I love brands. I may not be a fan of labels and status symbols, but I love brands.
I still remember as a little tacker, eyeing off my Dad’s ‘Keyman’ jeans and asking Mum if I could get a pair of those coveted, value-imbued denim walkabouts. The budget didn’t stretch that far but I do remember one great day when she unpicked the leather label from Dad’s pair and sewed them on to my little versions. I think I was five or six at the time. She may have turned me into a phoney right there and then, but more on that later.
Brands are indelible marks. Many times in the industry that I’ve spent decades working within, the word ‘brand’ is used while pointing to the logo of a business. It’s much, much more. A logo may be the pointy-ended visual expression, but a brand is the sum of all that a business or product says about itself: the visual, the concrete and abstract, the spoken, the written, even the aural pieces of communication that, together, form a brand.
When you say that you like Ikea, for example, you’re not saying you like a blue and yellow enclosure with four upper case letters set in a block serif typeface that’s hardly changed since 1967. What you’re likely saying is that you enjoy the convenience of carrying flatpacks back down the freeway with the boot wide open down so that you can wrestle with an Allen key for a couple of hours! The brand has come to represent minimal convenience – oops, minimalistic convenience. It only takes a blue and yellow oval within a rectangle to remind you of this.
What you buy or desire when it comes to your purchases is based, in part, on the experiences that you believe it will deliver for you. Sure, sometimes you just want a loaf of bread but, even then, there’s a preference for an un-branded slab of wood-fired sour-dough over an anaemic, sliced, generic version. Something about the former resonates with what you want and who you are or want to be.
Sometimes those desired experiences are a little dysfunctional. You crave the perception that is associated with the brand you’re coveting. You want a particular bottle of water over another, even though it’s ten times more expensive because, well, you like what it says about you.
Often, it’s about trust and integrity. You’ll use the service of one real estate company over another because, over the long haul, you’ve known them to be trustworthy and effective. The visual expression of the brand (whether it’s their logo or sign, their website, whatever) is simply a visual prompt to a deeper narrative that has evolved over time about that business.
I follow Jesus. I’m a Christian. Depending on your experience of labels and brands, those are two very different statements.
I follow Jesus because I have been branded by His grace. I don’t want to wear it as a label; I want to live out the love, freedom, joy and good news that Jesus came to declare and extend. To be the best Jesus billboard I can be is not to scream labels, it’s to live and love like He did.
There’s a nasty pointy end to a label when it comes to ‘Christian’ and few people need much reminding of it. It’s a self-righteous hypocrisy that is entirely antithetical to the gift of grace that’s extended to people who humble themselves before Jesus and recognise their inadequacy without Him.
Throwing Molotov cocktails at abortion clinics, castigating someone based on their gender attraction, or locking up young asylum seekers while brandishing the label ‘Christian’? Well, as the folk on ‘Hungry Beast’ used to say, ‘that’s just a little bit bullsh*t.’
There’s nothing ugly about the way that Jesus’ love is branded. It may have cost him his life in communicating that love, but there was never anything label-ish about it. It penetrated from the root to the tip.
The difference between being branded and slapping on a label is vast. To be marked is indelible – there’s a permanency to it. To add a label is to add an often disintegrated false identity – something superficial, potentially ugly, and as easily removed as added.
I wear labels well enough. I don’t want to, but they’re easy enough to wear and harder to remove. Even when removed, the sticky residue tends to hang around for a while attracting a bunch of undesirable stuff I’d rather not have charactise me.
My jeans as a five-year-old? They weren’t the real thing. They were a cheap pair that Mum likely bought from Kmart or an op-shop before sewing on the label from Dad’s pair.
Even without the ‘Keyman’ label, Dad’s jeans were more authentically ‘Keyman’ than my label-stitched pair.
Brands acquire integrity as they become increasingly whole. By definition, integrity demands an inclination towards wholeness. The reason great brands become great brands are many. At their heart, great brands begin with a quality product. Pull back, though, and a great brand becomes great by each of its parts resonating with the overall narrative.
Each time you send a message that lacks authenticity with the broader narrative of your brand, you erode that brand. The ground becomes shakier because what I thought was sure foundation has apparent cracks. Things don’t line up. It’s not all coming together as I figure it should.
You can have a ‘logo’ that’s fit-for-purpose at the pointy end, but if it’s not expressed consistently through all the ways in which your brand is amplified, it rings hollow fast. Your labels become violent caricatures that are so far from the brand they once connected with that the best they can do is hopefully scream “I don’t belong to them anymore.”
I know I can never live up to the brand I represent. The good news is that Jesus’ grace says ‘that’s ok, I know you can’t, but you’re going to find a whole lot of joy as you’re branded by me’.
A brand falls apart when it’s unhinged from its solid foundation. Us, too.