It’s as much how you say it as what you say

by
21 February 2020

Constructing brands may seem shallow work, Steve Morris says, but there are lessons that churches can draw from it

BEFORE I was a priest in the Church of England, I ran a brand agency. Recently, I have been won­der­­­­­­­ing whether I might dust off some of the things that I learned.

In an age in which truth is suspect and there is a clamour of voices, brands help to communicate what an organisation stands for and be­­lieves in. A well-put-together brand helps people to know at once what is on offer. Take my all-time favourite strapline, used by Butlin’s holiday camps. “Butlin’s — Number One for Fun”. Who could resist? Or the Young Vic, with “It’s a big world in here”. Just stay a moment on this one, and see the genius of the way in which it says so much about this innovative theatre in just six words. What is the Church’s tag line? It’s tricky.

Branding has had a bit of a bad press. Many people think that it is a shallow excuse for flogging people things that they do not want or need. But, done well, it is nothing of the sort. So, here are five lessons that I learned while constructing brands.

 

PEOPLE remember how you say things, and not what you say. This is something of a challenge to the Church, because we often want to transmit a truth. But the truth can be lost if the way in which it is ex­­pressed alienates people. I remember the (perhaps apocryphal) tale of the TSB and the miners’ strike. It was often said that the TSB had a better record in recouping money owed by miners during the pit strike. Miners often had debts to multiple banks, but it was the TSB, with its policy of communicating politely and respect­fully, that recouped the most. Why? Because people pay the people they like.

Then there is the issue of clarity, which is a primary obligation of any organisation, including the Church. That means that an overhaul of lan­guage is an important first step. In my old days as lead brand con­sultant, I would make a long list of every word that a regular motivated reader would either stumble over or find difficult to understand. Not to be too serious, I also think we might iron out some Christianese. Here’s a start:
 

I feel the Lord is saying (I think that)
We are all very excited about (Here’s another mission I have to plug)
I feel led to, I have a heart for, the Lord has laid on my heart (I want to)
 

Then there is the complex con­struc­tion. Why say, for instance, “in rela­tion to”, when you can say “about”? Use short sentences con­tain­­­­ing one idea and active verbs, so that we know who is doing what to whom.

I am optimistic. My own bishop has long been a champion of simpli­fication in the Church. Simple can be beautiful — and it isn’t about dumbing down.

Now, here is another lesson, and this might be controversial. Great brands have consistency. In other words, you know it’s them by the way they use language whenever you come into contact. Think of the way you immediately know which news­pa­­­­per you are reading by its tone and language. It is not easy, and certainly not in a dispersed setting such as the Church. But the key to it is clarity on what the organisation is about, what it believes in, and where it is heading. Here in London, there is very useful work going on in its project Capital Vision.

The greatest brands celebrate cre­ativ­­­­ity and are always looking for new ways to communicate. All of us have come across the language of bureaucracy, and some of us might think that the language of politics has become equally formulaic. But brands that are open to new ways of saying old things have a kind of power and attraction. And, some­times, that spark of creativity might be very simple, such as rediscovering politeness in environments that have become angular and hostile.

 

THIS brings me to the final point, which might be a surprise. In my 20 years of working with many top brands — commercial, charity, and educational — I came across dozens of organisations that wanted to use their brand to tell the truth. Consumers are very savvy, and will soon sniff out lies and half-truths. So, the car company that puts a TV screen on the back of its front seats is not selling technology: it is selling peace­ful journeys. One of the great agen­cies, McCann (formerly McCann Erickson), set up in 1912, positioned itself as the purveyor of “Truth Well Told”.

This leaves us wondering about the Church. We have a glorious truth, and we can tell it well. We are not selling a threadbare product. But could we, perhaps, spend a bit more time on polishing and thinking about the way we use words?

 

The Revd Steve Morris is the Vicar of St Cuthbert’s, North Wembley, in Lon­don.

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