Your Church Has a Brand
It feels slightly strange to be writing about branding on a website that has a primary focus on church planting. Chances are there are a good bunch of people, both in corporate marketing and in church-planting world, who would object that branding and church do not belong together. I beg to differ, for I believe every church already has a brand - whether or not they know it or helped to create it.
According to Ann Handley, your brand is "the image that people have of your organisation or product. It's who people think you are." If we take this as a working definition of brand, then to say that your church has a brand is just saying that there is a certain image that people have of your church. It is nothing more than the public perception of your identity.
Whilst you can never totally control the impression that others have of you, it is within your power to influence this perception to a significant degree. There are things that you can do that could either boost or diminish your reputation, and whilst we should never compromise God's truth for the sake of the approval of man, neither should we underestimate the importance of winsome engagement and partnership with the community that we are trying to serve. Just as it is a qualification for Christian leadership that one must be "well thought of by outsiders", so our churches should also work hard on having a good reputation in the local community. Another way of saying this is that we should work hard on building our brands.
Building a Brand For a Church Plant - Your Identity
If you want to influence the way people see you, the first step is to think about who you actually are and what you are actually like. You won't be able to get people to think of you as a warm and welcoming church without actually being warm and welcoming to the people you encounter. Reputations are hard-earned and they come out of far more than a pithy vision or well-articulated summary of 'values'. Primarily, your reputation comes from how you act. This was driven home to me recently as I was rewatching an episode of 'The Office'. David Brent, the manager of a fictional paper merchant, was speaking to camera about how he has created an environment in his office that feels like family, where the problems that individuals deal with matter, and where people are cared for whatever they are going through. As he is speaking, you can see his receptionist Dawn in the background in tears because of the issues of her personal life. Despite his words, Brent neither realised nor cared that she was having a tough time. Words might capture somebody's attention, but actions are what truly build your reputation and brand.
The starting point in developing your identity is understanding who you are in Christ, and this goes hand in hand with understanding who Christ is in himself. It was as Peter first had his realisation of who Jesus was in Matthew 16:16, ("You are the Christ, the Son of the living God") that he then was given revelation about who he was ("You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.") As we grow deeper in understanding and fellowship with Jesus, the pieces of our own identities start to fall into place too. Don't underestimate the importance of keeping your eyes on your true identity in Christ. It is easy to let your identity become too wrapped up in the church that you are planting, but this is unhealthy for you and unhealthy for the church as well. In this excellent Broadcast, Wendy Mann elaborates further on how we can know our identity in Christ.
Out of a clear sense of our own identity in Christ, we can start thinking about the identity of the church that we are planting. Jonathan Durke recently wrote a very helpful post explaining how we can create and establish this identity.
Some of the key things to think about in your identity include:
- Your Name. What are you going to call yourself? Should it be something that sounds like a traditional church, or something a bit more unusual? To what extent should your church name be based on the place that you are based? Does it need to communicate a big chunk of vision or is something simpler better? What kind of name will help you become visible online? These are all important questions, and I go into them in depth in this article.
- Your Values. What things are non-negotiables for you? Make sure you are clear about what matters. These should be things that you would advocate every church embrace (though not all will) such as the centrality of God's word, openness to the Holy Spirit, the priority of mission and the importance of serving the poor. It is worth being clear in your own head about what these values are (though I am less convinced about the need to publicly share a list of 'values' is it is nigh on impossible to make such a list comprehensive and you will be saying as much by what you leave off as what you include).
- Your Culture. Your church culture is a description of what your church is actually like. It's descriptive rather than aspirational, and will be different for different churches. Sam Chand describes it this way: "Culture is the atmosphere in which the church functions. It is the prevalent attitude. It is the collage of spoken and unspoken messages... The strongest force in an organisation is not vision or strategy but the culture which holds all other components." If you have not done so already, work hard to identify your culture. Get to the bottom of what things shape the way you do things, and work hard to keep this culture strong and consistent as you grow your church.
- Your Tribe. What partnerships and affiliations do you have and how much do they shape how you do things? Who are you letting speak in and influence you and why? Which parts of the life of your city or community are your making most effort to connect with? You want to be able to reach all different kinds of people, but the way you do things will always fit certain groups of people more than others. You want this to be a thought-through decision rather than just something that happens by default.
Building a Brand For a Church Plant - Your Story
Having built your identity, the next step is to begin sharing this with others. What you communicate (and how you communicate it) says a lot about what you consider to be important. At the heart of your brand is your story.
Seth Godin writes,
"A brand is nothing but a story. You can't eat a brand or put money in a brand or drive a brand. But the story the brand tells can remind you of something. It can create an association, just as the bell did for Pavlov's dogs. [Our] job then is to tell a true story, one that resonates, one that matters to people, and to repeat it often enough that it creates value."
It is important that we tell our stories in ways that connect with people. Too often, the stories our churches tell fail to have this kind of resonance with people. We might make a Facebook post inviting people to come along to our meetings or to check out a page on our website all about us, but unless the person reading it was already very likely to do that, they will probably think "why should I" and scroll straight past it.
Part of this is selecting our content wisely. There are many things that we might like people out there to do or see, but in order to get them engaged, the story needs to start in their world. Remember that people have their own stories, and have their own hopes and dreams. Content that engages people is content that touches their story somehow.
As you connect with people you start to weave in elements of your own story. A lot of this comes naturally as you express your own values and culture in the circumstances that arise. It is good to be visionary and share vision, but this isn't about tweeting a vision statement, but rather keeping and aspirational and faith-filled outlook on what could be and letting this shine through in your regular interactions (In a Broadcast a while back, Stef Liston helpfully explained that vision should really be nothing more than a contemporary articulation of the great commission with a smattering of the prophetic promises that you have received thrown in).
Along with your vision, choosing your voice is very important. What is your style of communication? Do you keep things formal? Do you have a cheeky, irreverent edge? Do you keep a positive and upbeat tone (probably a good idea)? Do you plaster your church logo over every image and video you post (probably not such a good idea)? It is also a important to make sure your voice is consistent. If somebody encounters you on social media and then pops along on a Sunday, will the vibe be similar? Of course you should tailor how you tell the story to the platform you are using, but they should all carry the same voice, that is authentically you (N.B. - If multiple people communicate on behalf of the church, you should all be on the same page about your church voice - training may be required).
Building a Brand For a Church Plant - Your Visual Representation
When most people think of a church brand, they tend to start with things like logos and websites. These things are important, but unless you start with the identity and story then they are unlikely to help serve and reinforce the impression of your church that you want people to have.
Here are some of the key areas to think about as you represent yourself visually (and note - there are plenty of Biblical examples of God himself using the visual as well as the verbal to communicate, so don't dismiss this area as insignificant).
Logo: According to Miles Sellyn, good logos are simple, memorable, timeless, versatile and appropriate. For a church, it is a very good idea to have your church name as part of your logo (it's probably not going to be seen enough to be memorable on popular culture like the Nike tick or the Twitter bird). Find a nice looking, clean and contemporary font (nothing too weird) to write the name in, and make sure people understand what you actually are. Our church often goes by the name 'CCM' but we are sure to include the words 'Christ Church Manchester' in our logo as CCM doesn't really mean anything to anyone who is not already in the know about who we are. As well as your church name, find some kind of visual image that tells part of your story. Again, keeping it simple is best and if you try to do too much with it the logo is likely to appear cluttered and off-putting. We have gone for a simple cross in a circle. (Our logo is below by way of example).
Font: If you try to use too many fonts on the same document or image then it tends to look messy. You probably need to choose one or two that become part of how you present yourself visually and stick to them (one for titles and another for general text). Fonts tend to come in families that are designed similarly but have different weights (or thicknesses), and fonts from the same family are usually very effective together. In the logo above, the letters 'CCM" are in the 'Gotham Black' font and the words 'CHRIST CHURCH MANCHESTER' are in 'Gotham Medium'. We tend to stick with different fonts from the Gotham family where we can. There are lots of good fonts out there that you could choose to use, but making a call and sticking with it consistently in your digital communication, print materials and displays on your screen on Sunday helps create a clean visual brand that will not distract people from the story that you are trying to tell.
Colour Scheme: Again, simple tends to work best. You certainly don't want lots of bright colours clashing. It is best to stick with one or two theme colours, then accented with blacks, white and greys.
Images: Make a decision about what kind of images you want to show. The choice you make will say a lot about you. 90s clipart probably isn't the best way to go, and if you have any gifted photographers in the church you may want to talk to them about getting some nice shots taken of your local area or of your church ministries in action. Failing that, there are stock image sites that you could use (be careful of using 'action shots' from other churches that you find on these sites though - you don't want to give a misleading impression of what your church is like if the photo shows hundreds and the reality is a couple of dozen!). You may want to consider paying for images from somewhere like www.istockphoto.com if those images will be shown in prominent places, otherwise a good source of free images is Pixabay (Note - Taking images straight off a Google image search is not a good idea, as those images are most likely under copyright).
Website: It is hard to understate the importance of a good website in 21st Century ministry. For most visitors to your church, this is the front door, and many people will make a decision based on this about whether it is worth visiting you on a Sunday or not. You are looking for something that can communicate your story and do so in a way that is visually appealing. Some websites are way too boring and wordy, others are all flash with no substance. Really, you need the people who know and share the story (i.e. your church leaders) to be working extremely closely with your designers. For the new website of our church in Manchester, the style was created purposely to fit the story we wanted to tell, and we told the story in a particular form to make the design look great. A few other things you need to consider with your website:
- SEO - Are you doing what you need to rank on Google? If you don't know anything about SEO, it is well worth becoming a bit familiar. I found this Udemy course very helpful in this respect.
- Mobile Optimisation - More than half of the visitors to your site do so using their phone or tablet. Make sure it looks good on all different screen sizes.
- Hosting - You need a quick and reliable host. My favourite is Siteground
- Time Specific Info - If you put info on your site about specific events, make sure you update the site once they have happened. Dated info communicates sloppiness, and I presume that's not the brand you want to convey.
- Who Is It For? - The website is a public facing thing. If it is full of in-house features for your members, people may assume that your church is also inwardly focussed. Your primary focus with the website should be on those that are not already in your church.
As we have progressed through this article, we have gradually moved from more principled points to tactical ideas. This is deliberate, and both have a part in church planting, though the order of importance is clear. Step one is understanding your identity, firstly in Christ, and then who he has called you to be as a church. Step two is story, and understanding how to share what God has done and is doing in you in ways that are winsome and resonant with your hearers. Step three is the nitty gritty details that help you along the way. Hopefully you did pick up some useful practical ideas, and if they even slightly help you advance your church plant, win more people for Christ and build the kingdom, then this piece has served its purpose and your brand has done its job.
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