November 20, 2006
Burned by Branding
What churches can learn from the anti-Starbucks movement.
Believe it or not, not everyone loves Starbucks. The Wall Street Journal's Janet Adamy has written about the growing resistance the Seattle-based coffee cartel is facing in many communities. The issue - Starbucks ignores local culture in favor of maintaining its brand-identity.
The already omnipresent Starbucks has plans to triple its locations worldwide to 40,000, but Adamy says the plan has alarmed some communities. "The proliferation of [Starbucks] stores has prompted a small number of cities to block it from opening out of concern the chain will erode the local character."
I've attended a number of conferences and read many reports in recent years about the popular multi-site church model. Invariably these sources will reference Starbucks as an example for churches who wish to establish themselves in multiple communities. But what should the church be learning from the rising anti-Starbucks sentiment?
During my first year of church ministry the two more experienced pastors on staff took me to "the Oracle." The old man lived in a bungalow not far from our church. I entered the house rather nervously. The 60's era furniture was covered in plastic, and every horizontal surface I could see was stacked with books. The Oracle looked to be in his 70's, he was unshaven, his trousers held to his belly by suspenders. He wore only a tight-fitting undershirt (popularly called a "wife-beater" thanks to the TV show "COPS").
The Oracle (aka, church consultant) sat in his recliner studying our numbers. He had requested detailed records of our church attendance, service schedule, and giving trends. He wanted nothing else. We sat in nervous silence waiting for the wise man to speak. After a few minutes of the old man saying "Hmmm," "Ahhh," and clearing his phlegm, he finally spoke. Without taking his eyes off the papers he started to tell a story.
"A few weeks ago I had a leaky pipe in the kitchen. Nasty things, leaky pipes. We used to have a very nice little hardware store up the street. It was small, but it was all we had. It's gone now." I looked at the two older pastors that had brought me here. Is this guy nuts? I asked with my eyes. Why have we come to an old man with dementia for advice about our church? The Oracle kept talking.
"So, I got in my car and went to the new place. They built a new Home Depot not far from here. You know the one. It's orange. You can't miss it. Sure enough, Home Depot had the part I needed. They have every part anyone could ever need." He paused for a moment, then started up again. "I like to drive," he said. Oh no, I thought, he's lost it.
"I drive all over the place. And you know what? There are Home Depots everywhere. And they always look the same. Orange. I say to my wife, ?Look another Home Depot' and she laughs at me. And when you go inside they are the same too. The plumbing aisle is always the plumbing aisle."
The Oracle finally put the papers down and looked at us. "You need to become Home Depot," he said very seriously. I felt like Luke Skywalker in Yoda's hut. I wanted to check behind the old man's chair to see if Frank Oz was controlling him.
The consultant went on to say the era of small churches was ending. The future was in mega franchised churches. The most important element, the Oracle said, was "brand identity." No matter where your church locations are, they must all be the same. Like Home Depot, or McDonalds, or Starbucks, people must know exactly what they are going to get from your church in any location.
That was my introduction to multi-site ministry.
But the Oracle didn't have the clairvoyance to see what Starbucks is now facing. Its strategy of vigorous brand management is no longer working. In fact, the coffee giant is now learning from the little guys' play book. New Starbucks stores are opening that do not reflect its well-established corporate identity. They are trying to personalize their stores to resemble local caf?s that fit in with the community. One Starbucks in Denver has even abandoned the green mermaid logo of the brand.
The lesson - people don't necessarily want to be connected to a massive corporate identity. An increasing number want to identify with local, accessible, and human-scaled institutions. My own experience affirms this. I am writing this post in a local coffee shop. At 8am there is not an empty table in the house. This is where community happens in my town. Directly across the street is a Starbucks. That store sees a steady stream of people pass through to get their morning fix. But the tables are empty. It isn't a place people gather, converse, or write blog posts.
What is the church to learn? That's what the comment section is for, but I'll start with this thought. If the church is to be merely a dispenser of spiritual goods and advice, a place people pass through to get their religion fix, then we should follow the example of brand-driven corporate giants. But, if we hope to form meaningful communities of Christ-followers we shouldn't neglect the power of being local. Rather than reading the latest branding book, why not gather mature leaders and listen for the Holy Spirit? How is he advising us to be the community of Christ in this unique place at this unique time?