What the Church can Learn from Apple [1of4]

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBaseImage via CrunchBase, source unknown
This is a four-part series on What the Church can Learn from Apple (the computer and media company).  Read the whole series here.

There's often reference to the "Religion of Apple" or the "Cult of Mac."  Back in October, CNET ran a story called "Apple (and its Branding) like a Religion" (hat tip to Church Marketing Sucks).  In the blog referenced in the article, there's multiple instances that compare the Apple "Brand" to a religion.  For instance, from a movie called MacHeads:
For many Mac people, I think (the Mac community) has a religious feeling to it. For a lot of people who are not comfortable with religion, it provides a community and a common heritage. I think Mac users have a certain common way of thinking, a way of doing things, a certain mindset. People say they are a Buddhist or a Catholic. We say we’re Mac users, and that means we have similar values.
Let's get one thing out of the ballpark: I can't wrap my head around that Apple is a religion.  Religion is based on experience or questions of the unknown and intangible; Apple iPods and products are known entities that you can touch and taste.  There's no faith involved other than nebulous feelings of trust for a Brand when they let you down and put out a shoddy product once in a while.  Therefore, Apple is not a religion.

That is not to say, however...that the branding of religion and the branding of Apple share similar qualities

People identify with a brand based on several factors other than simple marketing prowess: they have experience of the brand or fear of the unknown (ie. trying an unknown brand).  There's a level of rational thought, of course, by choosing a quality product, but there's also a sense of connectedness to one's friends which are Mac-users or "my family has always been Methodist."  It's the branding of the object, be it religious or secular, that has commonalities.

What is Apple's Brand?  One has only to look back at their famous 1984 commercial to see what their brand has always been about:

That's right: Think Different.  In other words, Apple has always claimed the underdog status in the computer wars, and always has.  Apple's story an antagonist has deep roots: they went against IBM in the 80's and are against Microsoft today. Their marketing goal was simple: just the idea of something different is enough to energize the base.  We saw this with Barack Obama this year; we see it more and more as established brands lose market share to newcomers and established denominational churches lose membership to emerging and unaffiliated churches.
We see this underdog 'branding' in church and politics today.  Evangelical Christians and politicians claim they are under persecution and oppression, like they always have...even through they have been in power for the past 8 years.  Even when reality says something different, the reality distortion field, it seems, is in full effect.

In closing this section, the tension for Apple, is what to do with the 'brand' when it must choose between being diffused and sticking to its roots. As the video MacHeads states above, Apple "is already facing strong pressure as the brand simply is becoming too broad (losing) its magic."
  • Apple hesitates, for instance, to enter into the rapidly growing netbook category (including my beloved EEEPC) because cheap products is definitely not in their sales pitch.
  • While Mac sales are skyrocketing in homes and schools, the enterprise solutions offered are still meager and weak.  This is directly related to Steve Jobs' areas of weakness in this category as he considers that to be Microsoft's area and the image of white rows of Macs parallels the constant hammering against the rows of beige boxes in corporate America.  As one commenter on CNET said "Jobs may be what is right with Apple. But he's also what's wrong with Apple."
In short, branding is not a religion, but it is the way how a company (or religion) explains itself.  By sticking to its tried and true brand, Apple continues to lead as it taps into a generations' yearning for "something new" and "something different" through its brand.

The Hack

I've been called out on "Is hacking just marketing?" I must agree that marketing and hacking are similar at the outset, but I hope to show in four installments how hacking gets at the root questions better than simple marketing adaptation.

So the overriding question is what is the 'brand' that your church has, or what 'brand' do you assign churches in the area?  Does the church use phrases like "come enjoy Holy Eucharist and Word and Table" or "Come join us for community celebration"?  Does it say meet in the Narthex or come to the Vestibule?  There's nothing wrong with these phrases and using proper terminology, folks........but to think of it a different way, Seth Godin in his companion to his book Tribes talks about the value of tribes making their own language (the Emergeant Church is good at this too).  We have a Christian "churchy" language.  But the difficulty is Narthex, vestibule, Eucharist, etc, are not this tribe's language, it is our parents/grandfathers' tribes' language.  It is hard to get this generation of people seeking 'newness' excited when the language they hear remind them of snoozing on Sundays.

Like Church Marketing Sucks writes about the newest Apple iPhone,
But I don't think any of [the Apple pundits] summarized the changes as succinctly as Apple did on their web site: "iPhone 3G: Twice as fast. Half the price."...I don't know what "3G" means, but "twice as fast" is something I can get my head around.
And the lesson for churches is an obvious one. If you can simplify your language and put it in terms an outsider can understand then you're communicating.
So the question to wrestle with for a week is "what is your brand?"  And is it championed by you, or has it been assigned to you? 
  • Some churches embrace the brand, like Saddleback Church specifically markets to "Saddleback Sam" (see Bill Bishop's book The Big Sort).  That's their brand and they stick to it to create a uniform church situation (more on diversity next week).
  • Do you choose to be the "white church" in a Latino neighborhood?  Or was it assigned by you because of tensions between Anglo and Latino ways of doing things?
  • Do you choose marketing to politics by using products or do you emphasize the people affected?  The church in Detroit recently prayed over SUVs, while every other church would hear testimonies from auto workers.  What kind of 'brand' is it that chooses to raise up products rather than people?
I know there's lots of unresolved questions; that's why this is a four-part series. :)  But I think two of the main questions from talking about apple's brand are:
  1. What is your 'brand'?  Do you embrace it, or has it been assigned to you by the community (like Apple's brand of being a rebel: championed by them first, or assigned to them first)?
  2. How do you expand your 'brand' while retaining your essential mission (like Apple looking at netbooks but being unwilling to sacrifice quality)? We'll talk more about this next week.   
Thoughts?  Questions?  Offer any feedback in the comments, or using the FriendConnect box below this post.  Thanks in advance for the conversation.


Tripp Hudgins December 10, 2008 at 8:58 AM  

This is a great post but, you know...I wanna push back a little...

Re: language and snoozing...Some of us were not born in the church and the "old" language is new to us. I love the traditional words of the liturgy because they suggest something different. You can substitute the word "foyer" for narthex, but I would rather you not. I don't want to be walking into someone house. I want to be walking into a new space, an ancient new space. Also, "narthex" never put anyone to sleep. It's what we do with the word that matters most.

re: Mac...I agree with you. But, as a pastor, I am constantly reminded by my congregation that people gather for community and identity with community more than they gather for ideology or principles. They do gather for the latter, but community comes first. Mac gets the former and happily allows the latter to shape itself.

Craig L. Adams December 10, 2008 at 9:46 AM  

I've been assigned to a church whose "brand" is "traditional worship like it used to be." The primary appeal is to retired folks who move into our area, and don't like the contemporary worship found elsewhere. I wouldn't personally choose to be a part of a church like that, but it wasn't my choice, exactly. I was sent here by the Bishop. So, while I'm uncomfortable with that brand, I can see it for what it is.

Right now, it's serving the church well. But, I can't help but wonder if it will someday strangle us.

"United Methodist" isn't much of a brand either. It means too many different things to too many different people.

blake December 10, 2008 at 9:52 AM  

re: language

why does it have to be one or the other and not and/both depending upon the context? to me, the beauty of these "languages games" is that they can (and must!) vary for different communities. if your meaning and identity are tied to the "narthex" then that's great, but it doesn't have to invalidate those who resonate more with the "foyer." in that sense, i don't necessarily think that the linguistic frameworks of various faith communities are mutually exclusive because each is finding its own way of deriving meaning and forming identity.

that's not to say that some more established communities should not continually revisit and reexamine their language. i think that may be what jeremy is getting at (if i'm understanding correctly). static and stagnant language that means nothing to the community isn't useful.

it's all in the context.

Craig L. Adams December 11, 2008 at 8:33 AM  

As I recall, Mr. Wesley did advocate that Christians deliberately use Biblical language. (It would take me while to find that quote, though.) But, terms like "narthex" can't be defended this way. Hmm. Or "chancel" either. An argument could be advanced for "eucharist" I think.

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