Should I Be Careful with “Branding Experts?”
When I wrote my book “Branding Faith” in 2008, the word “branding” had hardly been uttered inside a church or other Christian organization. In fact, the amount of criticism I endured just trying to start the conversation was enormous. People just didn’t want to believe the power of perception or identity and the role it played in getting people to listen to your message, buy your product, or donate to your cause. But since that time, things have changed, and not always in a good way. Today, “Branding Agencies” that specialize in churches and ministries have sprung up across the country and don’t seem to be slowing down. Nearly everyone I talk to these days is either a “branding expert” or a “social media expert.” (And I say that with only a tiny smirk.)
The bottom line is that for a few, to justify high fees and make themselves look serious, many have jumped through amazing hoops and created lengthy processes to “discover” your brand. As a result, church leaders end up with a huge bill and massive report that they don’t even understand. One major, national ministry called me recently to tell me they spent $150,000 on a branding study, which resulted in a 1,200 page document, and they had absolutely no clue what to do with it.
It’s tragic actually (this is donor money), and sometimes seems like a few are turning the concept of branding in a religion itself. But the truth is, the key to an effective brand is to define the perception you have in the marketplace. It’s understanding the promise you’re making to your community, your customers, or your donors. It’s trying to positively influence the story that surrounds every person, organization, or product.
I still believe in the power of branding.
Is there a process? Yes.
Is there an investment? Yes.
Does it matter? Yes.
In fact, in 2012 I updated and re-wrote “Branding Faith” into “Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media.” I needed to include social media, which hadn’t been invented when I wrote the original, as well as update the book with changes happening in the media and culture.
Branding is the key to break through the media clutter, and allows you to connect with your audience and supporters.
The point? Learn to tell your story more effectively. It’s the key to breaking through the media clutter that surrounds us, and allows you to connect with your audience and your supporters.
While there are plenty of reputable branding agencies out there that I’m proud to associate with, there’s plenty of others who have a lot of show, but no go. Get recommendations from other churches and ministries. Do your homework. Make sure whoever you pick is a right fit for your team and your vision.
Because the only thing worse than not telling your story at all, is telling badly.
Not trying to be snarky Phil, and perhaps I don’t understand this whole “brand thing”-but why does a church need to have a brand anyway? I pastor a church in a small town (about 3000) and branding is not something we are going to spend money on. We simply want to preach Jesus and love the people in our community. The church has a FB page (which I don’t have) but we/I don’t tweet or Pin or any of the other social media things. Like I said, I’m not trying to be snarky (I think you know that). I just want to know.
It’s a great question Bill, and it’s not as important for a small church – particularly in a small community where you know everyone. However, I would encourage you to read my book “Unique.” That will give you a great idea of what we’re talking about with helping your church get noticed in the community. It doesn’t take a massive process in your case, but in today’s highly distracted culture, it’s more important than ever for you to discover how you can stand out and connect with people.
Thanks Phil. you can see my response to Dawn’s comments. I have put your book in my cart at Amazon. 🙂
Hi Bill– We’ve worked with some very small churches, and I don’t blame you for asking the question. “Branding” still gets a bad rap in some circles and can be misunderstood. (Or misrepresented)
As Phil mentioned, it’s the promise you’re making of what to expect. When reaching people who don’t know you yet with the Gospel, how can you ensure you’re speaking a language they understand? How can you be sure what they experience when they arrive is consistent with who you say you are?
It’s not about pretending to be something you’re not, but intentionally reflecting who you are so you can reach people more effectively with the greatest story ever told.
Thanks Dawn. I guess a lot of my hesitation is what I consider “the business mode” which invaded the church back in the late 90s. I was a victim of that “pastor as a CEO” type of thinking so I get leery of anything which seems to nip at those heels. However, I see your point. Guess I’ll have to take Phil up on his challenge and read his book. LOL
I like snarky. The truth is that any message worth hearing needs to be delivered in a manner that helps those that you are trying to give the message to. A church seeking to provide the message of Jesus is constantly involved in trying to reach those that live in a world that is full of other messages. How you deliver your message amidst that enviornment will determine whether those you seek to reach hear what you have to say and understand it. Small towns are no longer secluded with the technology that is available. As much as you want to be in your own world, those that you are called to reach are being influenced in a much bigger arena. Step out of the box, develop your strategy, and soon your message will be reaching people you never considered possible.
Hi Samuel. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I prefer not to be snarky but every once in awhile my evil twin surfaces. I do see your point. I am involved in several organizations in the community which do give me “exposure.” I am on the Chamber of Commerce board and am involved in the inter-workings of an organization which ties to our local physical & mental health clinic. I’m also the started of a desire to do something about the homeless (which our community tries to deny exist). However, I see your point about the tech part. I’ll take your advice to heart.
Considering I came out of the secular world as a Branding and Marketing Executive in the apparel industry, I guess that gives me a unique perspective into this discussion. Branding is crucial in the ministry and non-profit world regardless of your size. That being said, people need to also understand their objectives prior to entering the fray.
A Church or Non-Profit must have a plan and secure a partner to help develop its message, image, etc. The term “partner” is the key here. In our case, the fact that I had this type of experience was very important, but it also helped me to seek out partners that could help us to develop and deliver our message in a manner that would help the ministry be successful, not just spend a lot of money on a study. To be fully transparent, one of the key partners in this effort was Phil Cooke, and the Cooke Pictures Team.
An organization is only as good as its message and how consistently the message is delivered to the public and its own internal team. One of the first steps that we have undertaken in all the various organizations I haved lead is to develop an internal Brand Book that provides the foundation for the external message. This book is not just about messaging, but how the message is packaged, executed internally, and followed by all of our partners world-wide. Any organization that is not consistent in message and adamant to keep their “brand in a box” so to speak will ultimately create confusion and detract from their efforts to succeed. Those that feel this is not important regardless of size will soon see their organization not reaching those they seek to reach. Not a good thing for its future and having their message be heard. No matter your size or message, not have a sound strategy to execute will keep any organization from achieving its goals.
Well said Sam. Thanks for posting that perspective!
Thanks for the post, Phil. In a broader sense, this is a reminder of how strategic we need to be in all of our relationships with supporting and advisory agencies including accountants, lawyers, equipment vendors and in this particular case, agencies that help churches refine their image in the marketplace. Every niche has some bad apples. Your advice in regard to doing our homework is the key. Our church of about 2,000 recently updated our brand mark and is in the process of a complete website rebuild. These two “branding” tools are critical to us as we seek to attract people in our market who do not know us and are not already like us demographically. We chose Aspire One, out of the Chicago market, and couldn’t be happier. Their process was thorough and revealing and totally understandable. It was a great value as well. The final product reflected who we want to become as a church without losing a feel for our heritage. We talked with a number of churches that had worked with Aspire One and we feel like we have a true partner.
Thanks, Russ 🙂
Great post, Phil. And you’re right– there is still a LOT of confusion around branding. I’ve been teaching on this for about 18 years now and still hear many of the same questions about why it matters and if it’s even biblical.
I’ve also seen organizations head to the other end of the spectrum and almost idolize “the brand,” getting priorities out of whack, and damaging people along the way.
Branding, at its core, is the process of reaching people more effectively. Understanding what your unique calling/One Big Thing is, and the needs/language of the people you’re trying to reach so you can make a promise of what to expect and connect with them in the best way possible. Kind of like how Google Maps provides a few different routes to get to a destination, planning (a.k.a, Branding) can help provide the best route to accomplish your vision.
And yes, sometimes agencies will overbuild the process in an attempt to cover everything at the same time with insane budgets and no actual results. (Usually this is because they didn’t spend enough time learning about what you need and prioritizing their efforts.) But many don’t spend enough time to truly understand the organizations they’re trying to serve either. (Result of not spending enough time and forcing you into a cookie cutter solution)
The key is to be clear in the beginning of what you’re trying to accomplish and tie it to outcomes and next steps. If you’re not sure exactly what the outcomes should be, a trusted partner can help in the process. Just like Samuel & Russ said, a “partner” is truly the key.
Talking to organizations you trust and respect & asking who they’d recommend is a great place to start.
Excellent recommendation. Thanks Dawn…
I remember working with Phil soon after his book “Branding Faith” was released. We distributed these books to our staff. It created many questions covering many subjects. After working with Phil for 10+ years now, this discussion was by far the most important. It gave our team a an opportunity to identify our mission, vision and values more clearly.
Phil, you are correct in your statement, the word “branding” is hardly uttered in churches or Christian organizations. The fact is, this is the first place any organization needs to start. Your brand can either be determined by you or someone else will do it for you.
Great post Phil. Always good to see this type or forward thinking for the Church today.
Excellent thoughts Scott. It should be the place to start. Thanks for posting!
I have been in the ministry for 45 years and thought I was very knowledgeable about branding, its importance, proper techniques, etc. But after spending three hours in a personal conference with Phil Cooke, I realized I had missed it dramatically. Now I have totally reprocessed our vision and we are in the process of changing everything we are doing (online presence, social media, television, books, etc.) to line up with the tremendous “branding” insights that Phil imparted. I am very thankful. This article was worth reading but I would suggest taking the next step and getting Phil’s book.
Great perspective from someone who’s been in the ministry a long time and is so respected. Thanks for adding your thoughts Mike!
“Branding Faith” really started me thinking about the applications of the topic for our organization, International Mission Board, SBC. It also started a journey with both Phil Cooke and colleague Dawn Baldwin of brand realignment that has really paid off for us. The most notable on that journey was the rebranding of what used to be “World Hunger Fund” and now is “Global Hunger Relief” – http://globalhungerrelief.com . Their work on this was stellar!
Thanks Craig. And can’t wait to release our latest project!!
I am super stoked about it, Phil. Thanks for working on it with us for the past few years.
What a strange and unique time to be in the Church with so many tools at our disposal such as social media, video, and the Internet. I understand why some feel that Jesus does not need any of these tools or to be branded–and He doesn’t. However, the reality is that we live in a noisy world of competing messages and individual churches (that collectively make up the Church) each serve distinct communities with different needs and culture. This makes branding necessary for some individual churches. And why not? The best companies in the world utilize effective branding, so why shouldn’t the church strive for excellence in this manner…making sure our message is clear? Again, we have so many tools at our fingertips. We can ignore and pretend this technologically advanced world is NOT the world we live in, lol! Or we can use them to advance the Gospel. Phil, it has been fun learning the importance of branding from you and working with you on recent projects. Great article and keep up the good work.