Monday, January 27, 2014

The Power of Branding

So this polar vortex has created quite the winter, especially for my dear friend whose car lacks heat!  Naturally, he has been drooling over the idea of a new vehicle, but the tough part is his decidedly upmarket taste in automobiles.  “Why can’t I like a Hyundai as much as a Mercedes?” he wondered.  “The features aren’t all that different.”

“It’s Branding” I reply

“Hmmm. If branding can do that, maybe we should consider rebranding black people!”

+Wieden+Kennedy you up for it?

Sound crazy?  Well, you can start to see how “brands” could apply to people groups based on this definition from the Economic Times: “A brand is a name given to a product and/or service such that it takes on an identity by itself.  It is akin to a living being: it has an identity and personality, name, culture, vision, emotion and intelligence.”

Because brands come with an identity and personality, they can alter perceptions dramatically.  For example, Mercedes has a brand of being the best in safety, comfort and design, so when one breaks down, you may chalk it up to the intricacies of German Engineering.  A Daewoo has the brand of being, well, cheap.  When one breaks down, it is instantly a piece of junk.
Similarly, we place judgments on people’s words and actions based on the brand of their in-group.  Black, White, Latino are not just innocuous adjectives.  They are charged with identity and emotion that paint whomever wears them. 

Now some might say, hey, black folks have a pretty good brand already.  We are assumed to be amazing at sports, asked to sing gospel music at random times because surely we can, and our hair is so awesome that everyone wants to touch it.

It’s the negative bits about the brand, though that are just so condemning.

For example, much has been made of the whole Richard Sherman controversy, and even more with comparison to the recent arrest of Justin Bieber.   What makes it socially acceptable, even natural to refer to a Stanford grad and elite athlete as a thug?  Branding.

And sometimes, the power of brand can be deadly serious.  Not once, but twice in the past 6 months, African Americans have been involved in automobile accidents, then shot and killed while seeking help for their injuries.  In September, Jonathan Ferrell crawled out of his back car window and made it to the nearest home after a serious accident.  The woman in the home promptly called the police.  When police arrived, Ferrell ran towards them for help only to be met with deadly force.  The officer who shot Ferrell 10 times was recently indicted.

In November, 19-year-old Renisha McBride was fatally shot in the back of the head by a homeowner while seeking help after a car accident.  McBride was intoxicated and injured at the time of the shooting.

What makes you decide if the person at your door is a victim or a threat?  Branding. Per a 2002 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, both White and Black Americans given a video game simulation in which they have to identify and shoot “armed” suspects are faster to shoot African American subjects.  The most common mistake observed in this simulation was shooting unarmed African Americans.   No matter our race or background, every one of us keep unconscious biases in our heads.  These pre-developed brand identities turn a Mexican American into an illegal immigrant, a beautiful Asian woman into a sex object, the private schooled Caucasian teen into a spoiled rich kid, or an African American student into a criminal. 

Of course, this is nothing new.  Christ himself faced a negative brand identify related to his city of origin.  Nathaniel, one of his future disciples, was quick to judge on this basis, exclaiming “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”  However, after his first encounter with Jesus, he instead proclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”  You see, Nathaniel could easily decry the redneck, backwater of Israel as a place where no good could originate.  When he came face to face with his Good, his brand perception was instantly and irrevocably altered.

And for us, church, the same can happen as we come face to face with the Christ in diverse others. Changing the brand identity we hold of an out group doesn’t take a 30 second spot or a digital campaign. Neither The Man your Man Could Smell Like nor Momsong will be required.  The best way to change our perceptions is through contact. This is where our multi-ethnic and multicultural churches play a tremendous role. Diverse individuals in our pews become part of our friendship circles.  When we have a number of close relationships with persons of different ethnicities, the generalizations in our heads are replaced with a very specific knowledge of and love for those in our church families.      

A second and also important way of changing our brand perception is by slowing down our way of thinking.  In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman outlines how our “fast system” of thinking makes snap, unconscious judgments based on past experiences and perceptions.  Our “slow system” however, is capable of conscious, rational thought.  We must decide to access our slow system when it comes to judging others.  The next time you find yourself placing a snap judgment on someone due to their words or actions, slow down your thinking a moment to consider:

- Would I think the same thing if this were a person of a different ethnicity?
- Would I think the same thing if this person were a woman/ man?
- Would I think the same thing if this person were a member of my family?
- Under what circumstances might I behave similarly?

You might surprise yourself by finding your perception had less to do with that particular person’s actions and more to do with how you perceive their in-group.

Brands are powerful, but God has the power to wreck our human constructs.  When Christ came, he promptly obliterated every brand perception his contemporaries held dear.  From the value of women to the piety of the Samaritans, from the wisdom of Galileans to the faith of Gentiles, nothing was left untouched.  Through the Spirit of God, the church can do the same by including every ethnicity, race, and culture in every one of our local churches.  Through fellowship, we will come to know and celebrate each person for who they are.  

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