The Right Time for Re-Branding
By: Richard Reising
A minister friend recently shared with me his visit to a struggling church that had reached out to him for help. He commented on how they were doing so many things "right," including attractive environments, a strong greeting team, quality worship, clear-spoken leadership, plenty of visitors…yet all the while they have been struggling for years to see growth. He knew the pastor personally—a very smart man who had left a successful career to get his masters in ministry before leading his family across the country to build this church. This church, doing so many things right, was on the brink.
Over coffee, my friend began to share with me his ideas for what was "wrong" with this church. He cited website issues, church naming and tag-lining issues, and a few other brand-related miscues. His insight into the church's communication was astute and valid. There was definitely vast room for improvement. He began to share his ideas for how to fix it by re-branding. I shuddered.
I shuddered because deep down I knew the issue was not a branding one. Bad branding is very, very rarely the reason for lack of traction. It is, however, a symptom of a church that has a deeper challenge. This is the kind of scenario that I see often. For well over a decade now, my job has taken me to churches around the globe to analyze, diagnose, and prescribe change that creates health and momentum.
Back in the early 2000s, a church had called and asked us to design a mailer for them for an upcoming sermon series. We sent out a single, 10,000 piece mailer that worked quite well. That might be an understatement. It yielded just at 300 first-time guests. It was a grand slam. In our follow up with the church a few months later, the pastor shared with me that he felt that there was a problem with the mailer. It totally caught me off guard to hear his logic. He mentioned that of the 300 guests who had come, almost none of them had come back. He had determined that the mailer that brought them there was the issue.
Let's chew on that by looking at it from another angle. If I had a pizza place and sent out a coupon that brought in hundreds of new diners but realized that over 90% of them never returned, would you deem that I have a problem with my promotion, or that maybe, just maybe, I have a pizza problem? A restaurant with less than 10% diner retention goes out of business.
A church with less than 10% visitor retention is the norm. And the problem is not with the promotion or branding. It is a deeper problem. It is in an area we call "engagement." Engagement deals with three core areas: 1) visitor retention (simply put, "Do they come back?"), 2) assimilation (fancy word for getting people to go deeper: membership, groups, volunteering, etc.), and 3) advocacy (do they invite others). If we are not engaging people, no amount of branding will help—as a matter of fact, it might very well hurt.
Engagement issues are the biggest. They reveal the deeper problem: that we are not passing the people test. What are the signs that we are failing the people test? Guests are not coming back. People are not going deeper. Regulars are not actively inviting their friends.
Most underperforming churches are not merely missing in the area of branding; they are failing in areas of engagement. What's worse is that tens of thousands of dollars are spent re-branding our churches, only to intrigue a new round of visitors to walk in our doors and see the real issue. They don't come back and our struggles deepen.
This stuff is not taught in Bible college. Several years ago, I sat down with a doctoral student at Dallas Theological Seminary who interviewed me regarding his doctoral thesis on church brand development. His brilliantly written thesis had a fatal flaw—it omitted that re-branding should only take place after organic momentum has been generated. To simply re-brand a church when it has not found its traction is generally just an indication to the community that nothing else is working and in our last ditch attempt, we're changing our style and/or name in order to reinvent ourselves.
Branding done right is not a "fix." It is a swagger. It is a well-communicated sense of self built on a confidence that comes from successfully engaging people. Here’s the deal: if we aren’t currently engaging people right where they are, no amount of branding/design can solve our problem. Re-branding without momentum is kind of like dressing up for the prom and forgetting to court a date.
Engagement is about getting back to the basics and re-learning to connect effectively with people right where they live. It often requires us to recommit to the value of the unchurched who might be lost, walking in our doors (Luke 15:4). Great engagement has the lost sheep in mind in everything it does. It considers them in environments, signage, greeting, programming, worship, ministry, and processes. Great engagement walks the line of delivering uncompromising biblical truth with a people savvy that works for everyone to grasp it.
If we realize we have an engagement challenge, it is not time to be discouraged. It is time to be introspective. It is time for prayer. It is time to get insight from trusted advisors. Recognizing the changes that have to be made is not enough. We have to implement change wisely for the sake of both the congregation that is and is to come.
In the end, if we are not engaging people that come through our doors in a way that causes them to come back and bring others, no amount of branding can create a long-term fix. If we do have natural momentum, however, the right brand can be a catalyst to new levels of growth. The question is, "Is it the right time for re-branding?"
Richard Reising is the president of Artistry Labs, a firm that works with churches, ministries, and smart companies to improve their engagement, branding, and technology. He is also the author of Church Marketing 101—Preparing your church for greater growth. For more information, visit www.ArtistryLabs.com.