Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Rose By Any Other Name

Indulge me in a bit of shop talk.

Imagine an entrepreneur pitching a new venture to a VC over lunch in a swanky restaurant.

The concept is a spiritual community, a church.

"What makes this different from all the other churches, all the other religions?" asks the VC.

The attraction for people (value proposition in marketing parlance) is a DIY (do it yourself) theology — meaning the freedom to form your own spiritual beliefs. Add to this a strong and supportive community that welcomes and affirms everyone, and programs that engage the members to make the world better.

"What members? Who's the target market?"

The entrepreneur responds enthusiastically that there's a huge pool to draw from. First, many people in the country don't have a religious affiliation, yet feel the need for meaning and community in their lives. Many others feel constrained by their present church, where asking questions isn't comfortable, at best, grounds for excommunication, at worst. Add those who are marginalized or rejected by their churches, like many in the GLBT community.

The VC gets it. The concept makes sense. It's compelling and could even go viral. That raises areas to probe, like how the support infrastructure scales and the quality of the management team. Can they manage the growth, articulate the message to the market?

"So what is the name? What do you call this spiritual community?"

"Uh, Unitarian Universalism."


I serve on the board of a credit union. The credit union was formed in 1958 to provide financial services to the employees of a company. 52 years later, the company has been bought and sold, sliced and diced, and is no longer the raison d'etre for the credit union.

Seeing the pending demise of our target market, several years ago we opened a branch in the center of the city and are refocusing our strategy to serve that community. However the credit union still carries the name of the company.

Earlier this week, the board met with a branding firm to discuss changing the name, creating a new brand — name, logo, theme — that will be relevant to the community we now wish to serve. The creative director of the firm, in pretty strong language, confirmed what we had feared: despite the downtown location with lots of foot traffic, we are losing potential members who not only don't identify with the name, but who feel the name excludes them.

Many names of religious denominations tie to the origins of their movements, relevant even today to the core of their beliefs. Baptist, Buddhist, Lutheran. Unitarian Universalism, too, reflects the ideas that led to the Unitarian and Universalist movements, although perhaps the name is not as relevant to the theological diversity found in our churches today.

Without disparaging any of the richness and history of our tradition, I wonder how many potential members of our churches don't get beyond the 10 syllables of our name. If we are, indeed, to become the religion of our time, we should understand the image and visceral reaction that our name creates — especially if it is impeding the realization of our vision.


(Chalice art by Deborah Stille, All Souls UU Church, Shreveport, LA)

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