A Lesson for Church Leaders From a Brand Strategist

You may not think of your church as a “brand,” but thinking this way helps you shape your vision, properly equip your team and identify advocates of your church.

My friend Krysta Masciale is a brand strategist here in Los Angeles who works daily with major corporations helping them connect to customers more effectively. She’s also a wife and mom who serves at Radius Church in North Hollywood. Her passion is to reconnect people to the heart and soul of a brand through truth, clarity and focus so that being a replica is no longer an option. I asked her how she would advise church leaders from a branding perspective on the difference between church-goers who just “show up” and church-goers who become passionate advocates. Here’s what she said:

Krysta: A few weeks ago, I had a disappointing experience with a brand I’ve loved for years. In fact, saying it was a disappointment would be modest. Within an hour, my experience with three different employees severed a trust that had been built over the course of six years. As a brand strategist, I started to wonder: Are there clear reasons a brand would be willing to lose one of their long-time loyalists? Are there tiers of customers that place a heavier priority on a brand advocate versus a fan or a first time customer? Are brands doing enough to equip their employees so everyone knows the answers to these questions?

As a Christian, I couldn’t help but think about all the ways I’ve had disappointing experiences with the church and, particularly, with leaders and volunteers. Are we doing enough to be clear about what we stand for, effectively equipping our teams and letting people go who are just waiting for us to fail?

According to my recent encounter, my guess is that we still aren’t doing enough to educate our employees or volunteer and invest in the brand’s culture. I’m hoping I can make the repercussions of losing a brand advocate clear and offer insight on the emotional responsibility brands have to the people they serve.

Let’s first begin with the difference between a customer, a fan and a brand advocate.

1. Customer

You’re still earning the trust of a customer. And to be honest, it goes both ways. They’re trying to figure out if the experience you provide is consistent and meets their needs before committing. You’re trying to figure out if this customer is going to respect what you have to offer or consistently ask that you compromise who you are in order to meet demands you had no intention of meeting when you set out to do business. While the relationship may be long-term and amicable, there is still a limit on both sides of what they’re willing to invest in the relationship. If someone else is doing it cheaper, better, faster, a customer isn’t going to lose sleep going to the competition’s corner.

2. Fan

They like the idea of you but aren’t in a position to speak from authority about the experience you provide because it’s a one-sided relationship. Fans are difficult to distinguish from advocates in the social media age because they will talk about you and associate with you when it’s convenient. But if you look at the investment they’ve made in the relationship, they’re likely not the ones keeping your brand in business.

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3. Advocates

They are loyalists. They stand up for you when the competition puts out a superior products and they ride the waves of evolution with you. Advocates have skin in the game. They’re regulars. You know one another’s names. They’re a part of the fabric of why you created your brand to begin with.

To get someone to the level of loyalty an advocate has takes commitment. It takes consistency. It takes clarity of vision and unilateral permission to act on that vision from the top down, no matter what. When a customer or a fan becomes an advocate, the shift goes from a transaction to a relationship. Both the brand and the advocate begin to trust one another and the marriage begins. They can depend on one another. They know how the other operates. They feel compelled to go the extra mile to make sure they know how much the other means to them. These relationships can last decades, even lifetimes.

Your grandma is probably using the same brand of laundry detergent because that detergent showed up for her decades ago and never failed her or her family. Now, every time she opens a bottle, she is taken back to a time when her house was full babies and toddlers and your grandpa was healthy. Sure, it’s just laundry detergent. But to her, it’s one of her longest relationships. And even if you don’t use it, when she’s no longer with you, the smell of that detergent will bring you to your knees at Target.

The power in the brand / brand advocate relationship is that it transcends generations because anyone who knew the advocate can’t think of them without thinking too of the brand.

For someone to advocate for a brand (especially a church), they are willingly agreeing, without payment, to put their name on an experience they can’t control but have come to trust. They trust it so much, they tell the people they love to trust it without giving it a second thought. They invest their resources first into what you’re creating and are thoughtful about their purchasing decisions if it means they get to have one more experience with you. If this goes on for long enough, in a bizarre way, you begin to feel so familiar, it’s like you’re a person to them. You’re not clothing, you’re not a machine, you aren’t just any old fabric softener: you’re theirs. And I would argue this is our moral obligation as leaders of church brands: to become real people to those we serve, not just fancy productions and craft coffee in the lobby.

If this all seems dramatic, I can assure you, it is. And that’s what makes these relationships so potent.

So what happens when a brand breaks its promise? What happens when they don’t deliver on the experience they’ve been known for?

The initial response will be absolute understanding. “Of course, no one is perfect! It’s ok! Let’s solve this together!” They’ll say. When the broken promise is brought to the company’s attention and they don’t rectify it immediately or they make it difficult for the advocate to get the experience they had come to believe in, they can expect some fairly irrational behavior. The advocate is going to be caught off guard. They’re going to feel manipulated, betrayed and even stupid for having trusted the brand to begin with because, after all, this is just a company. This isn’t a real person. And in that initial cocktail of feelings, if they are left hanging for any period of time … be prepared for war.

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Advocates who have been betrayed will seem like crazed ex-lovers. They will throw your product all over their lawns and blast you on their social media platforms. They will question whether they should burn everything you’ve ever given them just so they aren’t reminded of your betrayal. The unfortunate thing about this when it comes to church is that it’s never just your name they smear, it’s the entire movement of Christ. Sound malicious? Sound like maybe you dodged a bullet having them in your camp? Maybe. But those emotions are based on a broken promise and set of expectations you created. So really, you’re the one who created a monster and for what? To save a few dollars? I sincerely hope that’s not the reason because there is plenty of data to support the ROI for good customer service … even in faith communities.

The point is, brand advocates, are your biggest asset. They aren’t paid to like you. In fact, they pay you because they love what you’re doing for them and their communities. They’re paying a premium to experience you over someone else who may look very similar but just doesn’t do it the same way you do.

And when they use their lifestyles and platforms as living, breathing billboards for your brand, dishonoring them by turning a relationship into a transaction is the best way to tell all other advocates that they too are replaceable.

My suggestion to all brands is to know what you’re willing to lose a brand advocate for. When you know that, I hope the reason is so consistent to all your other behaviors and decisions that it’s no surprise to either party why you’ve decided to go your separate ways. If the reason doesn’t match, my guess is that there’s no end to the creative ways in which your advocate will use their platform to warn others that you are no longer who you say you are.

Phil Cooke is an internationally known writer and speaker. Through his company Cooke Pictures in Burbank, California, he’s helped some of the largest nonprofit organizations and leaders in the world use media to tell their story. This article was originally published on Cooke’s blog at PhilCooke.com.