Sometimes it makes sense to make fun of your brand

Wearing a t-shirt that reads "Cornflake U"
Cornflake U t-shirt

A few years ago, when I was working as the Director of Public Information and Marketing at Kellogg Community College, a fellow employee who had an interest in marketing came to me with a question about a particular t-shirt being sold in the bookstore. The t-shirt read “Cornflake University” and was a spoof on the Kellogg part of our name. He was concerned that it violated our branding standards and made fun of the school. He wanted my opinion.


I’m a huge champion of branding and consistency (see Addressing the question: Why branding is important), but there’s a part of “the brand” that he wasn’t considering; the brand “personality.” Our brand had a lot of personality characteristics, including personable, approachable, and fun. Considering that, we both agreed that the shirts really didn’t violate our brand, they enhanced it.


To this day, one of the most popular items in the bookstore is the “Cornflake U” shirts. I wear mine proudly.

Should churches stick to the “brand” of their denomination?

A photo of a United Methodist Church with the United Methodist cross logo prominently displayed
Barrackville United Methodist Church. Photo by Esther Damiani. Creative Commons BY SA license.


The United Methodist Church (of which I’m a member of), has a very distinctive logo that is easily recognized as that of the church; it’s a cross with two flames intersecting it. The logo and brand is pretty well-known, and yet, a large number of churches opt not to use the logo as their own.  This is a huge mistake.


Why it’s a mistake to not use the denomination’s brand

When making a large decision, such as where to attend church, there is a tremendous amount of research involved. One of the ways to shortcut this is using brand knowledge. Think back to your last car purchase; there were probably brands you considered or didn’t consider based on your brand knowledge. This shortcut allowed you to make a decision in less time and with less research.


There are a wide variety of churches available now and it takes a tremendous amount of work by the individual to be able to sort through what each church stands for, believes, etc. When individuals see the United Methodist logo on a church, they have a general idea of what it means to be a United Methodist and thus can make a quick decision as to whether or not to consider the church. Without knowing it’s a United Methodist Church, the individual may not consider the church because it requires too much effort on their part to research.


Similarly, the logo signifies a level of trust. The United Methodist church is a well-established denomination with safeguards against radical elements.  Just as you know every Panera adheres to basically the same food standards, every church within a denomination will have similar controls and consistency in terms of leadership, worship, beliefs, etc.


Yes, many United Methodist churches still have “United Methodist” in the name, but how trusting would you be if you saw a sign with “McDonalds” on it with some logo other than the golden arches? Would you be skeptical? I argue not using the logo brings in some skepticism.


What’s lacking from the non-denomination logos

Think of the majority of church logos that you’ve seen that aren’t related to a particular denomination; a good number of them use images of their building as their logo.  I argue that this actually tells you LESS about the church than the denomination symbol.  A building tells you nothing about the church’s beliefs, the people that attend there, etc.


For those you that were raised singing “We Are the Church,” sing with me now…”The church is not a building….”


Similarly, a contemporary cross doesn’t tell you anything, other than it’s a Christian church.


Why aren’t the churches using the denomination logos?

Here’s my stretch challenge on this topic: Why aren’t the churches using the denomination logos and marketing?


I think there are two answers to this:

  1. Lots of people like to dabble in marketing for fun.
  2. The local church representatives don’t believe the church brand is strong enough, conveys what it needs to.


The first one we can do very little about. Marketing is fun, that’s why so many of us like to do it for a living! Unfortunately, it requires a lot more thought than most people realize.


If the answer is the second one, that the brand isn’t seen as strong or representative, then we’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do to remedy that.

The Hunger Games and a Universal Sign of Respect

“At first one, then another, then almost every member of the crowd touches the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and holds it out to me. It is an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love.” – The Hunger Games, Chapter 2, page 17 (seen in the clip below at the 2:30 mark)

I’ve read the first two Hunger Games books and enjoyed them. Yes, they were full of teen themes, but beyond the story, were the author’s thoughts on how we as a society are moving back towards a gladiatorial style of entertainment, how hunger and oppression affects people, etc. And that, I’m very interested in.

Watching Catching Fire this past week, one of my best friends (who hadn’t read the books), asked me what the three finger symbol that is used meant. That question got me thinking, perhaps another social question we should take away from the series is the fact that we could use a universal sign of respect in our culture.

We have symbols of admiration in our society, but they are fragmented, not universal. We have the Nobel Peace Prize, but what is very narrow in use and not something the masses can use. We have the standing ovations at performances, but in my opinion, they are highly overused and almost obligatory vs. an actual statement on the quality of the performance.

We need something that is used rarely, but demonstrates thanks, admiration, and love. Something that everyone knows, understands the meaning of, and can use. Something that would have been used to honor great humanitarians such as Oskar Schindler, Mother Theresa, and Nelson Mandela.

As to how to go about doing so, I’m open to suggestions.

Thanks, John Kerfoot, for showing us how to laugh at ourselves

This post is dedicated to someone I’ve never met, but want to thank.

For those of you “non-Michiganders,” you might not be familiar with John Kerfoot, but he’s very popular in Michigan. He owns Tri-Foot productions and is an instructor at Wayne State University, but we all know him because he’s the guy that publishes the Not So Pure Michigan videos.

The Back Story

A couple years back, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation decided they needed to do something to increase tourism. So, they produced an advertising/branding campaign titled Pure Michigan. The campaign, including television ads, are very well received and seem to do a lot of good for tourism for the State of Michigan. But, to those of us in Michigan, the ads are a stretch because we see the good AND the bad.

Enter John Kerfoot

The videographer very quickly began creating spoofs of the ads (which, most advertisers will tell you, is the ultimate compliment) and they went viral. Not only that, but his videos (which, a warning, contain a lot of swearing) are primarily responsible, in my opinion, for inspiring a whole new, sarcastic meaning to the phrase “Pure Michigan.” Examples:

  • If you see something that is completely unattractive, like a garbage dump, it’s not uncommon in Michigan for someone to point to it and say “See that? Pure Michigan.”
  • During a presentation on Broken Windows that I gave at a military base, I asked a high-ranking  officer what he thought of a picture I’d taken of a horrible billboard ad in Michigan. He smiled and sarcastically said, “Pure Michigan.”

Recently, via Facebook, he announced that he’s retiring the series. Even though I now live in Texas, I’m deeply saddened by the news. I still love watching his videos and happily share them with my friends in Texas who want to see the “other” side of Michigan. He’s taught us “Michiganders” to laugh at ourselves and he’s provided a great example of advertising spoofing done well.

So, John, I just want to say, thanks for the laughs. I’m going to miss your Pure Michigan series, but look forward to your future work.

And now, my favorite Pure Michigan videos (again, a warning, they do contain profanity and could potentially be offensive to some):

Brand hijacking Abercrombie & Fitch by a “brand readjustment”

A couple of years ago, one of my Michigan State University professors, Dr. Keith Adler, introduced me to the book Brand Hijack: Marketing Without Marketing. Ever since then, I’ve enjoyed finding examples brand hijacking in modern culture. For those unfamiliar with the term, Brand Hijacking refers to a group of consumers take over a particular brand, make it their own, and attach meaning to it.

There is a video circulating the Internet and talked about all over the news about a guy who is attempting to hijack the Abercrombie & Fitch brand.  If you haven’t seen it already, check it out!

Stealth Marketing: Where is the ethical line?

A Narrative

You wake up in the morning, check your Facebook page, and read how one of your friends discovered a really cool new protein bar that they love and you make a mental note to try it next time you hit the store. At the beach later in the day, a couple stops you and asks you to take a quick video of them with their cool new mini-camera so they can post it on YouTube. On the drive home, you turn on the radio and hear your favorite song and it makes you crank it up and sing along. When you get home, you relax on the couch and turn on your favorite news station only to hear that your favorite pro-athlete has a condition that may affect her future in the game. But, luckily, she’s found a treatment that is working and should be back to her competitions soon. Later that evening, you have a pre-dinner drink and meet a very attractive woman. She invites you outside for a smoke and then offers you a cigarette from her pack. Later, at the club, you wander into the bathroom and silently curse your fellow clubbers because the bathroom floor is strewn with energy drink cans they were too lazy to throw away.

What you don’t realize is:

  • Your friend on Facebook is a pusher, paid by the protein bar company in free bars to post positive comments on his social media sites.
  • The couple at the beach were paid actors who asked you to take the video so you would willingly try out the technology of a camera that was just introduced.
  • Your favorite pop song included lyrics about a particular brand of clothing, which the pop star was paid to insert into her song.
  • The athlete really does have a medical condition and the medicine they are promoting did help them, but they are talking about it because they are being paid by the drug company to do so.
  • The very attractive woman was an actress paid by the cigarette brand she offered you to get you to try the cigarette (writers note: I don’t endorse smoking at all).
  • The energy drink cans were purposely thrown on the club bathroom floor by paid promoters to make you think people at the club are drinking them a lot.

Think the above doesn’t happen? Think again. This is the world of stealth marketing and its use by major companies is growing very rapidly as you, the consumer, learn to tune-out traditional media.

Is it ethical?

Stealth marketing raises a lot of ethical issues about advertising integrity and consumer groups are beginning to fight back against, what they consider, subliminal advertising. But the question is, where is that line? Is it ok to spread false rumors about a movie to increase ticket sales (Blair Witch Project)? Is it ok to pay actresses to go to popular bars and request only certain brands in a noticeable way in a crowd to try to influence the other bar patrons?

Are we really to a point where we have to ask women and men at the bar if they are paid promoters? Photo from Flickr: Parker Michael Knight

A potential solution

I don’t really have an answer, but I do have a thought: One option is to apply the reasonable man standard used to determine most advertising deception cases and apply it to stealth marketing. Using this methodology, a stealth marketing campaign would be deemed as going too far if a reasonable man (woman) would be upset if they found out about the marketing effort. So, for example, would a reasonable man be upset to find out an energy drink company had strewn cans on a club floor purposefully? Probably not. Would a reasonable man be upset to find out the pretty woman who had pretended to be interested in him was just trying to get him to try a cigarette? Yes, I think so.

That’s not to say using the reasonable man standard barometer doesn’t have its issues. Consumers may not understand the larger impact and thus not get upset or it may be difficult to determine if or how upset a reasonable man would get. But, I believe it’s better than what we have now, which is nothing except self-regulation. And, if the narrative above scares you as much as it does me, then you’ll agree that something needs to be done.