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Branding Jesus

Church attendance is in decline. This has given birth to many articles and think pieces exploring why churches are shrinking, and has prompted many churches to increase their efforts at evangelism. While spreading the good news is obviously more than this, it is definitely marketing. Church leaders and those concerned about keeping churches alive seek to promote the Jesus “brand” in ways that are relevant and compelling to modern audiences.

Some may cringe at the use of the word brand in this context. I do not mean to imply that Jesus is a commodity, nor that his mystery and other attributes can be reduced to a commodity. What I am talking about is the idea of Jesus — his description, his message, his demeanor — as understood by individuals who encounter him and those of us who represent him.

We live in an age of social media, when many people have a certain brand — the style and imagery of their posts, the type of content they share, the tone of their online voice, even who they choose to include as friends and followers. Likewise, when people think of Jesus, each of us has an image of him along those lines (appearance, content, messaging, and with whom he associates). For people charged with representing Jesus to the world, brand is a pretty relevant word.

While recent forays into reclaiming the branding of Jesus — including the “He Gets Us” campaign during the Super Bowl and the increasing visibility of Christian movies such as Jesus Revolution, have been spearheaded by evangelical groups — larger questions remain for those who want to reach an audience for Christ. The largest question, as different groups try to define and promote Jesus, is this: In the midst of so many different expressions of Christianity, which image of Jesus is right? Does any group own the Jesus brand? How does our idea of Jesus’ brand affect our efforts at evangelism?

In my life as a marketer, I have come to realize that branding is one of the most important parts of assuring that a commodity or service is truly differentiated and stands apart from other commodities and services in the mind of the customer. Creative agencies spend a lot of time, money, and effort defining brands, targeting the audience, and delivering compelling messages that change the hearts and minds of those potential customers. Contemporary marketers have even adopted the language of the Church when they talk about being brand “evangelists” who “convert” customers to certain brands.

In the work of the Church, evangelistic practice is not limited to marketing — ultimately, the Church is not a business. The Church is its own entity, which is not so easily defined. And the reality is, sharing the mystery of what the Church is takes a whole host of intertwined practices — everything from outdoor lighting and signage to community presence to the way visitors are greeted when they walk in the door.

The work of a Church evangelist differs in many ways from a brand evangelist. But in this modern era, when people are under a barrage of messages from every angle, having an identifiable, relatable, and easily communicated brand and message can be a big help in breaking through the noise.

One of the most important aspects of branding is that a brand is singular and different from others in the category. It may be hard to pinpoint exactly what aspects differentiate consumer products like Coke and Pepsi, but countless hours have gone into developing different character descriptions for both brands.

A Subaru driver may be seen as someone young, outdoorsy, and family-oriented, while an Audi driver may be seen as successful, ambitious, and dedicated to quality experiences. So it goes with many brands in the consumer space, which allows us to say certain things about ourselves: whether we drink working man’s coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts or premium fancy coffee at Starbucks, or whether we shop at Old Navy, the Gap, or Banana Republic (all owned by the same parent company, but offering very different brand experiences).

Likewise, the church that wants to draw an audience to church and to discover Christ must find a singular way to define Jesus, and one that allows people to define themselves through the Jesus they worship. Is it a strict, moralistic Jesus? A Jesus focused on social justice and climate change? A mystical, cosmic Jesus? A practical, working-class Jesus? A manly Jesus? An LGBTQ+-inclusive Jesus? White Jesus? Black Jesus? Asian Jesus?

A marketer will define Jesus out of the gate as a clearly differentiated and well-defined entity, not only separate from other religious figures, but also separate from other images of Jesus that compete for space and voice in the crowded marketplace. In an advertising agency, this usually starts with a “positioning statement,” which describes the brand by how it stands out among competitors, what promise it makes to customers, and what the end benefit is for those customers.

What would the positioning statement for Jesus look like? In the “He Gets Us” campaign, one can reconstruct what that positioning statement might look like. The first step would be looking at the competitive set, and defining how this Jesus stands out in the crowd. It might be tempting to say that Jesus is competing against other gods. In this case, I think Jesus is being pitted against himself.

According to the Pew Research Center, people with “no religious affiliation” (nones) now outnumber churchgoers for the first time in American history. To these nones we can add dones — people who have left the church. Among the reasons that nones and dones give for not being affiliated with the church are problems within the church, including perceived hypocrisy and lack of acceptance. Whatever messages those churches broadcast, potential members hear the message that Jesus is intolerant, lacks understanding, and turns away from the problems of this contemporary world.

The Jesus of “He Gets Us” is competing against other versions of Jesus. Instead of judge or savior, the Jesus of “He Gets Us” feels more like a partner, helper, or friend. Instead of a broad message to a general audience, this ad feels positioned for people who are compassionate about world issues, including racism, immigration, and the effects of cancel culture on free speech.

The core of the ad is the promise. This is not a distant or uncaring Jesus who is too far off in heaven to worry about today’s world. This is a Jesus who has experiences like ours. This Jesus was an immigrant. He was poor. He was judged wrongly by a powerful system. He was “canceled” for what he said and did. Hence, Jesus gets us because he cares about the same things we do.

It is not entirely clear in these ads what the end benefit of this Jesus is for the customers. However, digging into the background of these ads, and the very traditional evangelical forces financing them, one can assume that the promise and “call to action” are similar to what one would see in a standard evangelistic tract or sermon: salvation, commitment to Jesus, a change in behavior based on this new relationship with Christ. I wish the ad were clearer on this point, for transparency’s sake, rather than inviting customers to explore the website and learn more once one is entangled in the associated “lore” that accompanies the ad.

These ads have been criticized from multiple sides. Progressives argue that the organizations behind the ads are playing a kind of bait-and-switch by presenting a Jesus concerned with the marginalized, then supporting organizations and policies that restrict the rights of minority groups, including the LGBTQ+ community. Conservatives argue that the ads are too woke in representing a Jesus who is more concerned with worldly issues.

Will the real Jesus please stand up?

Throughout history, presenting the most accurate portrait of Jesus has been a concern, since all the way back when the apostles Peter, John, and Paul argued about how to present Jesus, his life, and his work. Even then, Paul knew that having multiple, opposing pictures of Jesus would water down the brand:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you but that you be knit together in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been made clear to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? … For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel—and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. (1 Cor. 1:10-13, 17)

From there, the branding of Jesus has undergone countless changes. When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the state religion, he changed Christianity into a household brand overnight; a modern parallel is how Google took over and pushed every other search engine to the margins of the market, or how Amazon became the largest retailer and revolutionized shopping. The market told us who the leading brand was, and customers followed.

In the West, the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy maintained the Jesus brand for 1,500 years, commissioning art, music, and architecture that carried the message to the masses. The Protestant Reformation changed the brand again, in a move reminiscent of how modern media company Netflix surprised the world by developing its own content. As the Reformation created dozens, then hundreds, and finally thousands of denominations worldwide, the Netflix revolution has now blessed (or cursed) us with dozens of different pay-to-view TV offerings that are far from the monolithic offerings of cable.

In the modern world, there are countless competing expressions of Christ, divided along doctrinal, theological, and ideological lines. With so many expressions of Jesus — all of them at least partially supported by Scripture and tradition, as well as the faithful contemplation and prayer of their individual members — how are we to think of the Jesus brand? How do we know which one is right, if we want to buy in to one? How do we choose which Jesus we are selling if we are evangelizing?

For potential customers of church advertising, I recommend discernment. While one can take a verse here or there to support almost any image of Jesus, one has to take Scripture into account. Is this Jesus good? Is his message good news? Does he witness well with your soul? Would he get you in trouble with the religious authorities of the first century? Does he reflect the self-sacrificing love of God?

For those promoting Jesus: hold on loosely to narrower images of Jesus. Jesus is a lot of things to a lot of people, and putting too fine a point on any particular aspect of Jesus risks omitting other key aspects of Jesus. For instance, too much focus on personal salvation can miss the point of helping the poor, widows, and prisoners here on earth. A church focused entirely on a social mission may miss the otherworldliness and mystery of God.

If there is any particular feature of Jesus that an evangelist may want to focus on, it seems to me that it would be love:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

If we are following a Jesus who is not based in love, we may be following an off-brand Jesus. That is a much bigger mistake than wearing the wrong brand of sneakers or drinking the wrong soda. This may be what Jesus means when he says:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. … I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me.” (Matt. 7:21-23)

So let us be the ones who act in love, having been transformed by our relationship with Jesus, and know by that love that we are following the “real thing.”

Kelly Wilson is an advertising copywriter and theology scholar. After over 25 years writing ads on Madison Avenue, he currently leads Ready Writer (www.readywriter.nyc), marketing brands committed to physical and spiritual health. He is also the co-host of the Radical Love Live podcast and was formerly on the staff of NYC’s Cathedral of St John the Divine. More of his writings are featured at www.kellywilson.com.



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