Branding Faith

April 3, 2008 by

Branding FaithOver the last several weeks I’ve been working my way through Phil Cooke‘s latest book, Branding Faith: Why Some Churches and Nonprofits Impact Culture and Others Don’t. I’ve known Phil virtually for several years and have collaborated on some small projects with him in the past through my role at Foursquare. Having never met in person, you can imagine our surprise last month when not only did we find ourselves sharing a flight to Dallas, but we were seated right next to each other. Crazy!

Branding Faith is a must-read for church leadership that is unfamiliar with marketing and branding. Last time I checked that covered just about every pastor on the planet so you might as well order your copy today. It’s a perfect companion to Richard Reising’s Church Marketing 101 so go ahead and add them both to your Amazon cart or give them as a gift to your pastor.

If you don’t know Phil or if you’ve never heard him speak, you gotta know up front that he is a call-it-like-it-is kinda guy. In Phil’s words, he “was born with a very sensitive B.S. button.” I am naturally drawn to people like this although they do tend to get on my nerves sometimes. Phil both drew me in and got on my nerves a little.

If you already get the whole conversation about church branding and marketing, this book is not for you since it will read rather drably. This was especially the case for me since it’s the world I live and breathe every day. Phil’s take is certainly unique–he comes at it from decades of experience in television/media ministry, as well as his founding partnership with a mainstream commercial production company.

The premise for Branding Faith is that the church has lost it’s story and until churches can identify their compelling brand, they’re going to continue suffering the consequences of a good story told badly.

There are two significant issues I take with Phil in this book. First is his suggestion that “the pastor or ministry leader is the hub of the brand. Everything else revolves around his or her role.” Phil admittedly doesn’t like this either–and neither do I–but that doesn’t mean we should settle for this reality, regardless of the culture we live in. Phil’s media ministry lens is obviously a contributing factor to his line of thinking.

The other thing I take issue with is Phil’s suggestion that we should begin first with understanding our audience and secondly with understanding our message. Aside from being at direct odds with my humble opinion, I couldn’t believe what I was reading when Phil suggests that readers “Think how [the audience] could perceive your comments and all the myriad ways they might relate to its content. Then, start preparing your message.” Seems backwards to me and screams inauthentic marketing. To his credit, Phil does understand the controversial nature of this approach, but I was still left unconvinced.

Overall, Branding Faith is a great book full of great lessons that answers the “why” of church branding. It’s a perfect setup to the next book Phil (or someone) should write that would talk about how to actually define and demonstrate a church brand.

Post By:

Brad Abare

Brad Abare is the founder of the Center for Church Communication. He consults with companies and organizations, helping them figure out why in the world they exist, why anyone should care and what to do about it.
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9 Responses to “Branding Faith”

  • Ben Birdsong
    April 4, 2008

    I think that this looks like a very interesting and thought provoking book. I agree with the idea of the pastor being the heart of the brand of a church, but I am also, like both of you, bothered by that. Jesus Christ should be the heart of the brand of every church, but in our Americanized and consumer-driven Christianity that we have created, the focus has been moved off of Jesus Christ and to the pastor. The pastor should not be the heart of the brand because the person at the heart of the brand is the one who receives the glory – this is a role that only Jesus can fill. As far as the concept of the message starting with the audience and then moving to scripture, this just leads to more consumer-driven messages that merely tickle the ears of the listeners. These are messages that have no impact and misrepresent the Gospel and the message of Jesus Christ. Church should be about Jesus Christ, His plan, and His Gospel not about some manufactured event to make people feel good being themselves. We should be challenged to change and through the power of the Holy Spirit be molded more and more into the image of Jesus. A consumer-driven church cannot do this.

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  • Phil Cooke
    April 4, 2008

    Brad – thanks for the review. I always enjoy your work, and appreciate your perspective. I think the two issues you point out, do indeed come from my perspective with our national media clients. The truth is, on television, the key to a successful television program is the personality. No one watches Oprah because of the guests, or even the content. They watch to see the unique take Oprah brings to the interviews. People primarily watch Billy Graham – not George Beverly Shea or guests like Michael W. Smith. Likewise, viewers tune in to see Joel Osteen, Jack Graham, or Kerry Shook – so we focus on their message if we want to reach the largest audience. I don’t like “celebrity” in the church any more than you, but that’s the reality I live with everyday in the media world. Even at a local level, I’ve discovered that most churches reflect the personality of the pastor. If you don’t care for Ed Young’s preaching, chances are you won’t attend the church no matter how great the children’s program or music department is.
    Your other issue of starting with the audience rather than the message is similar. From a media perspective, I cringe from all the statements made by preachers without thought or regard for the audience. Think of some TV evangelist’s insensitive and outrageous comments about the gay community, or 9/11. If we don’t start with an understanding of who our audience is and how our message impacts that audience, we’ll continue to be misunderstood and ignored.
    In both cases, it’s not the world I would prefer, but it’s the world we live in. So the question isn’t do we agree or disagree, but how do we deal with it? How do we get our message heard through that clutter out there? Small church or large, it’s a question with which we need to wrestle. The rest of the book should eliminate any idea that I disregard the message itself, or have my priorities out of order. My Ph.D. in theology is a testimony to my high regard for doctrine and refusal to compromise the message. But your thoughts are excellent. I’m always grateful for good criticism, because the stakes are high, and it should drive us to keep this conversation going.

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  • Brad Abare
    April 4, 2008

    Phil – You’re right on. I understand why you make those two points because of your TV/media background. Makes total sense. People don’t watch organizations on TV, they watch people, thus the personality-driven programming. As for the audience coming first, I agree that TV personalities do need to think a lot more about their TV audience in terms of how they’re coming off. Right on.
    My whole point and concern–which I trust you share–is that churches in particular (the audience for this site) should not use personality-based leadership or audience-based planning in their approach to communication.
    It’s just something to keep in mind while reading your book. People need to remember your media context and adapt it to church accordingly. Your book was not written specifically for churches which is why I got hung up on those two particular points.
    Thanks for commenting!

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  • Dave Jones
    April 5, 2008

    In your humble opinion, if you don’t start with the pastor, or the audience then where do you start?

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  • Brad Abare
    April 6, 2008

    In my humble opinion, you start with the purpose God has for your church in the community. Is it to care for the poor? To see families brought together? Evangelism? Caring for orphans? You can’t do everything, so what is the one or two things your church should really focus in on and do well? Part of that comes from understanding God’s call on your church and the needs of the community. They go hand-in-hand.
    Senior leadership certainly plays a role in discovering the purpose/vision, but it shouldn’t be built off one man’s thinking.

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  • Dave Jones
    April 6, 2008

    Thanks for the reply, I have been helping the church build its brand through marketing for many years, some brand cases are more compelling and complex than others, As you can imagine and have experienced. I think both you and Phil are right in terms of finding the story, After all, we have went from 500 impressions a day in the 1950’s to over 1,700 impressions a day in 2008. Experts predict that we will be at 5,000 impressions by 201l.
    Unfortunately it has been my experience that the Senior leadership doesn’t know the story. Nor does it know that it needs to find a story. Regardless of weather its through senior leadership or God’s call on the church/needs in the community.
    I have been very frustrated with the executive team saying “we” when in reality its one mans vision. Usually, “we” is not part of the equation. Its one man in their Prayer closet explaining where he is taking the church. I have learned to accept that the senior Pastor will over rule the executive team and in some cases the executive team doesn’t have the self image to stand up to the Senior Pastor. So where do you start building the brand…. Well….. For me its the Senior Pastor.
    Three reasons. One, you mentioned it already we are in a Celebrity/Personality driven world, so its easier to build off the Senior Pastor, and lets face it…we stroke his ego at the same time. I know most people would say stroking his ego is the wrong place to be but, lets face the facts.
    Two, its much much more difficult to extract the purpose/vision with the executive team and the senior pastor and isolate it down to one thing, than it is to understand the pastors vision and the demo of the congregation.
    Your answer is well received and a very religious type answer, but not practical. Sorry.
    I believe that your answer is more correct than mine, In fact I like your answer better, my Prayer this evening is that we get to this place someday, its just not here today.

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  • Brad Abare
    April 7, 2008

    I agree that how I suggest finding the vision/purpose should be done is not an accurate reflection of how it is being done currently. I concur with your assessment that far too often it’s a senior pastor and a prayer closet when it comes to charting the course. It’s time for senior pastors to come out of the closet.
    In terms of getting practical… if you know anything about me you know this is what the company I founded in 1998 does entirely. We help companies figure out who they are and what they’re all about. We’ve done minimal work with churches, but the principals apply to any group of people (nonprofit, church, business, etc.). Just yesterday, I lead the small group that my wife and I are a part of with our church through a 5-hour session, figuring out what we’re about and where we should go. Together.
    Maybe I should write a series for CFCC/CMS on this…

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  • Greg Hammond
    April 10, 2008

    I’m a little confused. Is the discussion here that the Pastor should not solely be responsible for what the church is all about? Are you saying that a church committee should decide what the church is all about?

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  • Kathy
    August 22, 2008

    Wow is this on the minds of many churches and congregations right now. I think maybe because of the internet.
    I have to disagree with the comment about watching Oprah because of Oprah not the topics or subjects she has been discussing. I personally get sick of the “look at me I’m Oprah”. I do watch for the content.
    As for the churches, we are in a contest if you will of generations.
    It used to be a generation gap, now it’s a contest to see who will stay. Personally they can forget the transition phrase. You either like it or you don’t. I get sick of the Pastor’s reference to movies. I don’t like watching the same thing every week on the “Big Screen” (Reruns are Reruns) It is a waste of my time and it frustrates me so I really have a hard time settling down for the sermon even when it is a good sermon. It all makes it less about God and more about show, personal back pats, and eventually money.
    What was wrong with learning about God and concience.

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