The Evolution of Christian Branding

Remember that fish-shaped thing, that cute little symbol that is supposed to be associated with Christianity?

It is called the Ichthys,which is  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. Those 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 marketer noticed that Christians were now blossoming into a substantial and attractive affinity-demographic group, one that was perhaps easily schnookered, too. Hey, 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. Flashing one of these was as if your were saying, “Hey! I’m a Christian, and I’m also cool!”

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 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 says 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?

Some bold souls incorporate Christian symbols into their enterprise as a means of co-branding their business, so to speak, announcing to the world that their dry cleaner business, or construction company is not just an ordinary business, but a “Christian” business.

I’m not sure whether labeling a business as Christian is 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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About J.B. Wood
  • Sandra Sims

    Oh you have hit the nail on the head of one of my biggest pet peeves! Put a cross or fish on a candle, a shirt, a mug, a pair of shoes, anything and it makes it Christian. While intentions may be pure from the business and consumers point of view, in my opinion there are much better ways to live out Christ like values in the marketplace.

    • http://www.shrinkingthecamel.com shrinkingthecamel

      Yeah, I kind of feel the same way. I’ve always thought of those artifacts as a little cheesy. But that’s just me.

  • http://www.lifeofasteward.com Loren Pinilis

    I’m not really hung up on the symbols one way or the other. I think if you’re living a truly Christian life in the marketplace, then it doesn’t really matter if you choose to display the outward symbols or not. But the danger is when you’re flashing the symbols and somehow think that’s all you have to do.

    • http://www.shrinkingthecamel.com shrinkingthecamel

      What bothers me more is the idea of people using the Christian symbols to somehow brand themselves, as a marketing gimmick. The bumper stickers aren’t so bad, but when it comes to incorporating into a business, I just wonder.

  • http://optimistwf.wordpress.com optimistwf

    Great thoughts here! I think that these ideas can also translate to the idea that somehow the United States is a “Christian Nation.” Thank you for sharing!

  • S. Etole

    I’ve read that the “sign” of a Christian is their love. That one is a little more difficult to market. Enjoyed your thoughts.

    • http://www.shrinkingthecamel.com shrinkingthecamel

      Well. You just called it out, I think. Very good, Susan.

  • http://www.justsaytheword.wordpress.com nancy

    If i am a believer, i am a believer everywhere. In other words…If i’m not a believer at work, than i’m not a a believer. My faith goes with me everywhere…or i should forget the whole thing and spare everyone the nonsense.

    I don’t get the reasoning or real need for the use of a physical symbol worn on the body, car, sign, or building. I don’t even really understand why people wear a cross on adornment/jewelry.

    I agree with what Susan Etole mentioned, in that we are to be known by our Love…

    I totally understand the point; symbols are something that anyone can use in any way, but, the Love that is in God, can be seen for what it is.

    • http://www.shrinkingthecamel.com shrinkingthecamel

      So un-branding is more the thing, right? Be the essence, rather than finding an object that signifies it, and the symbols aren’t necessary. (Did that make any sense? I think I know what we’re saying..:)

      • http://www.justsaytheword.wordpress.com nancy

        I don’t think that we can completely be the essence. In fact, we do take the faith with us everywhere, but, we don’t always act on our faith. And the symbol is more than not necessary, it can be a misrepresentation of the Love of God.

        If someone did not know us, and they saw the Love of God through us, then they would know God by the Love shown. However, if someone did not know us and saw us acting in a way that was not God’s Love, they would not hold it against God…well, unless perhaps there was a symbol representing Him.

        Now, how can we possibly take the chance of branding our “self” with a sign that produces certain expectations from others. Expectations to be a person that acts out of faith at all times? Perfection….not likely.

        I think that God can do a better job of showing Himself than a symbol can.

        I wonder if it is possible to use other things as reminders that speak only to us. What would be some good reminders like that for you? Maybe something personal, between you and God…

  • http://footprintsonthecourse.wordpress.com rxnickrun

    There is nothing worse (or ironic) than encountering a “christian” with fish on their car who show you the “bird” with their finger as they cut you off! The same goes for people with tattoos or jewelry with Christian significance. I don’t have an issue with any of them but do wish more people lived in a way that was consistent with there meaning than showing a symbol they treat with no respect.

    • http://www.shrinkingthecamel.com shrinkingthecamel

      You too? Ha! That is the danger of blatant advertising — everyone’s watching.

  • http://agrigirl.wordpress.com Tammy

    I come at it in a slightly different way. I wear a cross frequently, have a small (but tasteful ;-) ) one in my car, stick one in the pocket of my son’s baseball trousers, and have a small faith first sign in my office. These are icons for me to see so that when I do, I reaffirm my own faith and say a quick breath prayer or give thanks. I need reminders to be a better Christian and these things help me.

    • http://www.shrinkingthecamel.com shrinkingthecamel

      Tammy, your comment made me realize that I actually do like having some symbols around (not necessarily on me or my car) to remind me. I have a prayer card tacked onto my computer, and a cross tacked to my bulletin board at my office. Simple things that catch my attention during the day, as you say, “reminders.”

      I would say, however, that these personal, sacred items differ from “advertising” our faith. Do you think?

      • http://agrigirl.wordpress.com Tammy

        Yes, they are different from advertising but I display them nonetheless.

  • David @ Red Letter Believers

    I dont have a problem with putting bumper sticker on your car, as long as your driving matches the message.

    I remember seeing a sticker once that said, “Heavenbound” with a dove and a cross on either side.

    Problem was, they drove like hell.

    • http://www.shrinkingthecamel.com shrinkingthecamel

      Yes, I’ve witnessed the same. Unfortunate.

  • David @ Red Letter Believers

    now to seriously address your post. I always shop the ads with a fish. I figure if they are willing to expose their faith, then I’m willing to spend my money with them.

    yet, we still need to be as ‘shrewd as snakes” when it comes to things like this, looking for the charletons and fakes. There have been many ponzi schemes perputated by people of faith, those who trust their ‘brother’ more than good common sense.

    • http://www.shrinkingthecamel.com shrinkingthecamel

      There’s also the aspect of quality and workmanship, etc. I’d rather do business with someone I trust because of the reputation of their quality, service and integrity. I would like to assume a fish-sign indicates that, but until I have experience, I won’t necessarily believe.


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