As I was reading and reflecting on this week’s gospel (John 12, 20-33) I couldn’t help but think about the concepts of brands and branding. A bizarre line of thought maybe, but hey-ho.
Brands are interesting things (up to a point). At a branding seminar in the early 1990’s I was told that brands are a mixture of the incontrovertible truths, about a company, product or service and, a range of intangible benefits, features and even promises. I think this is a fair description. Let’s unpick this for a second or two by considering a particular brand. I have chosen Mont Blanc pens, but really any brand will do.
Let’s start with the most basic of facts: the Mont Blanc pen is nothing other, in reality, than a pen. It is a means of writing. Theoretically it would be perfectly possible for a company to make a pen to the same quality as a Mont Blanc pen and simply retail it as something called Pen. The trouble is that they wouldn’t be able to command a premium price, for the ability to command a premium comes not from the basic product features, or even necessarily the price of the raw materials used to manufacture the product, but through the intangible benefits that owning a product, good or service is supposed to provide. In the case of luxury brands, such as Mont Blanc, the intangible benefits include status, esteem and the perception of wealth and happiness. Mont Blanc pens are a club good. Most, certainly most premium consumer brands, are club goods. The basic message is buy this product or service and you can become a member of an elite group; a group capable of giving, and providing you, with a sense of identity. The marketing message of the brand manager is, in some senses, deeply theological: ‘we come that you may have life in all its abundance.’ The snag is that in order to buy into this false narrative the product, good or service on offer needs to become an object of deep desire. The good is to become in some senses a god.
This promise is of course a lie, or even a heresy, for no brand can offer life in all its abundance. The marketing folk know that their promises are shallow, for brands that provide life-long satisfaction will go out of business. Mont Blanc needs its customers to buy more pens. Brand management is about selling the illusion of satisfaction and not its permanence. The job of the brand manager is to keep the customer mildly dissatisfied whilst at the same time seeking to retain their loyalty by offering the promise that your status within the club will be enhanced if only you buy a bigger, better and more expensive product from the range on offer. Brands, in this way are discriminatory and exclusive.
The exclusive and discriminatory nature of brands, justified through the science of ‘customer segmentation’ was brought home to me when I became an ordinand. For the previous decade or so my bank, Barclays, had offered me all manner of treats as a premier customer: a leatherette cheque book cover, a snazzy looking debit card, a personal banker, a guaranteed overdraft facility, access to a premier loan, the occasional offer of entering a ballot for football tickets and so forth. Of course the real desire was to sell me products! My ‘premier’ status was won on the basis of my, then, income. The very month that I became an ordinand the bank were on the phone: ‘what has happened to your income?’ When I explained that I was now the grateful recipient of a training grant so I could attend theological college I was downgraded, with immediate effect, to the status of an ordinary customer. No more perks. My membership of the Barclays premier club was withdrawn, taken away. My new cheque books and debit card arrived and I never heard from my ‘premier banker’ again. The bank was effectively telling me that from henceforth I should consider myself Joe Average. C’est la vie. I had been, once again segmented.
The Cross is , of course, the most visible symbol of Christianity. I hesitate to call it a brand but its true that the crucifixion was a historical fact and, that Christians believe that benefits flow from a life of purposeful faith. The cross was the place where Jesus was branded, as a criminal, and killed, not for his own benefit but ours. The crucified Jesus is the same Jesus who John (10,10) records as saying, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’
The ‘they’ in Jesus’ terms means everyone: you, me, us. Jesus makes the universal branding promise: I, not you, will pay: I will pay once and once only, for there is nothing worse you can do to me and, my ‘offer’ is universal, I don’t segment or discriminate: I do not chose to differentiate between people.
At the beginning of the gospel passage we are told that some Greeks had come to worship at the festival (of the Passover) and had approached Philip saying Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Andrew (good chap – my namesake) then goes and informs Jesus. Jesus then suggests that the only way that they, like his kin the Jews, will be able to see Jesus and, all that he stands for is through the Cross. It is not a snazzy or glossy image but it is the universal image, or symbol, and, whatever the marketing folk would have us believe, the cross is the only way we can ever come to ‘have life in all its abundance.’ Surveying the ‘wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died,’ is our Passiontide invitation.
The Cross is the only true means through which we are able to claim life in all its abundance and, play our role in putting an end to segmentation, classification and discrimination.