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On Branding Your Church

The notion that churches need to brand themselves the same way a soft drink or shoe is branded has been encouraged recently by research showing that brand identification can provide the same social and psychological needs that religion offers. Research by Duke University's Gavan Fitzsimons found that the more religious a person the less she or he shows marked identification with brand name consumer goods and that the more a person relies on brand name product identification the less she or he evinces clear religious affiliation. The supposition is that church and brand name products compete for the role of providing people with a sense of identification and belonging. They are different ways of signifying one's tribal identity.

To the extent that's true, says theologian Sam Laurent in a reflection posted on Faith & Leadership, an online offering of Duke Divinity School, churches (and other faith communities) need to recognize that a primary initial motivation for people to join a faith community or attend worship services is for its "secondary benefits," as Fitzsimmons put it: The sense of community and of being accepted in a group "are the ways traditionally that churches have brought people into the pews." It is once in, he maintains, that people begin down the "path to that higher connection." 

Apparently, Sam Laurent suggests, although "church does run deeper than Diet Coke," maybe it doesn't start out that way. Branding, he argues, is a way that churches can stake their location in the world of competing loyalties in order to help seekers find their way to a kindred tribe. "We know that experiences are a core element of Christianity, but it is rarely a part of our branding," he writes. A church's ability to help people "step into mystery and wonder and to live a life emboldened and centered by faith" is what provides value for its practitioners, not "the underlying truth of a particular religion," he claims. In effect, he suggests that deep religious conviction, which the research indicates tends to draw people away from consumerist brand identification, can be initiated by identifying one's church as a competing consumer brand. Providing an opportunity for spiritual seekers to identify the experiential opportunity of your church, he concludes, may be a way to use branding to promote a "counterbrand": the experience of God that cannot be turned into a commodity.

For more on Gavan Fitzsimons' research and thoughts about the competition between consumer brands and religion, read his question and answer interview also posted on Faith & Leadership. For more on reaching your faith community's secular neighbors see our resource article, "Best Resources for Community Engagement." 

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