Part 7: The Dopamine-Driven Church
"Religion has become a product just like everything else . . .Churches have to become brands because brands are quick pieces of information that people don't have to think about but they can identify with." . . .
"Marketing and evangelism are the same thing . . . . A product becomes a part of a user's personality, and the users of the product become evangelizers of the product.
[John Blake, "Faith & Values: Church's campaign isn't subtle, but it is personal," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2/3/07, emphasis added]
The evangelical church has jumped full tilt into the brave new world of marketing. Marketing has become a substitute for biblical evangelism. But worse, marketing has become a way of identifying churches, organizations and movements by "branding" them.
An Orange County Register article (12/9/05) "'God branding' in films gains religious acceptance" by Ann Pepper, explains the concept:
"Religion and pop culture, often at opposite ends of the values tug of war, are finding more opportunities to form marketing partnerships that, in effect, create a 'God brand.'" [emphasis added]
Discussing how the movie The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was used in a marketing campaign for Biola University, the article said:
"The idea was to connect the school with the movie in the minds of those customers.
"'We are brand building,' said Rob Westervelt, Biola's director of brand management. 'There are emotions and beliefs tied to this movie experience, and we want Biola to be a part of that. We want people to say, "Remember that movie we saw that was so great, and we saw it at Biola's premiere."'
"'There's what I call a "cool factor." When we gave out tickets the response was, "This is so cool." And that translates into "Biola is so cool."'" [emphasis added]
Marketing in this context is viewed as a strategic tool to win new converts and/or sell them something religious. This movie, for which Saddleback bought 20,000 tickets, was touted as "a good way to reach 'people who might normally be put off by Christian ideas.'" Note the justification:
"'By using such pop culture opportunities. . . We're partnering with what we believe God is doing in the world. We are aligning ourselves with it.'
"It's a strategic plan straight out of Ecclesiastes 7:13 - 'Notice the way God does things; then fall into line.'" [emphasis added]
What is branding and how does it work? Brands have come to embody the meaning of products by associating lifestyles, attitudes, beliefs and ideas with these products. Logos have become iconic cross-cultural images, symbols transcending the barriers of language.
A critical look at branding can be found in the book No Logo by Naomi Klein (Picador, 2002). Branding is a relatively recent concept that arose concurrently with corporations as mass-produced products began to be marketed to consumers over a hundred years ago. From the very beginning branding conveyed the "image" of a particular product or company. Klein observes:
". . . [A]dvertising wasn't just scientific; it was also spiritual. Brands could conjure a feeling -- think of Aunt Jemima's comforting presence -- but not only that, entire corporations could themselves embody a meaning of their own." (p. 6-7) [emphasis added]
Klein's premise is that during the decades of the 1980s-90s branding began to take on more of a spiritual essence -- purposefully seeking to create emotional attachments, experiences, identification with the product -- even altering lifestyles and changing culture:
'". . . Brands, not products!' became the rallying cry for a marketing renaissance led by a new breed of companies that saw themselves as 'meaning brokers' instead of product producers. What was changing was the idea of what -- in both advertising and branding -- was being sold. The old paradigm had it that all marketing was selling a product. In the new model, however, the product always take a back seat to the real product, the brand, and the selling of the brand acquired an extra component that can only be described as spiritual. Advertising is about hawking product. Branding, in its truest and most advanced incarnations, is about corporate transcendence." (p. 21) [emphasis added]
The evangelical world was busily branding during this same time period. Leadership Network functioned like mega-corporation, creating new brand names in Christianity to market to various segments of the diverse evangelical population. In fact, Leadership Network trained an entire generation of neoevangelical pastors in quite sophisticated marketing dynamics. Desiring to create a paradigm shift, the hand-picked rising stars diversified into various "logos" and "products" to appeal to different audiences with their own brand names -- Erwin McManus' Mosaic, Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven, Bill Hybel's Willowcreek, Brian McLaren's Emergent. . . the list could go on and on.
Same product -- church transformation. Different name brands.
Even down to the local level. Change the name of your church to create a new identity in the community. If the evangelical customer doesn't like one brand, he can pick another. What's your preference? Starbucks on Sunday morning? Cigar smokers clubs? Aerobic exercise classes? Choose your church. Whatever feels good.
In a media-saturated culture, with people salivating at the next juicy hamburger commercial on TV, it wasn't hard to accomplish the task of bringing evangelicals into the spiritualized new world of branding. Evangelicals had long ago repudiated the doctrine of separation from the pop culture. They had become desensitized to advertising. So the next logical step was to use the very same marketing strategies to forge a new vision of Church.
And create new movements for church transformation. Complete with their own logos, images, brand names, icons, superstars, downline networks and customers.
Logo-driven is image-driven. Branding is iconic. The more people are attuned to pictures rather than the written word, the more susceptible they are to deriving meaning from these images and icons. This is the beginning of idolatry.
The concept of branding comes from "a mark burned on the skin with a hot iron, formerly used to punish and identify criminals, now used on cattle to show ownership" according to Websters. Branding rose to a new level when the Nike swoosh became so ubiquitous that some people actually had the swoosh tatooed on their skin. Klein states,
"Not only do dozens of Nike employees have a swoosh tattooed on their calves, but tattoo parlors all over North America report that the swoosh has become their most popular items. Human branding? Check." (p. 56).
What happens when the evangelical culture rushes headlong into branding? It may lose its ability to be salt and light. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution article notes that churches may lose their "unique selling position." Huh? Examine the purpose for this church-based branding:
"[Mark Einstein, associate professor of media studies at the City University of New York] says churches that aggressively brand themselves run the risk of losing what she calls their 'USP' —- unique selling position.
"The goal of any marketing is growth. That goal quickly can become the sole focus of a church engulfed by a marketing campaign. They seem no different from a business, where success is measured strictly by numbers.
"'What religion offers as its USP is the ability to step outside the culture, to not be a part of the marketing,' she says. 'When [churches] become a marketed product, they may lose their USP.'" [emphasis added]
On the horizon is global brand name recognition. The Orange County Register article concludes:
"Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes magazine, in 2004 declared Warren's 'The Purpose-Driven Church' the best book on entrepreneurship, business and investment he'd seen in years.
"Warren followed that with his mega-best-seller 'The Purpose-Driven Life.' His purpose-driven success has spawned a whole purpose-driven department at Saddleback - which draws about 20,000 worshippers on Sundays - and Warren's friends tease him publicly about what might be coming next: purpose-driven toothpaste?
"Warren has his sights set much higher: making Africa the first purpose-driven continent.
"'God branding,' Westervelt said, 'is recognizing that these things are going on in the culture and aligning with those things. Our mission is to impact the world for the Lord Jesus Christ.'"
The next few posts will examine global marketing in more detail, Lord willing.
"From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." (Galatians 6:17)
We struggle to come up with any possible marketing meaning for the following verse, quoted above -- other than perhaps the exact opposite! Here is what Ecclesiastes 7:13 says:
"Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?"