Are You Playing Marco Polo with Your Brand?

“Us” vs “Them” is a game too often played by the church. When we play this game, we forget our church plant brand audience. I am thankful for those who are swimming upstream in this regard. Many of these “swimmers” are church planters embracing, in part, the missionary identity of the church. In the past few articles, I have been drawing out the relationship between the church as missionary and the church’s brand as part of her missionary endeavor. As we think about church plant branding, here are three stakes we’ve put in the ground so far:

  1. Your brand is the feeling, expectation, story, relationship and perception that, taken together, represent what people believe about your church—either good, bad or indifferent. Risking oversimplification…your church’s visual reputation.
  2. Branding your church is unavoidable. It is happening all the time. The question is, how well are you branding your church?
  3. You, church planter or pastor, are the church’s brand manager—even if you have no idea what that means.
church plant brand audience

Branding your church plant

Two things are true of every church church planter or pastor: one, there are a million things to do; and two, there are 999,999 too few resources to accomplish them. Branding is rarely in the “wheelhouse” of church planters. And then ‘Us vs Them’ creeps in and compounds church branding woes. We end up playing Marco Polo with the church’s brand. Think of your planting context as the neighborhood swimming pool. It is a warm July afternoon. Time to gather the other kids and play Marco Polo. We as planters and pastors organize the game and volunteer to be “it”. After a few minutes of playing, we get impatient and frustrated. The pace of our calling out “Marco!” goes from modern-day machine gun to Civil War muzzle. We are now wandering around the pool with our eyes closed, no longer listening for the correlating “Polo.” Yep. This mirrors our approach to branding. We may give it some initial thought, but we lose focus. We make little to no adjustments. We lack the time, energy or expertise. We crouch back into the world we know and plow ahead. When it comes to the brand of our church, we fail to remember these 5 key facts about “them”…the ‘Polos’…those we are called to reach.

5 Things You Must Know About ‘Polos’ (Your Church Plant Brand Audience)

No, we’re not talking about Ralph Lauren’s Polo. We are talking about those in your church planting context that you hope to invite into the ‘pool.’ The ones Jesus sent you to serve in his power. Your church brand is calling out “Marco.” And here is what you need to know about those answering back, “Polo.” (Aka why church plant branding matters!)

1. They engage with great brands daily.

If your target audience is within the confines of North America, your audience has daily encounters with great brands. Try this three minute social experiment and see for yourself. Lift your head up from your laptop at the coffee shop or wherever you setup your public make-shift office. How many iPhones do you see? The iPhone is a product made by one of the most successful brands in existence today: Apple. Here is what just happened. First, you picked out the iPhones in the room as easily as you could pick out the humans in a pet store. Second, you inherently know that Apple makes the iPhone. This means you too have experienced great branding. You can try another round of experiments with other huge brands like Nike or Coca Cola or Ford.

The point isn’t that you should try and compete with these huge brands. The point is, the “Polos” in your swimming pool are brand savvy or brand aware. If they are breathing today, they will bump into great brands all over the place. Ignoring this reality is to stick your head in the sand.

2. Your church’s brand does not get a hall pass.

The ‘Marco’ inside all of says, “Well, they can’t expect me to compete with Apple or Nike or Coca Cola. That’s not fair or realistic.” Unfortunately, the ‘Polos’ do not share that perspective. They do not care. This is another byproduct of the church losing her place at the cultural table and her voice in the public discourse. We no longer get a hall pass or a get-out-of-jail-free card. While they do not expect every brand to be as engaging or polished as iconic brands like Ford, they expect you to put in the effort like other startups and local brands.

3. In general, the brand of any church starts in the red.

This is not a shocker to you if you are a church planter. In keeping with the swimming pool Marco Polo metaphor, most of the ‘Polos’ look at us as if we have (or will) pee in the pool. It is assumed. They have seen “us” do it so many times before, they assume we will do it again. We no longer get to dive in and start playing. They want a pH test of the waters by an independent third-party team from PricewaterhouseCoopers. In other words, they already assume we are out of touch, hypocritical, judgmental, goobers, etc. If your church branding does not help contradict this assumption, you may as well go ahead and pee in the pool.

4. Brands matter enough to cause the ‘Polos’ to shout “Foul!”

Again, we may be oblivious to it, but brands matter to the ‘Polos.’ Here are two recent examples. A few years back, clothing brand GAP rebranded. When they went public with the new version of the brand, they were met with an enormous backlash Here’s a before/after. One critic said, “it looks like something a child created using a clip-art gallery.” Ouch. GAP threw it in reverse and returned to the old, beloved version…and tried to pretend like nothing happened. (Never mind the transmission scattered along the road.) Another more recent example is Uber. After unveiling their new brand, the public response was so significant the company’s Head of Design stepped down. Let the record show, brands matter.

5. They align with the cultural narrative of your given context. IE They are not immune.

For a more local approach, know that your cultural narrative affects the success of local brands. In the same way that certain recipes have regional nuances, the cultural nuances in your context impact which brands ‘taste good’ and which brands get thrown out. For example, in my current context, there is a ‘little brother’ narrative. Our city is seen as the little brother to two or three other regional cities. The side effect is, chain brands and restaurants do well here because they legitimize us as a viable city. Sometimes local brands, with far better offerings, suffer because they are not a chain. Weird. But if we head to a context like Austin, the exact opposite narrative is at play. Keep Austin weird and The Live Music Capitol of the World means chains struggle and indies thrive. These regional stories should shape our regional church brands. As good missionaries, we would do well to create church brands that speak with the local dialect.

Good News Reminder

Jesus wins the day, not branding. This article is not suggesting we ignore Jesus and focus on our brand as the primary means to grow or build the church. You can have a killer brand and a big church and a busted heart. So let me be clear. You and I need Jesus. You can have a killer brand and a busted church plant and a beautiful heart. Because Jesus builds his church so we can be free of bearing that weight.

We follow a Savior who was a perfect missionary. He knew his audience…at the heart level. He was a master at loving and relating to those to whom he was sent. He was wise and shrewd. I suggest we pray and seek his wisdom on how best to follow his missionary heart and build church brands that invite our mission field to consider him as the final Savior and satisfaction for life.

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