The Evolution of Christian Branding

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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?

Image by Pixabay

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