~ 10 January 2009 ~

Jesus, branding, and the myth of neutral messaging

There is much to commend in Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s Christianity Today cover story, “Jesus Is Not a Brand,” but this excerpt is especially noteworthy:

The difficulty with the pro-marketing arguments, however, is the failure to recognize that marketing is not a values-neutral language. Marketing unavoidably changes the message—as all media do. Why? Because marketing is the particular vernacular of a consumerist society in which everything has a price tag. To market something is therefore to effectively make it into a branded product to be consumed. The folks at ChurchMarketingSucks.com have no problem with this: “Marketing is the process of promoting, selling, and distributing goods or services. It’s a business concept, but something very similar happens in the church. As much as we bristle at comparing evangelism to a sales pitch, there are certain similarities.”

There are indeed similarities. But evangelism and sales are not the same. And we market the church at our peril if we are blind to the critical and categorical difference between the Truth and a truth you can sell. In a marketing culture, the Truth becomes a product. People will encounter it with the same consumerist worldview with which they encounter every other product in the American marketplace.

Wigg-Stevenson’s premise, of course, is that “marketing” is not a concept that can be imposed upon the church in the same way in which it is imposed upon business.  The problem with this (and the reason why many will dismiss the article) is the frighteningly large number of churches whose polity more closely resembles a TQM-management textbook than the biblical model of the church.

Given my own experience in both the church and the marketing/branding field (my undergrad major was advertising, and I’ve worked for a firm that branded people among other things), I think the points raised by Wigg-Stevenson are even more prevalent and dangerous than the level-headed tone of his article betrays. The world’s methods may often be amoral in some sense, but they are by no means neutral.  Whenever I shape a message into a form or medium, my message takes on some of the inherent properties of that medium whether I like it or not.

I’ll have more to say about this topic later when I finish reading Lucas Conley’s OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder: The Illusion of Business and the Business of Illusion, but until then, you would do well to read the whole Wigg-Stevenson CT piece.

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2 Comments:

  1. Bradley Cochran » 10 January 2009:

    I think Stevenson is, for the most part, clotheslining scarecrows (read: attacking a staw man). His logic doesn’t hold up, and his statements are a bit extreme—especially his comment about how approaching Jesus through marketing that taps into felt needs is blasphemy. His criticisms and warnings are misguided, I think, and hinge on several assumptions that he never explicitly mentions.

    For an alternative and less pessimistic take on branding and the gospel, listen to the recent podcast I did with Aaron Skinner, the founder and president of Kairos Creative.

  2. Jared Bridges » 10 January 2009:

    Bradley: Thanks for the comment. I’ll check out the podcast. I agree that the blasphemy charge is probably over-the-top, but I do think that subjecting the gospel to

    The crux of the danger lies with the concept of branding itself, which is many times deceptively hollow. As Conley’s book (mentioned above) illustrates — and having worked in the industry I can attest — branding is oftentimes used as a substitute for innovation.

    I’ll concede that there are no Christians (that I know of) who are explicitly, knowingly “branding” Jesus. But the toolset of the marketer cannot be used willy-nilly (see this post). Souls are not commodities.

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