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The Evolution of Christian Branding

September 9, 2009

Remember that fish-shaped thing, that cute little symbol that is supposed to be associated with Christianity? It is called the Ichthys,which is really an anagram made up of five Greek letters that mean “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” The Ichthys apparently dates back to the first and second century, when Christians had the misfortune of being hunted down, tortured and killed by Roman rulers. These fish symbols were like a secret code, letting them know when they were safe among other believers. Seeing that little fish painted onto a cave wall or scratched in the dirt on the road said, “Hey! I’m a Christian, too! I am not going to torture or kill you!” Big sigh of relief.

Fast forward to a somewhat more lax period in Christian history: America in the early 1970’s. Some enterprising and observant young marketer noticed that Christians were now blossoming into a substantial and attractive affinity-demographic group, one that was perhaps easily schnookered, too. Why not turn that ancient Ichthys into a branding gimmick for Christians? That way, they can identify themselves to each other, and to the whole world. They’ll love it! Soon enough, that little fish started showing up everywhere: on apparel, tote bags, key rings and car bumpers. It said, “Hey! I’m a Christian, and I’m also cool!”

Then, a few years later, some cynical evolutionists latched on to that fish idea. They replaced the Greek lettering with “Darwin” and added feet to that little guy, morphing it into a lizard-looking creature that had just crawled up out of the primordial ocean. I would guess that those Darwinian fishes now outnumber the Christian fishes. I often see them on the bumpers of cars, beneath the Grateful Dead stickers, the little fish feet glimmering in the sunlight. Passing by one of these on the freeway, it seems to be saying to me, “Hey! You’re a Christian, and you’re an idiot!”

Unfortunately the idea of Christian branding can backfire. I sometimes wonder if going to such great lengths to identify Christians with a brand has a net negative result – alienating people and creating an aura of exclusivity and superiority, rather than making people feel attracted to the Christian faith.

InsideWork recently ran a post called “The Rise of Christian Business,” discussing this sometimes-awkward mash-up of businesses “going Christian.” Featured in this post was a story from Salon magazine entitled, “Verily, I sell unto you ” which questioned whether labeling a business as Christian was a way of truly standing up for something, or just another gaudy marketing tactic.

The truth is that a business is just a collection of products, services, people and numbers. A business can’t be Christian any more than a dollar bill can, or your car, or your music can be. It’s just a vehicle to do something else with.

Now, a person with a soul, however, that’s a different story.  A human being can definitely be a Christian. And I respect any business leader who brings their faith to their workplace. But to advertise it with a little fish on a keychain? Or make it part of the business name? I am not sure if that is being bold, or just plain self-indulgent.   

Those early Christians probably didn’t know much about marketing. But if they were around today, I’d be curious what they would make of the strange journey of that fish-sign, from secret code to questionable cultural icon. Would they think we were savvy, or smarmy?

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2009 5:30 am

    If a business uses the ichthys to help advertise/promote itself, then it should first consider that little symbol an announcement to the world that it will be held to a higher level of accountability than those who don’t. But, unfortunately, I believe you’re right — it’s more about marketing to just another demographic group and less about quality, service and performance.

  2. September 10, 2009 6:18 am

    Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t care what the world does with our crosses and ichthyses, I wear them anyway. I AM a Christian, and I back up the symbol I wear with my smile, words and actions.

    The ichthus on my car isn’t on the bumper but on my rearview mirror, to remind me that even my driving should reflect Jesus. Because what I DO have on my rear bumper is this: NO JESUS NO PEACE / KNOW JESUS KNOW PEACE. For me, that ichthus is about the accountability Glynn speaks of.

  3. September 10, 2009 10:50 am

    It’s an interesting dilemma, because any group will look for ways to solidify its identity… including purchasing products that say “I’m part of this group.”

    And the Christian market is a legitimate market… there are products and services they would like access to, that they just happen to have to buy.

    So. Branding may be necessary. Branding without commercial smarminess may not always be avoidable. It’s part of doing business. Of course, I’m all for beautiful branding.

    (Like, hey, what do you think of http://twitter.com/tspoetry Though we don’t have anything for sale. And, hey, we missed you.)

  4. September 10, 2009 4:11 pm

    “A business can’t be Christian any more than a dollar bill..
    ..Now, a person with a soul, however, that’s a different story.”

    I like this post, Bradly. It’s important to question why Christians do the things we do.

    Because as soon as something is done outside of faith, but for selfish gain, there is a fine line between standing proud and selling doves in the court temple.

    Out here in CA, I actually applaud those who have the ichthus sign on their business or vehicle. It is not faith friendly waters here, and so, I think if it’s out in public, they are definitely gonna be taking a lot of invisible hits because of it.

    I put the ichthus sign on my blog because I wanted other believers to know my blog is not some spiritual enlightenment website 😉

    Great to have you visit at FaithBarista, Bradley! Great to meet a spiritual bro.

  5. donkimrey permalink
    September 10, 2009 11:10 pm

    Just wanted you to know I’m in the audience applauding and “amenning,” even if silently sometimes. I had an advertising/PR bizness at one time. One client owned a restaurant. Regularly he ran an ad in the newspaper with a smiley picture of him and his wife occupying most of the space and a squeaky little slogan saying “Jesus is Lord.” Barely visible. I once told him I felt the best advertisement for a Christian restauranteur was to serve the best cuisine in town.

    You have some very discerning guests, and their responses are a credit to you, them, and your Lord.

    Those who know us will make their determination about the validity of our position for sure. But it will not be based on our bumper stickers or any symbols we show or wear.

  6. September 10, 2009 11:30 pm

    brands are originally for things that are manmade to show who made them. now it is to show who sells them…or how to identify with the product.

    the fish was an identification tool that was used in secret for good reason.

    now it is an identification tool that is used for much different reasons.

    why people can not paint their own fish on their car is what boggles my mind.

    anyone can wear levi jeans, but, does that mean that they belong to old levi? same thing with the fish…it is just a symbol that can be taken on and off.

  7. shrinkingthecamel permalink*
    September 11, 2009 5:01 am

    Okay, folks. I’m just going to go with Nancy’s comment here as the final word:

    “Why can’t people paint their own fish on their car is what boggles my mind. Anyone can wear Levi’s jeans, but does that mean they belong to old levi?”

    Two very profound thoughts, indeed.

    To everyone else — you guys do make some important points, pro and con. I like Don’s question to the restaurant-owner with the “Jesus is Lord” ad – “Shouldn’t a restraunteur be advertising good cuisine?”

    Good stuff, guys. Bonnie, LL and Anne -You are making me a little less cynical about this stuff.

  8. September 29, 2009 10:33 am

    I actually like your cynicism. Somebody has to stand there.

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