Excerpted from “Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media” (Regal, © 2012)
Whenever my company brands a nonprofit and ministry client, we take them through an extensive branding and identity process that helps us determine their brand story. We ask these questions: What is the ultimate expression of the particular church, ministry, pastor or spiritual leader? As a nonprofit, what’s your ultimate expression of mission? What are you here to accomplish? What is the brand story you want to communicate to your congregation, donors, television viewers, online audience, readers or customers? What is their current perception of you or your organization?
In other words, What do they think of when they think of you?
In these sessions, we always want to be sensitive and compassionate. Successful ministry in the twenty-first century is a complex enterprise; and in a postmodern culture, a thriving outreach is contingent on a number of issues, not the least of which is the grace of God.
I obviously have no control over the client’s personal calling or relationship with God. So we concentrate on the aspects we can control and focus on the issues that tell the story most effectively. Our purpose is to discover the story or identity that makes the client different and sets the organization apart.
I’d like to help you do the same. So, if terms like “marketing” or “branding” are still uncomfortable for you, I would encourage you to read on and give it a little time. But from this point on, I’ll assume that we’re on the same page, and our goal is to determine how to tell the most effective story about who you are; what your idea, business or ministry is about; and how that vision can impact people’s lives.
The Branding Focus
In the religious or nonprofit world, when I work with a particular pastor or ministry leader, it’s usually in the context of a media outreach. Our company, Cooke Pictures, produces programming and consults with some of the largest churches and ministries in the country on how to improve their effectiveness in the media. The consultation could be a project with television, radio, a website, print or social media, or other emerging platforms. Our passion is reaching an audience, and we’re usually called in when a media ministry has hit a plateau or is having difficulty reaching the next level.
In many cases, we choose to focus much of our efforts on the pastor or ministry leader, not just the church or ministry itself. If your church is in Dallas, and your market is local, then you can focus your marketing efforts on how your church impacts that city. But with a national or international outreach—particularly through media—your viewers or listeners outside Dallas—in places like Los Angeles or Miami—will probably never visit your church; they’re interested in what they see on television, short films, on the Web or podcasts, hear on radio, engage through social media, or read in your books. Perhaps they’ll listen to your message streamed online. Especially when it comes to preaching and teaching ministries, in most cases we’ve discovered that people tune in to hear the pastor’s teaching; so, in branding a national media ministry, we usually focus on the personality that leads that ministry.
The Cultural Reality of Celebrity
Today, some national ministry leaders have become “stars” to the point that they’re forced to fly in private jets because they get mobbed at airports. I saw one very vocal woman grab a well-known pastor by the arm in the produce section of a grocery store and loudly beg for his autograph. It was humiliating for the pastor and his family, not to mention just plain strange for the other shoppers. While most people criticize these leaders, it’s the general public that has created the phenomenon. Much like entertainment celebrities in Hollywood, the Christian community has bought into the concept of celebrity in a big way.
I was in a meeting recently with a major ministry figure who happens to be a best-selling author. He’s so successful in selling books that the publisher was pushing him to create a series of novels. This particular ministry leader doesn’t read novels, doesn’t care for novels and has no desire to write a novel. But his readership is so loyal that they would buy anything with his name on it.
So they decided to look for fictional storylines, hire a ghostwriter (a professional writer who writes books for other people), and then have the ministry leader put his name on the finished novel. I’m sure the sales will go through the roof.
This is the dark side of branding. It’s done all the time in the secular world. (Do you really think most professional athletes, politicians or movie stars write well?) But when it happens in the religious world, it’s a little disconcerting, to say the least.
Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater
I passionately believe in branding, but it can be abused. At my online blog at philcooke.com, these conversations happen on a regular basis, and the debate and discussions often get pretty passionate in both directions. But just as we don’t stop taking an offering at church because some pastors take financial advantage of people, neither do we dump marketing and branding because some choose to use it for manipulation.
Christian celebrity is a fact of life, and we can’t control that. So we need to move beyond it to understand the purpose of branding and marketing. I choose to brand a pastor or ministry leader in most cases, particularly when the goal is to create a national media outreach. I tend to brand the pastor or ministry leader to some degree even when marketing on the local level. In a perfect world, people would come to your church for a multitude of reasons—children’s ministry, youth programs, missions, worship, community. But in reality, most people first experience a church because of what they hear in the pulpit.
If your church or ministry is in Atlanta, people in Des Moines, Tulsa or Birmingham will probably never come to your church; so focusing on the music, worship or community will mean very little to them. They’re usually looking for your personal ministry, and that’s why we focus on you. Examples of compelling personal ministries might be pastors like Greg Laurie, Joel Osteen, Benny Perez, Charles Jenkins, David McGee, Mark Jeske, Craig Groeschel, James McDonald, Kyle Searcy, Erwin McManus, Jack Graham, Gary Keesee, or John MacArthur. All of these leaders have vibrant local churches, but viewers or listeners outside their geographical area are more interested in their personal teaching or preaching ministries through print, TV, radio or online.
Recently, I visited a church that was voting on calling a new pastor. The church board was supporting a candidate who was highly organized, a great manager and was excellent with people. He had long experience as an administrator, and from that perspective, he was an excellent choice. The only sticky problem was that he was completely inept in the pulpit. His sermons were dry, he couldn’t tell stories well and he was embarrassed and awkward on the platform. It was so bad that even loyal members of the congregation were visibly uncomfortable watching him preach.
The board, being concerned about the whole picture, was more than willing to overlook his lack of skill in the pulpit and focus on his abilities managing the church. In a perfect world, that might work. Certainly there are many things that contribute to the worship experience, and the 40-minute message on Sunday shouldn’t overpower all the other gifts and talents in a pastor’s arsenal.
But I felt compelled to remind them that if church growth was a concern, they should rethink their direction. After all, our experience indicates that the Sunday morning service is the main entry portal for the vast majority of people who visit. Who wants to bring a friend to hear a pastor who can’t preach? The 40-minute message on Sunday morning may seem like a small part of the overall experience, but in most cases, it’s the pastor in the pulpit who casts the vision for the church, motivates the congregation and inspires growth.
This church didn’t take my advice, and since that time, the church has been wonderfully managed but attendance has dramatically declined.
I met another pastor who was a wonderful man, but he was one of the worst preachers I’ve ever met. He loved God and was great with people, but he was simply a catastrophe in the pulpit. As a result, he had been the pastor of 18 churches in his 21 years of ministry. He kept getting asked to leave because he simply couldn’t preach. I was fascinated to find out how long it would take him to realize that perhaps preaching was not his gift.
This book isn’t about bad preaching. My point is that while at the local level there are certainly different points of view and various possibilities for branding, one thing I’ve discovered is that the pastor or ministry leader is the hub of the brand. Everything else revolves around his or her role.
The digital culture has dramatically changed how we communicate.
I may take some flak for that thinking, and to be honest, I personally don’t like it either. But that’s another example of the changes we need to make to reach an audience in a media-driven world. We first must understand how people initially connect and then develop our branding and identity from there.
Another important reason the pastor or ministry leader is a critical key to branding is that in the media, people ultimately want a relationship with a person—not a program, a building or a ministry. This is one of the key reasons for the explosion of social media. So in order to develop fund-raising, partnership or mission, focusing on the leader is key.