Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Brand Loyalty

I've been reading this book, The Divine Commodity by Skye Jethani, off an on recently. It's an interesting book, looking at how we've institutionalized and commodified the gospel - he also brings into the discussion, the life, art, and theology of Vincent Van Gogh to illustrate his points, both literally and figuratively, in fascinating ways.

The chapter I read this morning talked about brand loyalty. Beginning with a look at the history of corporations in the US and the way they gained personhood shortly after the Civil War, he traces the movement of our lives from relationships with people to experiences managed by corporations. We don't have tailors, doctors, grocers, etc anymore - we've got Old Navy, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Costco, etc. We no longer interact with people in relationships, but with corporations who have personified themselves in logos and brands. Image has become essential to our understanding of interaction in all aspects of life.

I tend to be very brand loyal. I blame it on my OCD tendencies. We remained with T-mobile for the two years we lived in NJ even though we couldn't get a cell signal inside our house. I feel guilty when I tell people I abandoned Apple just when it was getting popular. We own two Hyundai Elantras.

I remember (maybe its still current) the big wars between Chevy and Ford truck owners in the 90's - arguing over what amounted to near identical vehicles. GAP, Inc has an ingenious plan - they open a new "discount" chain every few years, where people can get trendy clothes on the cheap. First it was GAP, then Banana Republic, then Old Navy. People get tied to the brand and remain loyal even as the prices go up and its no longer trendy or discount.

As Jethani says, "Starbucks doesn't want you to buy coffee, they want you to buy their coffee."

I got to thinking about this idea of depersonalization and corporate branding in light of some of the discussions happening in my own denomination. The Church of the Nazarene has seen rapid growth in the past thirty years mostly by bending over backwards to welcome people in. We've done a great job of branding ourselves as a warm, welcoming place to seek after God. Not a bad idea. The problem is, we've now got several dozen different regional, social, political, and theological understandings of exactly what that brand means.

We get into heated debates and petty arguments over doctrine, scriptural interpretation, social norms, charitable work, political engagement, and the like, each claiming a deep connection to being "real Nazarenes." Like that old parable - everyone is looking at a different part of the elephant - and we'd rather rip it limb from limb than give ground to somebody else.

I wonder if Jethani hit on a simple solution. If the branding problem really arose because we've replaced personal connection with impersonal logos, brands, and institutions - then isn't the solution to bring people together? If we're really dealing with people, with each other, rather than nameless, faceless ideas - brands, whose feelings can't be hurt and who are incapable of nuance, then perhaps we can begin to reclaim some of our essence.

I frequent the local hardware store, driving by both Lowe's and Home Depot to get there. We buy produce from a farm down the street. Why? Not because its cheaper or more convenient. It's because there's real people there - and so often we yearn for a deeper connection. In the simplicity and efficiency of modern life, we lack something intrinsic to ourselves as human beings. I want to know the name of my bank teller and my mail carrier. I want to get beyond labels and stereotypes. I don't want every shopping experience to be the same - any more than I want to be treated exactly the same as every other customer.

If our world becomes a series of brands to which we're loyal, upon which we base, at least in part, our own identity, then we can never really know each other as people - only as competition. We cannot be friends, but rivals - or at best, potential converts.

I'll be honest, it's difficult for me to define myself in some way that doesn't involve branding. It's easier to say, "I'm the kind of guy who watches skiing all winter and cycling all summer; I care more about the EPL than the NFL; I've been known to wear a fauxhawk, actually distress my clothes through wear, enjoy humor without laughing, and correct other people's grammar." All of those things represent some brand in society - and it might be easier for you to understand me through those images than through a real relationship.

It could be a challenge, for my generation of brand-slaves, to envision a different way of relating to each other and the world. Then again, it could be a challenge.

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