hearing it for the first time.
In the church the same thing happens. Often the leadership says something once or twice and assumes it has been communicated to everyone. It is just not so. As with the radio, people tune in at different times. By the time you have said something several times some people are just hearing it for the first time. You have to repeat it incessantly if you want to make it stick. In important areas, especially when giving people the scope of the “boat” or the spiritual signposts, if you do not make an absolute routine of these essential communications at every gathering, there are people who are missing it. In today’s world, you have to over communicate to communicate. If you are not sick and tired of saying it, it probably has not been said enough. That goes for signposts for the church at large as well as communicating brand and vision to your staff. You have to be like a broken record.
When, as a church, you create an environment where every question is answered beforehand and people need not call you to ask when, why, or how—at that point, you he successfully and thoroughly communicated. In the eyes of most people, this is over communication—but over communication is what we have to set as a standard. Doing so ascribes value to the recipients and wraps them in the warm blanket of our desire to serve them. When we communicate with a common tone, give updates, call to say hi, welcome visitors, describe signposts, avoid surprises, and explain things in advance, we create a connected partnership and a culture of trust.
Explain the steps. Describe the process. Enumerate the players. Define things clearly. The absence of clarity is chaos; its presence is the foundation of community. You set the atmospherostat. You control the brand. The microphone is in your hands.
Let’s take a second to look back. Planning is essential for growth. Having strategic plans will get you in the area that allows you to throw the net out for growth.
Branding is essential for knowing who you are and communicating it with integrity in every aspect of ministry. Part of knowing who you are is knowing how you come across to those you are trying to reach. Not generally, but specifically, how do you want to affect your target audience? How do you want them to see you?
Without a branding strategy, decisions fall on preference rather than on purpose. Want to have a church where decisions are never made because someone likes this color better or because church X chose that color, or because the choice of color serves the purpose and strategic intent of the church? Have a church with a defined brand. Then the color choice is based on who you are and whom you are trying to reach. Decisions become divisive where there is little vision, but they serve to unite people where there is a strong sense of church self.
Take a moment. How would you summarize your church’s brand? Whom would you like to affect and how? What does it look like, feel like, taste like, and act like? Write it down.
Lastly, realize you have to overcommunicate. Define a system to overcommunicate the foundational aspects of your church every time the doors open. You will get tired of it, but people will never lack direction. Describe the flow of it in every service.
Does your church plan? Is your team united to create a defined brand experience in everything you do? Do you communicate it in everything you do? Does your staff spend a lot of time answering the same questions? Maybe you need to devote more time to providing up-front answers.
The above article, “The Branding Iron” was written by Richard L. Reising. The article was excerpted from Reising’s book Church Marketing 101.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”