What we can learn from the brand of faith

We talk to branding specialist and consultant to the International Network of Churches, Ray Bull, about the power of tribal community and belonging to modern brands and why churches like Hillsong are finding success

When it comes to enduring brands that have withstood the test of time, many of us think of 20th century luminaries such as Coca-Cola, Harley Davidson, Ford or McDonalds. But there is a much older brand out there that has not only remained relevant for the past 2000 or so years, it is also followed by one-third of the world’s population.

The brand? Christianity. Its core product? Jesus.

The community power of Christianity and Jesus, along with success of modern Christian movements such as Australia’s Hillsong Church, will be put under the spotlight during this year’s Ad:Tech conference in Sydney on 18-19 March by branding specialist, Ray Bull.

Bull has more than 20 years’ experience in corporate branding and communications, working across a range of projects stretching from the rebrand of Gold Coast radio station, Juice 107.3, and Holloway Diamonds to developing Porsche’s Interactive online site and marketing solutions for computer games.

In line with his Christian faith, Bull has increasingly looked to work with clients that have a clear social conscience and awareness. Last year, this led to the opportunity to rebrand the Christian Outreach Network, an endorsed brand representing a variety of churches and more than 400,000 members worldwide to the International Network of Churches (INC).

Bull explains the decision to rebrand to INC was driven by a re-evaluation of what connects the member churches together, as well as a need for a fresh new vision and to find greater unity.

“A new chairman came on-board and was adamant that while we appreciate the heritage and value, we draw a line in the sand and start afresh,” Bull says. “It wasn’t about ignoring the past, but embracing the new.”

History versus modernity

It’s the combination of historic roots and understanding the contemporary consumer that Bull believes lies at the heart of another church house's rapid growth. Hillsong Church is a multi-million dollar organisation and one of Australia’s few global brands, with more than 50,000 people attending its campuses every week.

Bull highlighted the ‘tribal community’ nature of Christianity as a key parallel between it and more modern corporate brand successes such as Apple.

“When I look at successful brands like Apple, the key is this idea of helping people to belong,” Bull said. “It’s not about money – money is a byproduct of that. Great brands have great tribes and understand why they exist.

"Recent research into attitudes towards Christianity reveals that the broader community has no issue with Jesus, but people often to take issue with the ‘church’ and some of their views. If we use a market analogy, the ‘church’ is like the shopfront of Christianity.

"Growth has been limited because of the brand issues with the shopfront, despite the general acceptance of its leader. Hillsong and other growing Christian Movements such as International Network of Churches have intentionally set out to re-position ‘the church’ as a place to belong, grow, serve and express faith in a relevant contemporary way… without avoiding the issues."

Bull also compared the church experience of Hillsong to that of entering an Apple Store today. “There is this since of empowerment every time you enter an Apple store, and this sense of belonging,” he commented. “Everyone is talking the same language; the sensory experience of the shopfront is about family and connections.”

the elasticity of brands

One of the dangers of any rebranding is that you can go too far and cross the invisible threshold of what is and isn’t acceptable to the consumer. Bull agreed brands representing faith also needed to stick to an authentic reflection of their values, adding that it’s important to understand who you are and what sits at the core of your beliefs before you go make a raft of new claims to the market.

“The minute you claim to be something that’s too far stretched form reality, people disengage,” he pointed out. “It’s a delicate balance, particularly when rebranding something like a church and Christianity. We have to be careful we don’t become so ‘cool’ and close to popular culture, or let popular culture dilute what makes up our faith and everything around Christianity that Jesus stood for.”

However, just as traditional marketing approaches are evolving as people work their way up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, so too are Christian movements, he said.

“Part of what these growing contemporary churches are doing well is providing an environment for people to work through that personal journey of self-actualisation and a pathway for people to do that,” Bull added. “It ticks so many boxes for people – to belong, to feel part of a community, be able to serve and make a difference.”

A church brand doesn’t live inside the four walls of a building, and relies as much on public participating as other corporate brands do today, Bull admitted. But he also argued brands give consumer the ability to choose one product or service over another.

“If you use an Apple laptop, you’re not going to use an Android phone, or if you drive a Ford, the second car isn’t likely to be a Holden,” Bull continued. “People are tribal. This has been going on for centuries. When I look at brand Christianity and what [Steve] Jobs did with Apple, there are so many similarities in how people have bought into brands and movements. I’m fascinated by that.

“As along as the brand doesn’t dilute what it stands for, and that in this case stands for what it was Christ looked for… and there is a sense of consistency in delivering experience through the church and way people behave, then you can make a choice.”

Ultimately, the role a brand plays is giving consumers the ability to be part of that tribe, and subscribe to that belief system, or choose another one.

“The critical thing is making sure it’s an authentic claim,” Bull said. “In the digital age, you can’t get away with anything, and that’s good. It keeps us all, including brands of faith, on a leash.”

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