Book Review: Branded Nation by James B. Twitchell
James B. Twitchell, The Marketing of Megachurch, College Ing. and Museumworld (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).
If you could think of three words to describe your church, which ones would you choose?
Comfortable? Casual? Relevant?
Church websites, bulletins, signage and ministry programs are all a part of the 'brand' message of today's church. But what's involved in this process of branding and what is its impact on the church?
James B. Twitchell, a professor of English and Marketing at the University of Florida, wrote Branded Nation (Simon and Schuster, 2004) to highlight the marketing techniques of institutions that have been generally perceived as standing outside of the realm of commodities and services. These 'public good' institutions, cerebral and dignified - beacons of virtue and purity in a world of gimmicks and slogans - are participants in a show business of their own.
In particular, Twitchell studies churches, colleges and museums to show that all culture, high and low, "comes to us through a commercial process of story-telling called branding."(2) His bold conclusion is that "it's just the illusion of not marketing that we need to dispense with."(3) With an engaging style and strong examples, Twitchell makes his case that the purveyors of high culture are actively engaged in consumer-driven branding that mimic the sales techniques of commerce.
Chapter 2, One Market Under God: The Churching of Brands, is the most interesting part of the book for a seminarian like myself. His central premise is that "all religions offer the same transaction. They exchange the meaning of life for some investment by the believer. A story in exchange for attention is the quid pro quo" (48). The story teller is marketing epiphanies and self-discovery within the context of a community of 'brand' converts (53). "Although the market for religion hasn't shrunk", he writes, "the market share is changing all the time" (59). Twitchell uses the example of the Episcopal Church (poor brand managers) and Willow Creek Community Church ("the Next Thing in Protestantism - the low-cost discounter of epiphanic community") to demonstrate the market forces at work within churches (91).
The maddening thing about a book like this is the way Twitchell runs roughshod over the distinctive doctrinal characteristics of denominations within Protestantism. The divisions are made to appear as arbitrary efforts to create a stable market of 'consumers' who become brand loyalists. Still, the book is a fascinating tour of religious patterns in America though it's certainly not a precise science. Further,Twitchell's cynicism towards the need for salvation manifests itself in his cavalier approach to 'epiphany' which becomes the emotional product of religion in his view (76). He finds validation in the truism that "We need the gods more than the gods need us" (70) and that's why we allow ourselves to become a part of this religious marketplace. This 'enlightened' pagan worldview necessarily results in distorted pictures of the central tenets of the Christian faith.
Twitchell's latter chapters (Higher Ed, Inc.; Museumworld; & When All Business is Show Business, What's Next?) are a useful cultural analysis of the fields of education and art that follow the basic path he takes when analyzing religion. However, the chapter on religion (Chapter 2) is the most valuable section of the book in my mind because it raises many hard questions; questions we would do well to consider. What does our branding say about us? Are we responsible for the commercialisation of church? Is high-church comparable to an organic food store while low-church is comparable to a Food For Less approach? While discussing Willow Creek, he writes:
Remember how banks and colleges used to look like Gothic churches? Think Yale, University of Chicago, or Princeton. Now churches look like branch banks - the revenge of marketing (92).
Twitchell uses the basic tools of branding as a segueway into his effort to 'unmask' high culture and the use of standard marketing tools to increase market share in 'undifferentiated markets' that offer the same service and/or product.
I would recommend Branded Nation to readers who want to learn more about church marketing without having to bring in brand consultants and hair stylists. The book is provocative and useful for questioning your own assumptions about the practices we undertake. Within the Reformed community we can be quick to throw darts at the so-called 'seeker-friendly' approaches of the megachurches. But do we know what our own weaknesses are? How we've been compromised or how we might be confusing a watching world? In my opinion, the section on The Megachurch: Brand Central of the Next New Thing (80-108) is the most insightful piece of the book as it calls attention to the syncretism of the megachurch and way in which the pursuit of religious sensation has altered American Christianity.
Twitchell's presuppositions regarding religious experiences and theology shape this book extensively, and the cynicism I described earlier may turn some people off. Nonetheless, it is a useful cultural commentary and a useful entry into the world of branding that affects us on a day to day basis. Twitchell's closing words are indicative of the overall tone of the book:
"Who knows? Maybe marketing meaning, status, and belief like so much soap and toothpaste to be moved off the shelf will be more equitable and, ironically, more stabilizing than previous systems. The risk, of course, is that you can't get this toothpaste back in the tube. Once the merchants have entered these temples, things are never going to be the same" (301).
Comfortable, casual, and relevant - today's equivalents to Icy Fresh Mint or Cinnamon Rush?
Norman Van Eeden Petersman