The country’s hardest re-brand job

December 2012

There are few things I like more in my work than a real challenge. And although I’ve had many in my time, I often think about different potential clients and the sort of outlandish strategic challenges I could tackle for them. But in the last few weeks I got to thinking about what could be the ultimate brand strategy project: re-branding the Church of England.

So what brought this particular train of thought on? The synod’s bizarre vote against allowing women bishops was pretty much the final straw, but the public’s almost complete lack of interest in the also-recent appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury (bet you can’t even think of the bloke’s name…) was certainly sowing the seeds in my mind.

But before I indulge in my hypothetical outline of what might encompass such a brand strategy project, best we get some basics out the way on brand architecture – i.e. how does the Church of England sit within one.

First off, let’s call the sector the church operates in the ‘religious sector’ (can’t think what else you’d call it). Then think of each of the world’s main religions as different master brands (which they are) – e.g. Christianity, Islam and Hinduism etc. Next level down has to be sub-brands – e.g. within Christianity you’d obviously have Catholicism and Protestantism, and within Islam you’d have Sunni and Shia. After that and as far as the Protestant sub-brand is concerned, it all gets into a bit of an unholy (sorry about that) mess with no end of what can only be described as sub-sub-brands – and the Church of England would fall into that category. Others include the Baptist Church and, if you live in Scotland as I do, an almost infinite number of different sub-sub-brands which, as far as I understand, all came into existence because the folk running the original and fewer versions couldn’t even agree on basic stuff like whether or not it was right to sing in church on a Sunday (I kid you not). But anyway I’m digressing, and hopefully you’ve grasped the thrust of the slightly complex brand architecture thing. And for simplicity and also with brevity in mind, I’ll pass on the technical accuracy of the brand architecture model and just refer to the Church of England as a brand.

So back to the task in hand. Where to start? Well for me that would be a look at the core problems and why the head chap (the Archbishop of Canterbury) had asked me into his plush but somewhat traditional office in the first place, for a cosy chat about how he could get the brand back onto the straight and narrow. I’m not sure we’d see eye-to-eye on every issue we discussed, and no doubt over a decent cup of coffee, but I am pretty confident we’d broadly agree on:

  • The declining market
  • Declining market share in that declining market
  • Declining sales (well, donations)
  • Brand credibility declining – and already off a low base
  • Lack of strategic direction
  • Disillusioned workforce
  • Disillusioned followers
  • Increasing chunk of the real estate becoming empty and redundant
  • Less brand relevance in 2012 than there was in 1712

Of course there would be a temptation to simply point out that we were basically dealing with a sinking ship scenario here (could have put ‘ark’ just there but that would have been childish…), but I somewhat doubt that would be fine organ music to the main man’s ears – and I do like to keep clients happy.

So I guess where we’d probably end up is that I’d recommend that I initially have a good look at the brand’s values, how the brand differentiated its offer from the key competitors, then try and wrap the whole thing up in one of those handy brand diagrams I’m so damn good at, then he’d then go off and sell it all to the masses. Well, perhaps not quite ‘masses’ as there are rather fewer interested in the brand and the sector it operates in than there used to be, but no doubt still enough to make the exercise worthwhile (and you can never rule out the odd convert of course).

Moving onto brand values then, I’m currently thinking the following collection might be appropriate to make some headway with…

Provenance – but actually I already sense we’d be off to a tricky start here, as all the research I’ve done to date seems to point to the obvious conclusion that there isn’t any. So by that I mean nothing you could actually say to potential customers was an actual fact and the very reason the original master brand was established in the first place. And if there’s one thing consumers don’t like in our social media age it’s being lied to, so I think best that we’d largely gloss-over the provenance idea.

History – ah history – could be onto something here and there’s obviously bags of it going back five thousand years or more (okay not the Church of England, but there is in the first section of its brand manual – the Old Testament). But hang on… all the brand’s history – both ancient and more modern – I know about seems to be about war, genocide, intended human suffering, persecution, intolerance and bigotry – and they’re mainly the less ugly things the brand has been associated with over the centuries. Oh well, let’s not make history too central to the brand strategy going forward then.

Inclusive – well it is inclusive now isn’t it and even if it wasn’t a few hundred years back? Ummm… well not quite I guess, as, for one, the brand doesn’t seem to like women very much – certainly in the upper-echelons of the brand’s management team. And then there’s that ever-tricky subject of gays and, more tricky still, gay marriage. Right, let’s not make inclusive part of that brand model after all.

High moral values – surely we’d be onto a winner here wouldn’t we? Okay the paedophilia thing is a bit of an embarrassment to the brand and the fact that so many of the senior management seem to get implicated, but other than that they’re a pretty clean and decent lot aren’t they? I’d have to commission some qualitative research to really dig deep on this one, but having just taken a break from writing and having done a quick bit of research on the web, it seems that the Humanists win hands down when it comes to moral values. Oh well, so much for the old ‘do gooder’ saying we had as kids for those that went to church.

A say in how the country is run – this one seems very much like a central value for the brand and one which stretches back many centuries, but also now a pretty odd one given the flaws in the values above, the fact that the UK is moving towards a secular society, and also the obvious fact that there are other brands operating in the same sector who would also like more of a say – our Muslim friends, for example. But maybe this one could actually be turned to advantage within the re-brand, by saying that the Church of England will have less say, or, perhaps better still, no say at all – e.g. do away with the bishops who automatically get a seat in the House of Lords. Now that could actually be a cunning plan to get the public thinking of the brand as a good thing once again!

So how about differentiation from the competition? Differentiation is arguably the essence of branding, and certainly something we wouldn’t miss out defining for this brand. Well I guess there are differences in some of the beliefs, but it already strikes me that this is all in the detail – I mean you either believe in the ‘guy in the sky’ or you don’t. After that, and perhaps I’m unfairly generalising here, but it all seems to be about the ‘lesser of two evils’ – e.g. less likely to start a war, less misogynous (very much in a relative sense…), a bit less bigoted, a bit less trusting in the meaning of every detail in a book written in an age of pre-science over 2000 years ago. But even then of course, delivering a consistent brand message is completely undermined by the extremists in the management team who really do take every word literally from that same brand manual. And that IS a tricky old argument to sell to Jo Public, because even the dimmest of consumers is going to question the sanity of someone telling them, for example, that the earth was created in under a week and just five thousand years ago by a supernatural being that we’ve had no sight or sound of since.

But I’m playing here, because there would of course really only be one possible way of tackling this most daunting of re-brand jobs: take the view from the outset that the brand is entirely built on myth and superstition, and therefore no point in telling folk otherwise. So come clean on the whole damn deception, tell the people how it really is, but, of course, still leave the door open to those that find comfort in the concept of faith and enjoy the social element of meeting up with friends and like-minded colleagues on a Sunday morning – and nothing wrong at all with that in my view. And honesty really would be the only way to tackle the job, because the most effective branding is built around a set of values which are both true and believable, and therefore folk buy into them.

Related to the last point, and I’m putting my even more serious brand hat on here, there’s also a point to be made – albeit a rather obvious one – and that is that in an age of science and one where factual information is available to anyone with even just a smart phone in their hand, there’s nowhere to hide for a brand which is patently trying to pull the wool over the eyes of consumers – or at least, that is, consumers who have both a basic education and are of a sound mind.

That all said, I’m not sure the head poncho would buy my argument and, even if he did, it would take another hundred years for his management team and flock to debate it, argue over it, fall-out over it, and perhaps, just perhaps, finally buy into the new and truthful concept. But by that time not only would his brand be dead, but I suspect the sector it operates in would also be long gone and confined to history.

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