Starbucks, Michelangelo and understanding a brand

A brand is not a logo, a slogan, a color palette or style guide. Yes, all those things contribute, but the brand is actually the experience, expectation and connection. Image by Octavian A. Tudose, Pixabay.
A brand is not a logo, a slogan, a color palette or style guide. Yes, all those things contribute, but the brand is actually the experience, expectation and connection. Image by Octavian A. Tudose, Pixabay.

What’s your local church brand?

If we asked five leaders from the same congregation that question, we would likely get five different answers. (Maybe even a few negative comments, too, about mixing business tactics with ministry.) Why? Because branding is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied concepts in marketing. 

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“Successful brands are held in the minds of the public, where they may stay forever,” writes Scott Bedbury in A New Brand World. “As such, you can’t entirely control a brand. At best you can only guide and influence it.” 

To be clear: A brand is not a logo, a slogan, a color palette or style guide. Yes, all those things contribute, but the brand is actually the experience, expectation and connection.

The goal is to help your church stand out within the community while giving members a shared experience that supports spiritual development.

  • Your brand is the emotional image of your church, and it’s defined by everyone who encounters it.
  • Your identity is distinguished by visuals and content representing your church (including the logo) to the community.

Starbucks delivers on their brand promise. So should the church.

When I enter a Starbucks, I expect a sanctuary where I can leisurely enjoy a coffee. Why? Because Starbucks delivers on that expectation.

For most churches, the brand is already established. The people, environment, location, experiences, leadership and worship are what attract (or discourage) both visitors and members. I’m reminded of an apt quote from Michelangelo: "The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” 

Consider your church’s reinforcing messaging — from the greeting, announcements and bulletin of your services to social media — because it all matters. When perceptions or expectations don’t match the experience, the message is disingenuous and inauthentic. Overly aspirational branding often disappoints. 

However, don’t sandbag your claims by underselling your church. The “under-promise and over-deliver” approach is ill-suited to growing the church. Instead claim, own and (most of all) deliver on the promises of your brand! 

Truth in advertising — even in fiction!

In 1990 Dudley Moore starred in the movie Crazy People. The plot: After being checked into a psychiatric hospital, an advertising executive recruits other patients to design blunt yet ultimately wildly successful ad campaigns.

While the edgy but humorous campaigns are part of a movie, we can still learn a lot. 

  • "VOLVO. Boxy but good."
  • "Take Metamucil, so you can go to the bathroom and you won't die of cancer."
  • "Your fear of flying may be valid. There are always plenty of plane crashes, and people die like crazy. But you should also know that more people arrive at their destinations alive on our flights than on many others. So, if you have to fly, fly us. Most of our passengers get there alive."

These fictitious campaigns were successful because they delivered on the experience and expectation. 

The circle of branding … by example

Branding is a circular effort in which you…

  • Identify your brand.
  • Reinforce the brand through qualified messaging and imagery.
  • Do everything in your power to consistently deliver on the brand promise.

To illustrate, a church identifies itself as a welcoming group of involved people journeying together. For this promise to be owned, every visitor needs to be greeted and invited to lunch, a class or a Bible study. Those behaviors should be second nature to all leaders and members.

The brand identity is established and reinforced, but don’t stop there. 

The church drills deeper into the experience by focusing on unique programs, practices, décor, classes, topics, outreach and more. They find what distinguishes their church from others in the community. They have a brand to promote and deliver.

Only when expectations are set and the promised experience is consistent should the church’s brand be represented with logos and slogans.

Your turn now

Let’s bring this home for your congregation.

Invite a committee of eight to 12 leaders and members to meet and identify who you really are as a church and what you deliver. Discuss what brought each of you to the church and what keeps you here. Find unique examples to illustrate what prompted the responses. 

Once you’ve reached a consensus, pour your promotional efforts into brand-relevant messaging that invites your community. Most importantly, when visitors respond by attending your church, provide the experience you promised. 

After all, you only have one chance to make a first impression — especially when it comes to your brand promise.

What's your brand, and how do you plan to promote and deliver it?

Greg Petree

For the past two years Greg Petree has enjoyed directing the marketing and advertising team at United Methodist Communications. Prior to that, he spent 13 years in the publishing industry promoting multiple #1 bestsellers. Greg's passions include college football, golf and cruise vacations. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, Greg’s family rented a house from Elvis Presley, had checks signed by Elvis’ father, went to church with Elvis’ stepmom and had friends that took karate lessons with the king. Elvis is still alive, you know.

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