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Branded nation by James B. Twitchell

Branded nation (2004)

by James B. Twitchell

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There seems to be a bit of a division with regards to opinions of this book, with some finding the content interesting while others claiming that it is shamelessly promoting the new age capitalist culture. Too be honest, we live in a branded culture, and modern branding is here to stay. That does not mean that I like or appreciate it, but we must accept it for what it is. I won't go into details of the history of the brand, but a brand is basically a story that is built around a product and it is the the story that sells, not the product. For instance, we have two tops, one is branded with, say Black Sabbath, the other has no brand. The attraction to the Black Sabbath T-shirt has more to do with wanting to be apart of the story that is Black Sabbath, to identify with it, where as a simple blank T-shirt carries no story with it. For instance, when I was in Rome, I saw somebody wearing a Pulp Fiction T-shirt and loved it so much that I spent the next four weeks looking for one. I finally found one in Amsterdam and immediately bought it and was wearing it the next day. Why? Well, because not only is the T-shirt is heaps cool but also because it allows me to identify with Pulp Fiction. It is why Nike can get away with selling overpriced t-shirts that do little more than advertise its brand without having to pay somebody to wear it. By encouraging people it embrace and identify with the story that is the brand allows the company to advertise itself without actually having to pay for it.
Twitchell looks at three institutions in his book: the church, the university, and the museum. The reason for this is that these three institutions are not traditionally connected with marketing, or even branding, but, as we read through his book, we suddenly come to realise how false this assumption really is. The church that Twitchell focuses on in his book is Willow Creek Church in Illinois, though the same can be said of many of the mega-churches across the United States, and even throughout the world (even though there are no true Mega-churches here in Australia). I used to go to a church that had been caught up in the branded-culture in that it is a member of a major Christian denomination, but it over the years has slowly been distancing itself from this denomination and creating its own brand and it does this through opening up branches around the city, holding seminars, camps, and training days through the year all the while promoting its brand. While the church is nowhere as large as churches like Willow Creek, we can see how it is beginning to develop and create its brand, and in the years before I left I even began to see it developing and producing its own bible studies.
Now, as a Christian, and a dedicated one at that (though I do hear objections being raised by that statement) I do have some serious concerns regarding this change in attitude. In a way, the criticism I have with regards to turning a church into a brand can similarly be targeted at universities and at museums. In that regard I am a traditionalist, with universities being institutions for learning aimed at learning for the sake of knowledge as opposed to learning for the sake of earning an income. The same with Museums as I go to Museums for what they have in the Museum and what I can learn from its exhibits as opposed to being connected to a brand. Okay, the museums that I visited in Europe tended to be targeted at specific disciplines, such as the Archeological Museum of Athens. The Vatican Museum is similar in that it is simply an extension of the Catholic brand, but in another way, it is just a means to show of all of the treasures it has collected (or stolen) through the ages (though quite a few of the objects in the museum, such as the paintings by Raphael, and the Sistine Chapel, were created for the Vatican). The Louvre and the British Museum are institutions in and of themselves, though once again the British Museum is a museum that mostly contains ancient anthropological collections, while the Louvre is just a collection of stuff (though I will admit that I did love the Louvre).
It is a shame that universities are shifting away from institutions of learning to simply advanced vocational institutions. However I suspect that it has a lot to do with attracting the best and the brightest through their doors, so that they can train and educate them and the release them into the working world to make an impact. It is this impact that the University wants because by attending the university, paying your tuition, and then going out to the world, you have taken on board the University's brand. Having the degree from a branded university is much more important than having a degree. For instance, if we have two people, both as smart and as adept as each other, but one has a degree from Kentucky State, while the other has a degree from Yale, when they go for that same job, in many cases (and I am not trying to be overtly broad here since there are a lot of other factors that go into obtaining a job) the Yale degree will be chosen over the Kentucky State degree.
Now, I was going to discuss my concerns with the church, though I have outlined it above to an extent. In a way, Christianity, and indeed the church, should not be defined by a brand, but by the gospel (and it is a shame that many of the worse perpetrators are completely blind to it). Remember that the brand is a story and taking the brand on board means that we want to be a part of that story. Therefore, a branded church creates a story that helps people identify with that church. However, with two churches, one branded, the other unbranded, that have the same doctrinal beliefs, should there be any difference. No, there shouldn't, because the gospel is the same no matter what, and just because you go to a branded church, and indeed are a leader in a branded church, does not mean that you are any different, or any better, to a person in the same position in an unbranded church. In a way, it is just a matter of perspective, and my belief is that the perspective can be quite dangerous.
The reason that I say that is that brands tend to be competitive. Take Coke and Pepsi for instance, or Google and Apple. Both have their loyal customers, and both are competing with the other to get customers to switch sides. While all is fair in love and the marketplace, this should not be happening within our Christian communities. In fact, churches really shouldn't be poaching people for other churches, because in the long run, it starts to create an holier than thou attitude, especially when you start claiming that your doctrine is right while their doctrine is not. An old pastor of mine who ran a university ministry, saw the danger that this posed and would discourage university students from dropping out of their church and joining his church. It didn't necessarily work, because it all had to do with perception. All of the cool people went to his church, so by going to his church, one would be cool.
Look, I have my brands that I subscribe to, but I must admit that it is not necessarily something that I really try to let dominate me. Football teams are a classic example, because when we follow a team we are subscribing to a brand. It is all well and good to go for Man-U since they always win, but what if you go for Bolton, or Swansea? You might subscribe to the brand, but you don't always win. However, let me suggest that being a Swansea supporter and seeing them win would probably give you a lot more joy, than being a Man-U supporter and watching them win, again (oh, by the way, I'm an Arsenal supporter, though I must admit that I don't own any Arsenal gear). ( )
  David.Alfred.Sarkies | Apr 20, 2014 |
The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld ( )
  Elishibai | Apr 1, 2012 |
Branded Nation, James Twitchell’s follow-up to his brilliant Living It Up, is not up to the latter’s standard, but is still a fascinating read.

In BN Twitchell again explores the branding of many aspects of life in consumerist American society. This time he focuses on three formerly non-consumerist institutions – churches, universities and museums – and then identifies and dissects the ways in which branding and marketing are changing these institutions inexorably. He’s critical but sympathetic, and generally perceptive.

The book would be a real tour de force if all three sections were as good as the middle one on universities. Twitchell’s a university professor himself, he knows the environment inside out, and he’s utterly devastating in laying bare higher education’s sellout to market forces. He’s also refreshingly free of the ideological cant that most liberal academics resort to in such analyses; rather, he’s identified how supposedly crucial ‘issues’ such as diversity are farces that mask universities’ real concern, i.e. student enrollments and the bottom line.

But the other two sections of the book fall short of this standard. The museums section wanders a bit, and the initial section on churches is not very good at all. Twitchell makes a crucial assumption that undermines his entire analysis, i.e. that the content of what churches teach is fungible. That’s simply not true, so he misses many of the subtleties in this interesting area.

Never the less, Twitchell’s overall analysis is still excellent and insightful. It’s an indictment of the higher education system he’s critiquing that Twitchell’s not an academic superstar – problem is, he tells way too much of the truth, and tells it far too clearly. ( )
  mrtall | Mar 31, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743243471, Paperback)

Branding has become so successful and so ubiquitous that even cultural institutions have embraced it. In this witty and trenchant social analysis, James Twitchell shows how churches, universities, and museums have learned to embrace Madison Avenue rather than risk losing market share.

Branded Nation uncovers a society where megachurches resemble shopping malls (and not by accident); where a university lives or dies on the talents of its image makers -- and its ranking in U.S. News & World Report; and where museums have turned to motorcycle exhibits and fashion shows to bolster revenue, even franchising their own institutions into brands. In short, says Twitchell, high culture is beginning to look more and more like the rest of our culture. But in perhaps his most subversive observation, he doesn't condemn this trend; on the contrary, he believes that branding may be invigorating our high culture, bringing it to new audiences and making it a more integral part of our lives.

Savvy, sharply observed, and bitingly funny, Branded Nation is sure to both enlighten and entertain.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:53:17 -0400)

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A social analysis of the impact of branding discusses how ordinary companies and products have become symbols of American power and had a pervasive affect on higher cultural institutions, including the church, universities, and museums.

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