TwiBran 05-11-174


The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld


James B. Twitchell

Simon & Schuster, 2004, 327 pp., ISBN 0-7432-4346-3

Twitchell is professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida and the author of such intriguing titles as Living It Up: America’s Love Affair with Luxury and Lead Us into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism.  According to Twitchell, when there is a surfeit of interchangeable products, marketing tries to get you emotionally involved with a story of a particular product.  That’s the brand.  It’s become a high-stakes game.  The first chapter of the book is an excellent introduction to the concept of branding.  Twitchell is a cynic.  But reading this from a Christian perspective may lead us to serious consideration of our practices.


1. Branding 101 – Marketing Stories in a culture of Consumption

“A marketing professor estimates that 10 percent of a two-year-old’s nouns are brand names.” (2)  [Scary! Dlm] 


“Branding in the 19th century became the meaning-making motor of consumerism....  In the middle of the 20th century the branding process started to enter the marketplace of cultural values and beliefs.” (3)


“ the application of a story to a product or a service utilized whenever there is a surplus of interchangeable goods.”  “A good marketing plan is the one with a memorable story....  Marketing in the economic sense is simply the process of getting this exchange to work efficiently—making money by storytelling.” (4)  Stories need have nothing to do with the product. (5)


“Storytelling is the core of culture.” (5)


“Plenitude leads willy-nilly to consumerism.  Modern culture has been marketized in almost all ways but public perception.  The exception is politics.  Here we have already come to accept branding as the norm.” (6)


Evian water: 9 oz. For $1.49 equals $21.19 per gallon  (11) 


“Whenever you have a surplus of interchangeable items, the savvy supplier is going to attach a powerful story to his version.”  “Telling stories is a core competency in business....” (14)


Marketing of medicines.  “Sell the disease first, then the anxiety, then the cure.” (14)


“A lifestyle is an emblematic display of coherent brands, a demonstrated understanding of stories.”   “...most of our shared stories are about manufactured stuff.” (26)


If we were logical, generic labels would ultimately rule the shelves. (29)


“The explosion of seemingly unnecessary choice is a characteristic of a free market, yes, but what we have developed is an explosion of almost perfectly interchangeable choices in which attached narratives are the only variable.” (30)


“We are friendly with such outlandish creatures as the Pillsbury Doughboy, Mr. Clean, Ronald McDonald, Tony the Tiger, and the Ti-D-Bowl man who lives in the toilet.”  This is the application of imagination to consumption.  The object of our dreams has become commercialized, the stuff of getting and spending.  We have “become emotionally involved with not just animate nature but inanimate commerce.” (35)


“We desperately want meaning; things can’t supply it, so we install it via narrative, via branding.” 


“Heaven is richly imagined in poor cultures.”  “When we have a surfeit of stuff, we tend to spiritualize parts of it in the her and now, forgetting the luxury Beyond.  That’s why few people in the West today even have a sense of what’s in Heaven.”  (36)


“It’s the stories we’re after as well as the material goods.  The coupling of concocted stories with machine-made objects, plus the willingness to ‘suspend disbelief’ and accept that such stories could be true... have allowed branding to take hold.  Essentially, we made dreaming a central part of consuming: look, desire, dream, buy.” (36)


“A brand becomes not just what we think about an object, but how we think about it.  Lest this sound too ethereal, realize that this is precisely the nature of metaphor.  It states something in the place of something else.”  (38)


“A brand is a name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of them intended to define the goods or services of one seller or group o sellers and to differentiate them from those of competitors.  When that differentiation works, the brand generates frisson, it provides sensation, a shift (albeit minuscule) of consciousness.” (39-40)


Brands “draw their meaning not from their ‘kernel,’ the actual product, but from what surrounds them.”  They create an expanding aura around them.  “One of the traits of a good story is that it can easily be concentrated into just a sentence or two—the gist of a kernel.”   (40)  Great brands tend to be intensely concentrated.

Nordstrom = service.  BMW = experience.  Maytag = dependability.  Porsche = speed.  Gerber = baby.


“The brand is software that runs the product....” Brand managers have an entire vocabulary for commercial fiction.  (43)


2.  One Market Under God – The Churching of Brands

[It is very interesting to read what someone writes about ‘church’ from a purely marketing perspective. dlm]


“At the macro level, all religions offer the same transaction.  They exchange the meaning of life for some investment by the believer.”  “The product of most religions is usually safe passage to the next world....” (48)  [How do you respond to these statements?  dlm]


“What is remarkable is that these systems rarely compete head-to-head with one another for market share.  With the exceptions of Christianity and Islam, they seldom convert fresh believers.”  However they compete fiercely insider themselves.  “It’s in the Christian denominational system that the history of marketing really begins as the disparate cells compete against each other.”  (49)


Ads for Mercedes (Photo of lightening strike with caption: Security.  Unlike any other.)  and Xerox (Two monks with caption: Will miracles never cease?) are shown with the author’s note: “No religious image is too sacred not to be exploited.” (55)


If religion were a company, it would be number five on the Fortune 500 with $50 billion in revenues. (56)


“In America, the religion a marketing free-for-all.”  “For many churches this never-ending competition added the perpetual pressure to stay solvent.  That, in turn, always argued for attracting the widest audience, paying attention to the take-away value, and focusing always on the end user while all the time pretending to a higher calling.  Marketing became a necessity.”  [Note the word “pretending.”  The author apparently does not believe there is a higher calling. dlm]


 “If you want to succeed in the American market, you’d better make church compelling.” (56)  “American churches have invented lots of fun—serious, competitive fun.”  “Competition makes them concentrate on innovative marketing....”  (57)


The Catholic church is a $7 billion brand in distress. (58)


“There is little if any product differentiation because Protestantism has become a commodity.  The suppliers are redundant, and church space is oversupplied.  That’s why denominations need separation via branding.  When you have an interchangeable product, the story becomes the necessary fiction.” (65)


“Magical thinking is at the heart of both religion and branding.”  “Branding fetishizes objects in exactly the same manner that religion does: it ‘charms’ objects, giving them an aura of added value.”  (65) [Wow. Dlm]   “The powerful allure of religion and branding is the same: we will be rescued.” (68)  [Has the marketing of stuff taken the place of God for our rescue in American culture? Dlm]


“Sooner or later, with interchangeable products, product-driven marketing becomes consumer-driven.  ‘Consumers listen to us’ becomes ‘We listen to consumers.’ Shoppers become customers become clients become friends.  Forget the hellfire and brimstone; pass the remote control.”  (72)  “the consumers in pews are fickle, ready to bolt to a competing brand if the current one seems stale or uninspired.” (75)


“Protestantism is experiencing the same brand shifts that occur when Sam’s Club or Costco comes to town.  Consumers move in trickles, then droves.  (to the mega-churches) (81)  “Perhaps the most startling aspect of the megachurch is that it is in the middle of the Entertainment Economy.” (85)


“The megachurch is the dumbing down of American religion, epiphany lite, minister as personality, service as TV with musical interludes, cherry-picking of smug baby boomers, obsession on the ‘front door’ never minding the flood leaving the ‘back door,’ fair-weather churches feeding easy-to-digest junk food to the already overweight.”  (89) [Easy to dismiss the overdrawn cynicism but are there any smoldering old rags under all this smoke? dlm]


“A brand is a commercial story, a folk tale on the take.”  “It can be easily hijacked, subverted, destroyed, rewritten.” (105)


“The consumerist church, intensely focused on the felt needs of its audience, by using narrative, sophistication, and electronic transmission, can make the process of doing church incredibly compelling.” (108)


3. School Daze – Higher Ed, Inc., in an Age of Branding

“Counting in everything but its huge endowment holdings, Higher Ed, Inc., is a $250 to $270 billion business—bigger than religion.” (110) 


Getting into college is a cinch. (110)  “At the undergraduate level we are in the business of delivering consumer satisfaction.  Thanks to grade inflation, it’s almost impossible to flunk out.  Room and board have improved drastically.  To survive, we imitate our cousins in retail.” (113)


“What used to be the knowledge business has become selling an experience, an affiliation, a commodity that can be manufactured, packaged, bought, and sold.  Don’t misunderstand, the intellectual work of universities is still going strong; in fact, it has never been stronger.  Great creative acts still occur.  Discoveries are being made.  But the experience of higher education—the accessories, the amenities, the aura—has been commercialized, outsourced, franchised, branded.  The professional manager has replaced the professor as the central figure in delivering the goods.” (116)


“In client-centered transactions it’s not what is transferred that’s important; it’s how the consumer feels about the experience.”  (119)


“Schools like mine have four basic revenue streams: student tuition, research funding, public fiscal support, and private giving.  The least important is tuition, the most prestigious is external research dollars, the most fickle is state support, and the most remunerative is what passes through the development office.” (120)


“...52% of parents of last year’s freshman class contributed to the university—besides paying $35,000 each for tuition and room and board.” (122)


“Sometimes the retail price in luxury goods works in direct proportion ot value.  Keep the value the same, but increase the sticker price; strangely, the value increases.  This is a characteristic of the exotic and the luxurious.  In brand jargon it’s called the Chivas Regal effect, and nowhere does it work better than in Higher Ed, Inc.” (138)


“But the real reason Harvard is the ruling story of American education is because it never stopped, even for a second, telling everyone that it was Harvard.” (141)


Student aid is progressively moving away from need to merit.  “More than one third of the money that private colleges spend on aid goes to students distinguished by merit, not need.”  “The term financial aid now means the best negotiated discount a kid’s parents can wrangle.” (162)


“Part of the brand value of the premier schools is that there are never enough to go around.”  “Exclusivity is what they sell.” (164)


“Can you name a school distinguished by great classroom teaching?”  “From a branding point of view, what happens in the classroom is beside the point.”  (166, 67)


“As consumer satisfaction has become central in the marketing of higher ed, the elective has become the core curriculum.”  “An English major at UF today can graduate without taking ...a single course in literature.” (169)


The job of the modern university president is to manage the brand.  “From a cost-accounting and storytelling point of view, it makes good business sense to trim those parts of the endeavor that don’t add to the brand.  In the area of learning, research adds to the brand, yes, but teaching does not.”  “Really awful programs can hurt a school, but no one knows about mediocre teaching.” (178)


“Grade inflation is the tribute standards pay to the concept of a happy customer.”  “The process can’t be stopped.”  (183)  “They make life easier for all concerned—all, that is, except the best students.” (185)


“In the new lingua franca of higher education, students are ‘consumers of our product’ in one conversation or presentation and ‘inputs’—a part of what we sell—in the next.”  “We talk no longer as public intellectuals, but as entrepreneurs.” (189, quoting Michele Tolela Myers, president of Sarah Lawrence)


4. Museumworld – The Art of Branding Art


5. When All Business is Show Business, What’s Next?

“Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken sees the underlying phenomenon of modern life as surplus, what he calls plenitude....”  (275)


“A study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at the Hartford Seminary finds the average annual income for a megachurch is $4.6 million a year, which means it can support all kinds of non-pastoral interactions.  In fact, it means the megachurch may be becoming dependent on competitive amenities just as Higher Ed, inc, has.” (179-80)


“And since you can’t generate brand loyalty on the basis of faith, you essentially do it on the basis of add-ons, on the basis of value added to affiliation, on the basis of providing convenient community.” (280)


“As opposed to the megachurch, Higher Ed, Inc., and Museumworld, the diplomatic world is acutely aware that it is in the marketing business.  No one pretends otherwise.  After all, diplomats are politicians, which, as formed Clinton adviser and current TV pundit Paul Begala famously observed, is just showbiz for ugly guys.” (292)


“In the next generation of diplomacy the ability to brand your nation before your competition does it to you is going to become crucial.  “Those states that successfully fictionalize themselves to others...will prevail.” (292)  [You can see this in travel brochures.]


“What we increasingly share as individuals is not ancestry, religion, literature, language, or ideology but an ephemeral knowledge of the difference between Coke and Pepsi, which Prada purse is hot, or what’s in a Big Mac.  What we increasingly share as nations is not a unique past but the same flyby culture of what we are consuming right now.”  (294)


“Image and reputation are thus becoming essential parts of the state’s strategic equity, its export capital, what it offers to those it wishes to influence.  Like a branded product, the branded state depends on expectation and satisfaction.  Do you believe the story?  Better yet, do you buy it?  Are you satisfied?”  (294)


“We have come to live in a world of continual and often frantic storytelling.” (298)


“Our world is being driven primarily by the desire of the massclass of consumers, most of them young, for deep meaning inside the material world.  Plenitude is no longer the goal of the developed world; finding and sharing the wealth of meaning is.  These fictions have become the dominant meaning-making system of modern life....” (299)


[I discount a good bit of what Twitchell says about churches because he seems to have no understanding of spiritual reality.  He only sees at a surface level.  But I am deeply concerned about a society driven by a yearning for deep meaning within the material world.  dlm]


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