Stuck on Symbols

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, an excess of consumer goods flooded the marketplace. As it became clear that there was a surplus of interchangeable suppliers, a way was needed to differentiate a given product from its competition. Out of necessity, branding was created as a way of doing just this.

In its simplest form, branding is the application of a story to a product or a service. Remember Where’s the beef? or Have it your way? The stories these slogans encapsulated were an attempt to convince the consumer that one hamburger was more desirable than another.


Originally relegated to the arena of quick consumables like soap, fast food and breakfast cereal, branding now touches every facet of American life. No matter what the product or service, everyone feels the need to tell a storyto create a brand.

According to James B. Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida, branding has recently invaded the marketplace of cultural values and beliefs as well. Putting it another way, a surplus of church pews, university seats and museum galleries has now forced institutions to practice marketing techniques they once abhorred.

Twitchell writes that, as can be seen in grocery stores, sellers are now forced either to brand or get squeezed off the market shelf. He contends that there is now a commercial market for selling salvation, for selling art and for selling knowledge. The pitch is that the brand of faith, education, or art that comes from one supplier is better than the almost exact same one that comes from another, the author notes. The competition is intense because the stakes are high. Since the 1980s, a lot of museums, churches, and schools have gone out of business. Many more are living on the edge.

For many churches, schools and museums, survival depends on whether they can offer a certain kind of experience that will create brand identity and, perhaps more important, consumer affiliation.

Beginning with religion, Twitchell looks at how intense competition has resulted in the decline of some denominations and the rise of the nondenominational megachurch. Compared to Costco or Sam’s Club box stores, which attract new customers at the expense of older businesses, the megachurch offers a number of choices attractive to a wide consumer base. Bringing together a panoply of worship styles, including boutique ministries under one roof, acres of parking, soothing background music, child care facilities, food courts and services aimed at various age groups, the megachurch is a new brand of Christianity.

Calling it the low-cost discounter of epiphanic community, the author uses the Willow Creek Community Church southwest of Chicago as an example to show why megachurches have appeared in many urban communities. With 25,000 worshipers, revenues of $22 million (in 1995) and a staff of well over 200 full-time employees, Willow Creek and churches like it have been successful at creating brand recognition.

Twitchell says, What separates the Willow Creek brand from most of the other megachurches is that its redemption story is so benign and its sense of community is so strong. Although he feels that churches like Willow Creek can make the process of doing church surprisingly compelling, Twitchell concludes by wondering, How long it can hold them remains to be seen.

Moving on to higher education, Twitchell believes that all schools provide essentially the same quality of educational and campus experience. Acknowledging this, many of them now employ professional marketers to help them sell their product. These advertising pros can help devise the stories and images that will make the schools attractive to top students. This, in turn, will boost the institutions’ standings, attract more financial contributions and thus increase their endowments.

Calling classroom education a loss leader, Twitchell believes that the schools are now intent on fostering a strong sense of affiliation. The product being sold is not education but exclusivity, as well as practically assured admission to graduate programs in fields like law or business, which provide entry into the nation’s economic, social and political elite. Referring to what he dubs the elites, Twitchell writes they are not really as concerned with learning per se as with maintaining selectivity at the front door and safe passage to still higher education at the back door.

As he analyzes the branding of elite and mass provider educational institutions, the author also discusses the role that grade inflation, intercollegiate athletics and graduate departments play in creating the story.

With over 8,300 museums in the United States, the art world presents the same story. How does one institution differentiate itself from the one across town? Like the Ivy League colleges, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Art Institute of Chicago are putting pressure not only on one another but also on second-echelon museums. Blockbuster exhibitions, upscale restaurants and chic museum stores are only a few of the ways these bastions of high culture are attempting to establish their own unique brand identity.

Twitchell’s provocative, lively and sometimes humorous look at cultural/religious branding may well elicit howls of protest from the clergy, college administrators and museum directors. If it does, he has hit his mark.

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