Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworldby James B. Twitchell
Branding, says James Twitchell, is nothing more than commercial storytelling; brands are the stories that are associated with products. (For example, the special taste of Evian, says Twitchell, is in the brand, not the water.) Branding has become so successful, so ubiquitous that even institutions that we thought were above branding, antithetical to branding, have succumbed. Such cultural institutions as religion, higher education, and the art world have learned to love Madison Avenue or lose market share. Of course, most ministers, university presidents, and museum directors will insist that branding has nothing to do with them, but as Twitchell brilliantly demonstrates in this witty, insightful examination of three of our most important cultural institutions, wherever supply exceeds demand branding follows.
The rise of the megachurch epitomizes branding in religion. From its inception the megachurch was designed not to compete with other churches but to bring in the "unchurched," especially men, worshippers who might otherwise be home watching television or strolling through the mall on a Sunday morning. The megachurches have been phenomenally popular, none more so than Willow Creek Community Church, just south of Chicago, one of the oldest megachurches, which Twitchell analyzes in Branded Nation.
Colleges and universities have embraced branding as they have grown more alike. Especially among the top schools in the country, the student bodies, the faculties, often even the campuses themselves are practically interchangeable. What distinguishes each school is the story it tells about itself. Now every institution of higher learning has its image organizers, its brand managers, usually in the admissions or development offices, whose job it is to make their institution seem different from all the rest.
Even museums, with their multimillion-dollar Monets, have seen the advantages of branding. The blockbuster exhibitions often put familiar paintings in a new context, that is, they provide a new narrative, branding the art. Museums keep expanding their stores, placing them not just near the entrance on the ground floor but throughout the museum, in the galleries themselves. Some museums, such as the Guggenheim, even franchise themselves, turning the institution itself into a brand.
In short, high culture is beginning to look more and more like the rest of our culture.
In perhaps his most subversive observation, Twitchell doesn't condemn the branding of cultural institutions. On the contrary, he believes that branding may be invigorating our high culture, bringing it to new audiences, making it a more integral part of our lives.
Not since Bobos in Paradise has there been such a trenchant, provocative analysis of our world.
Randall Rothenberg, author of Where the Suckers Moon: An Advertising Story and columnist, Advertising Age
"Twitchell is a tart-tongued observer who details how every corner of the culture has been exploited for commerce."
Geoff Lewis, BusinessWeek
"Readers fascinated by the pervasiveness of marketing in American life will revel in the way Twitchell parses our industry and academic lexicon."
Clayton Collins, The Christian Science Monitor
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The Future of Branded Living Space: Megachurch as Minitown
The allure of linking cultural aspiration with living space has always informed community. When you look at most utopian experiments you see they are usually informed by some metaphysical plan, some religious program. After all, this country was founded by Puritans who were trying to link otherworld belief with this-world reality. The City on the Hill was going to be built around Christian apocalyptic vision. So when one of the lower denominations of Protestantism decides to brand living space as with Jim and Tammy Bakker's Heritage USA (at one time the third most visited U.S. tourist attraction, behind Disneyland and Disney World) or Jerry Falwell's Liberty University (to "challenge Harvard in academics and Notre Dame in athletics"), they are squarely in the tradition of our forefathers, although we may be loath to admit it.
The megachurch is at this intersection between sacred and profane. It inspires reverence, awe, and commitment and at the same time it attempts to generate a mimic of village life. It attempts to link Sunday with the rest of the week. Just as the congregation enjoys fellowship in shared faith, the megachurch also provides the interactions of club, family, and business. One of the primary redevelopers of derelict malls around the country has been the megachurch. Old shopping meccas are becoming new religious meccas.
As Patricia Leigh Brown reports in "Megachurches as Minitowns," this is a predictable evolution of reconstituted community. The fullservice, 24/7 sprawling megachurch, which offers many of the conveniences and trappings of secular life wrapped around a spiritual core, is essentially subsuming many of the activities previously outsourced by the only-on-Sunday church. It is possible to eat, shop, go to school, bank, work out, scale a rock-climbing wall, and pray, all 278 without leaving the grounds. It's like the New England village on steroids, the church as gated community.
Often these churches seem to fetishize the very objects of community. So at Southeast Christian in Louisville, Kentucky, churchgoers speak of a 22,000-person family, and visitors are regaled with often loopy statistics such as the automated coffeepot that serves five thousand cups an hour. Southeast's size has spawned the invention of the Greenlee Communion Dispensing Machine, which can fill forty communion cups in two seconds. Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, by attracting young congregants and keeping them, has grown from a handful of families to 20,000 members in a dozen years. Fellowship offers a 40,000-square-foot youth center with a climbing wall and video arcade and is creating a lake to encourage father-son bass fishing. Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, has a youth center so elaborate that some have called it "Preston World": fifteen ball fields, a 1950s-style diner, and a fitness center, as well as classrooms and a seven-thousand-seat sanctuary. It is adding a $19 million school, a coffee shop, a food court, a student ministry center, a youth building, an outdoor prayer walk, a chapel, and an indoor commons, modeled on the idea of Main Street. As Ms. Brown concludes, "These churches are becoming civic in a way unimaginable since the 13th century and its cathedral towns. No longer simply places to worship, they have become part resort, part mall, part extended family and part town square."
As I saw at Willow Creek, these seemingly unthreatening churches are becoming a parallel universe, a self-conscious branded community, social magnets drawing in all manner of outside services (the Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston has even incorporated a Mc- Donald's complete with a drive-in window and small golden arches) with all manner of cradle-to-grave services (including in some cases an on-site crematorium). Essentially, the megachurch has the necessary market clout to buy back what we have spent the last hundred years selling off. 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 nonpastoral interactions. In fact, it means the megachurch may be becoming dependent on competitive amenities just as Higher Ed, Inc., has.
Yet in stark contrast to the issues roiling the big traditional churches, these place-based churches offer relief from stresses on American family life, including suburban sprawl, with its vast commutes, and real and perceived dangers. These bastions offer simple things such as multiple entry points, nonintimidating iconography, ATMs, big-time gyms, computer classes, dating services, after-school programs, places that sell real spiritwear, internal clubs to help smokers learn how to quit and bowlers learn how not to do it alone -- things usually associated with the marketplace community. If people are shopping for faith, the megachurch fills up the shelves. 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.
To hard-pew critics, such belief-as-lifestyle is closer to lifestyle-asbelief. But such marketing is the inevitable development of interchangeable surplus goods. Yes, everything is prepackaged, including extended family. In a historical sense, the church as safe harbor is revived and reformatted to conform to the shoppers' climate-controlled mentality -- room-temperature religion. Yes, the megachurch is the religious version of the gated community, and yes, it is religious Disneyland, but it is also the ineluctable result of combining powerful narrative with human yearning and plenty of free parking.
The Future of Branded Living Space: Alma Mater Township
While we usually associate the colonization of living space with religious institutions, the instillation of cultural capital into museums and universities means that they may be the next to extend their brands into generating community. It is already happening with universities; perhaps museums will follow. Nonprofits will be able to bank on the brand equity by extending their stories to living space just as commercial and religious entities have done.
In Higher Ed, Inc., the brand extension happened innocently enough. A generation ago, a number of universities decided to develop so-called research parks. Stanford Research Park, opened by Stanford University in 1951 as an incubator of university research, catapulted to success on the decision by William Hewlett and David Packard to locate their growing computer company there. In a sense, Silicon Valley, an extension of the Stanford park, followed. A decade later, a consortium of universities in the Piedmont area of North Carolina joined with local government officials to found the Research Triangle Park. With more than fifty companies employing almost 35,000 people, the Park now has only a tenuous academic connection to Duke, UNC, and NC State but a profound perceptual link.
Such success in extending the academic brand did not go unnoticed. The real burst came in 1980, when passage of the Bayh-Dole Act gave schools the right to patent federally financed inventions. The initial beneficiaries were the large research universities. The park concept was made still more attractive because the legislatures realized that State U. didn't have to be a continual financial drain; it could be a source of income. There are now about 130 of these cleverly named parks that are supported by, and in turn contribute to, host universities. Or, at least, that's the hope.
If the results of university-supported research have been mixed, the next development is probably going to succeed. Since selling affiliations of various sorts is now the biggest money maker for universities (and not tuition), why not extend the brand to include older students? In fact, why not forget the students for a moment and create a living environment for alums? University-Linked Retirement Communities (ULRCs) are the watchword for future brand growth. While the golf course may be attractive and living next to a hospital may seem comforting, why not also live next to your alma mater? In fact, why not live on campus?
In the last decade these affiliated communities have been growing like collegial ivy. In most cases, the community itself isn't owned by the college or university. The ULRCs are outsourced just as are the teaching and food service. The symbiosis succeeds because universities have such a problem with fixed costs. Although they operate year-round, the academic term lasts only nine months. Summer school has never been a money maker, and no school has ever been able to succeed with a full-year calendar, although some schools attempt to mandate attending a certain number of summer sessions. In the past, universities often rented campus space in the summer to private conventions or private summer schools and struck various lease arrangements that allowed schools to off-load their dormitory services to private developers. The ULRC solves many problems of maximizing the use of facilities. Often the community does have some kind of access to the school that allows residents to take courses free or at deeply discounted prices. The expansion starts simply enough. First, offer spaces to alumni/ae and retired professors; then provide housing for parents of the students/faculty/staff; then extend to relatives of alumni; then take anyone with the money. Is there a better brandstory than lifelong learning? Needless to say, when you look at the brochures, the second paragraph details the proximity to university medical care.
The largest operator of ULRCs is Kendal Corporation in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, which already has communities at Dartmouth, Cornell, and Oberlin. Classic Residence by Hyatt, the senior living affiliate of Hyatt Corporation, has signed a long-term ground lease with Stanford University to build and operate a 494-unit retirement community near the university medical center. Retirement communities have been built or are planned for the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State University, the University of Michigan, the University of Alabama, Louisiana State University, the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University, the University of Virginia, and Duke University. You don't have to major in Retirement Communities 101 to see the possibilities. All you have to know is that in 2003 the United States had 35 million people over age 65. By 2035 that number will double.
In Gainesville, Florida, where I teach, Oak Hammock is being built at the University of Florida. This appropriately named continuing care retirement community will have 269 living units, comprising 212 apartments and 57 "villas" and "club homes." There will also be 69 rooms for those who need assistance or nursing care. As you might imagine, I get lots of junk mail from it, so I filled out one of its forms. My phone hasn't stopped ringing. I've gotten a ream of brochures assuring me that I don't have to have any connection with the university to join, that I'll be able to go to the hospital or to the football games whenever the spirit and body move, and that I'll "finally have time to work on personal growth" by enrolling in the Institute of Learning in Retirement (ILR), which is in partnership with the Institute on Aging.
Higher Ed, Inc., loves institutes. In fact, in one of the endless brochures there is a picture of an elderly man with books piled up to his chin over which is his freshman first-day-of-classes smile from ear to ear. The brochure concludes with this: "Registrations are now being accepted for upcoming classes." All he needs is a beanie. And, although I haven't corresponded, let alone communicated, with President Charles Young of my university since he arrived there a number of years ago, as you can see, he thanks me for my interest and hopes that I'll join the university family. A week later, I also received a huge postcard from someone else concerned about my well-being asking me, this time in handwritten form, to please let her know how I was coming along with my decision to join "a unique university-affiliated retirement community with all the best that college and life have to offer!"
Not all is lost. If your school doesn't get you for your retirement perhaps they'll get you for your postretirement. The Wall Street Journal reported that the hottest brand extender on campus is to sell space in columbariums, which is essentially a crypt built into the campus. This seems particularly appealing in the mid-south where students take their heritage seriously. So for $3,000 a slot, you can rest easy in the University of Richmond, or for $1,800, you can become part of Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia, literally. Other schools that offer such homecomings are predictably military academies and religious schools. With about half of deaths now resulting in cremation and with other affiliation groups such as family and denominational church receding in importance, the selling of monogrammed strongboxes for your ashes, like rah-rah sweatshirts and logoed mugs, seems alluring. And, since about fifty schools, from the University of Alabama to the University of Virginia, already sell caskets emblazoned with school insignias for about what a crypt would cost, the comparative price advantage seems obvious. Now we're really talking spiritwear. According to the Journal, the cooperating schools earn about 7.5 to 10 percent on the sales, about what they earn on the sweatshirts and coffee mugs.
Guggenheim Heights? Not Yet, But Kinkadeville Is Up and Going
Museums have been slow to extend their brands into theme parks for the obvious reason: levels of affiliation do not run so deep nor the recognition so high. As we have seen, museums clearly have crosspollinated with high-end luxury shopping (the Prada home store and its museum-based counterpart) and with themed escape (the art galleries in Las Vegas at the Bellagio and the Venetian). And certainly museums have proved a housing boon to whatever community they appear in, as witness the increase in housing costs near the Queens MoMA or the gentrification of places such as Beacon, New York, when the Art Foundation appeared or Bilbao, Spain, after the Guggenheim.
But the active collaboration between housing development and museum hasn't appeared, yet. That's because museums are almost always built on expensive downtown real estate, where they often stimulate urban renewal but are not, in themselves, places to live. Although the MoMA towers rise above the Museum of Modern Art and although museums have all kinds of travel and entertainment events that crisscross, they really haven't gotten into the themed community. And certainly they have not aggressively entered the columbarium business other than the obvious "memorial opportunity" of paying for a chunk of space on which to emblazon your name -- the exception being Salvador DalÍ, who made a rather eloquent statement by being buried beneath the toilets of his own museum in Figueras, Spain.
Doubtless, some museum director is, even as I write this, trying to think of a way to leverage his brand by getting some of the enormous amount of unused product out of storage and into productive circulation. Museums have tried leasing paintings for commercial locales as well as to individuals for decorating personal living space. The sticking point is that the art donor usually demands that the gift stay inside the museum, and insurance companies charge prohibitive premiums if the work is moved off premise. So the innovations in renting art have come from the private sector. Landlords of office buildings often contract with a supplier such as Art Assets LLC or Wilson Meany Sullivan LLC to lease art as a way of separating their products. As Barbara Paley, founder and CEO of Art Assets, says, "Landlords are finding it important to distinguish their buildings one from another to attract and keep tenants." Using branded art in the service of branding office space is something that corporations have been doing for decades. Think only of the art collections of Seagram's, Enron, or Citibank, all of which have been unloaded. What is unique is that now building companies are commissioning art, which they essentially lease to other companies as a way of separating the very product -- office space -- that they have made interchangeable.
True, certain works have made their way from museums into malls and public spaces, and, yes, there are elaborate lending systems that move art from large, overendowed museums into smaller regional ones. But no one has yet figured a way to cross-brand holdings of a specific museum with, say, a hotel chain or a resort. Why not a Guggenheim affiliation with some chain of four-star hotels or a cruise ship? The museum brand may not be sufficiently compelling. More commonly, museums are used as named parts of urban development schemes. But that may change if someone can figure out a way to transport the brand value without moving the product. Contributing to the trend are public policies that mandate that a certain percent of building costs for public works (usually about 1 percent of the budget) be dedicated to art. Since museums play such a crucial role in certifying art, perhaps here they will figure out a way to distribute it as well.
Certainly there are locales in Europe such as Florence, Italy, in which Renaissance art achieves an almost Disneyesque treatment, and quasi shrines such as Givenchy, France, where Monet's house, studio, and garden have become almost a theme park for pilgrims. As might have been predicted, the most innovative transposition of brand from art culture to living space has been achieved by an American, Thomas Kinkade, the self-anointed Painter of Light. Mr. Kinkade, whose usual niche in American visual culture is at the mall or on the trailer wall, has taken his fluorescent schmaltz to a new level. After having illustrated everything from potholders to Bible covers to screen savers, he is closing in on domestic space. In so doing he has become the richest art brand ever, far surpassing the irrepressible DalÍ of the endless lithographs or Mr. and Mrs. Keane of the wide-eyed children fame. Some 20 million of his prints currently hang on the same walls that only recently held the pokerplaying dogs and surf-pounding horses. Mr. Kinkade's genius is not with painted images but with extensions of those images. He is, as he himself says, "an art-based lifestyle brand," so he is ripe to become a gated community. Why sell wall hangings when you can sell the entire house?
In the 1990s, Kinkade joined forces with a construction company to build a housing development in...where else? California. Part of Hiddenbrooke, a massive housing development centered on an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, is The Village, a Thomas Kinkade Community by Taylor Woodrow Homes. While the development is hardly in a cozy glen or a bosky dell (it's right next to Interstate 80), the brochure claims that the developer "has translated Kinkade's light-infused artistry into a neighborhood of extraordinary design and detail." In fact, the development looks like any other scruffy area scraped out of California's scraggly central valley, former ranchland a half-hour drive northeast of San Francisco.
Kinkade's métier is the trailer park as gated community. When you think of it, that's what he paints -- all those cozy little sugarplum houses bathed in all that amber and lemony light. The vision itself, the brand identity, is to be isolated, insulated, and bomb-shelter safe. Not by happenstance do most of his fairy tale houses have a protective fence out front. It's the New Urbanism made High Victorian, then Shrinky- Dinked. The actual project, The Village, with its narrow streets and mock cobblestone driveways, takes its down-home inspiration from Kinkade's paintings and never lets up. That is as long as you keep your head down so you don't notice all the scrub brush and scraggy hills and Interstate 80. While Kinkade is positioned in the mall as "starter art," in northern California his four home designs (named for his four daughters: Winsor, Merritt, Chandler, and Everett) are hardly starter homes. They are priced from $365,000 to $464,000.
Now admittedly it's easy to take potshots at Mr. Kinkade. He is just such a Happy Meal. But as he commented to Susan Orlean, who did a devastating New Yorker portrait of him, "I created a system of marketing compatible with American art. I believe in aspire to art. I want my work to be available but not common. It's good to dream about things. It's like dreaming of owning a Rolex -- instead, you dream about owning a seventy-five-thousand-dollar print."
Copyright © 2004 by James B. Twitchell
Meet the Author
James B. Twitchell is professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida. He is the author of several books on English literature, culture, marketing, and advertising, most recently Living It Up: America's Love Affair with Luxury.
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