The Creative Liberation Lab Notes

An official publication of Limeadestand Works

When churches are no longer called churches: cases of rebranded churches and brand trends

September 18, 2018 | Branding and brand communications

Once upon a time, churches were the institution: they were about upholding traditions and preaching the old-time gospel. Even among those who were politically liberal (the "social gospel" movement), culturally churches were conservative and not many things changed.

Much had changed since the Jesus People movement of the 1960s. An increasing number of newly-formed Evangelical and Charismatic congregations shed the word "church" from their names. There were "Christian Fellowships" and "Christian Centers." They felt that the word "church" had a negative connotation of religiosity and stifling traditions that restricted the flow of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, many such churches dropped a reference to their theological or denominational affiliation, whereas in the past, most churches had a name with an identifier such as "Baptist," "Methodist," "Presbyterian," or "Pentecostal." Their communities wanted to be "not your grandma's church." They've switched the music. They brought out guitars and got rid of hymnals. Clergy vestments were gone and their pastors looked more like rock stars. This trend continued well into the turn of the 21st century as Evangelical Christianity became a consumer lifestyle promoted through "Christian media" such as Trinity Broadcasting Network, Salem Communications, and Integrity Music.

But something changed around the middle of the 2000s. As a reaction to the consumeristic and politicized Evangelical Christianity of the late 20th century, the younger crowd began creating their own countercultural movement: the Emerging Churches. They brought back the meaningful aspects of traditional liturgies and spiritual practices. Their churches met in smaller and more intimate spaces that were not specifically designed as churches. There were emerging churches that bought a pub or a coffee house as a community hub open to everyone, not just their own adherents. And many of them focused on arts and culture, or social justice actions or other activities previously thought of as useless by the Evangelicals.

From a brand professional standpoint, one of the most remarkable changes in this wave of new Christianity was the shedding of all descriptive words from their names/brands. Whereas in the 1980s, it was common for the "trendy" Evangelical churches to brand themselves as a "Christian Center" or a "Christian Fellowship," most emerging churches deliberately chose a brand that does not describe what they are, sometimes using just one or two words that sound almost enigmatic. In Portland alone, there were "The Bridge," "Mosaic," "The Community of Adsideo," "Imago Dei Community,"The Oregon Community," and so on.

This trend loosely overlaps the general trends in branding since the past 15 years, perhaps influenced by the trends in the tech industry. Boutique hotels, a trend since the early 2000s, mostly opt not to include the word "hotel" or "inn" as part of their brands. Most restaurants today do not brand themselves as "restaurant" or "(cuisine) restaurant," but instead, often use words that are not exactly descriptive of their cuisines (but it is evocative of certain feelings).

In general, non-descriptive branding such as these tend to give out a more refined and upscale perception to the public, and even the major hotel chains are taking notice: the Downtown Portland Hilton Hotel rebranded itself "The Duniway" (named after Oregon's women suffragist Abigail Duniway) shedding both the Hilton brand and the word "hotel."