On Logos and Symbols, and Marketing Our Faith

It's been about a week now since the UUA announced its new logo, resulting in many opinions shared and some hurt feelings. I've questioned whether the UU universe needs yet another blog post on the matter, but it's been a week and I am realizing that regardless of the answer to that question, I need to share one.

While I worked for the Unitarian Universalist Association I was constantly surprised that proposed initiatives were so often met with assumptions of ill-will, mockery and ridicule. People seem to forget that the UUA is made up of people, mostly fellow Unitarian Universalists, who work in earnestness for the benefit of our faith community and the larger world. At the time, the explanation that made the most sense was that our UU anti-authoritarian tendencies cause us to react reflexively to any new initiatives with suspicion and hostility.

Now, on the outside for over a year, I also realize how often one can feel blindsided by UUA decisions, and how hard it is to not react in frustration. Obviously, the administration has to make decisions and not every decision can be discussed and voted upon – that is part of leadership. But when these changes are announced in language that suggests that the only possible emotions are excitement and joy, and when many of us don't necessarily feel that way about it, the explanation that makes the most sense is that the UUA is “out of touch.”

Thus, when the UUA announced a new chalice last week, familiar patterns arose. Many who dislike the new chalice dismissively accused the administration (and by extension the staff) of lacking vision. Analogies such as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” spoke to that effect. And those who like the new chalice in turn dismissively accused critics of being resistant to change (ie – standing in the way of progress) and being hostile to leadership. Both of these types of responses absolve us of having to actually listen to the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree, because we think we already have an “explanation” for the positions they hold. Of course it is not true that the administration lacks vision. It clearly has a vision and is acting on it. That vision just may be different from our own. Nor is it true that everyone who is upset by the new chalice is resistant to change and/or leadership. No one dislikes change in and of itself; what we dislike is change we don't agree with. Similarly, it's much easier to follow leadership when we agree with the direction it's heading; much harder to follow when it's not. So can we, on both sides, skip these particular kinds of comments and arguments.

One of the main lines of disagreement centers around whether the UUA chalice is a religious symbol or an organizational logo. If it's an organizational logo, then it stands to reason, why shouldn't it be updated every few years? And why shouldn't a marketing firm be hired to design it? And why would the UUA need to confer with UUs about changing the UUA's logo? Indeed, several people have pointed to the fact that other denominations such as the UCC, the UMC (Methodists), and the PCUSA (Presbyterians) all have their own organizational logos that get updated from time to time. They may incorporate versions of, yet are distinct from the Christian cross itself, which has remained a pretty constant symbol for Christianity.

The problem with that argument is that while the distinction between organizational logo and religious symbol works for other religious denominations, that line is blurred in Unitarian Universalsim for a number of reasons. For one thing, unlike Christianity, there aren't several denominations of Unitarian Universalists in the same country. Thus, functionally speaking the UUA is seen as the official voice of UUism in the U.S. Second, the UUA itself blurs that distinction in its own messaging. Look at this image taken from the front page of UUA.org. It uses the symbols for Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Wicca, and in the center is the (old) logo for the UUA. So even the UUA uses its logo as the symbol for UUism. (Would the UCC or PCUSA use their own organizational logos to represent all of Christianity?) Lastly, even though we're told that this is the UUA's logo and congregations don't have to use it, clearly the hope is that congregations will. In fact, the success of the initiative depends in large part upon them doing so, for it would be very confusing to visitors if the UUA were “branding” Unitarian Universalism with its new chalice and yet UU congregations refused to use it. Functionally speaking, the distinction between corporate logo and religious symbol doesn't much exist in UUism.

So my initial reaction to the new UUA chalice, without even taking into account whether I "like" it or not, was to ask whether we would be getting a new one with each administration from now on. I have no doubt that the current administration thinks this new chalice as a vast improvement over the old, and I may even agree so far as corporate "logos" go. Regardless, it's distressing to see the image used to represent my faith to the wider world replaced about every eight years with each new administration. And from the looks of things that's where we're headed. I'm sure that the current administration thinks the new chalice will serve us well for a long time. But I'm equally sure that's what the previous administration thought too. Even if you point to the effectiveness of the iconic Apple or Nike logos in terms of “name brand recognition,” a large part of that is due to their having remained unchanged over the decades regardless of who is the CEO.

My second reaction to the new UUA chalice and particularly the language used to announce it was that the UUA and I are 180 degrees apart in how we view our shared faith. Let me be clear here that this complaint is not only with the current administration but with the last one as well – the latest “new logo” just brought up these issues once again. And it is nothing personal against either administration – I continue to respect both for other ways in which they've led us. Yet the very idea of hiring “a top-notch branding agency” to create a sleek new logo to attract new members, and proudly announcing it as if it was clearly the right thing to do, shakes my confidence in the Association's leadership. (I do not say that lightly; in fact I've wrestled for over a week on whether to say it at all.)

Let us look at the worldview and assumptions that we buy into when we talk about “branding” our faith and when we compare the most publicly recognizable version of our chalice with corporate logos such as McDonald's golden arches. The purpose of so-called “brand recognition” is to create a “story” that is associated with an easily recognizable image (the logo) so that when folks see that logo they automatically associate it with a certain feeling they get from the stories told about the product (advertising). All of which is to convince consumers that one type of sneaker or fast food is cooler than another kind of sneaker or fast food, when really there isn't that much substantive difference between the products. When we approach denominational growth with a marketing mentality, what we're saying is that: 1) Our religion is a “product” to be bought and consumed; 2) We think of potential Unitarian Universalists as consumers; and 2) Our product is really no better than any other product but we're hoping you'll be swayed by our marketing.

Not only do I disagree with all those assumptions with regards to our faith, but I reject the underlying mindset. Such a mindset reduces everything, even our highest aspirations, to a commodity to be bought and/or consumed. It views humans as consumers rather than co-creators.  In my view, the dominance of capitalism and the destruction it causes underlie many of our most important social justice issues, including environmentalism, immigration, sexism, and racial and economic justice. These are the things that we as a progressive faith community have been trying to engage in active resistance against. And yet we use this same type of thinking in our efforts to bring new people to our cause. 

Some people have asked: What is the difference between evangelism and marketing? (And don't we want to evangelize?) I hope from the previous paragraphs that the differences are obvious. The original idea of evangelism was to "spread the good news." The idea being that we actually have a “good news” to share, and that if we share it other people will recognize it as such and join us. I'm certainly not averse to that. But the most effective way to evangelize has always been by visibly living our values in the world, not by talking at people about what we think we stand for. Thus our Unitarian forbear William Ellery Channing said, “May your life preach more loudly than your lips.”

As I said above, this complaint is not new. I hated the previous “new logo” as well as the “Uncommon Denomination” campaign. But I was never prouder to be a UU than when the UUA took out an ad after the Knoxville shootings announcing “Our doors and our hearts will remain open.” The former is us telling folks how different (ie – special) we think we are. The latter is us demonstrating how we live in this world. Obviously, we do not wish for any more attacks against our churches, but there are any number of ways in which we can show who we are. I have never – not once, ever – met someone who said that they joined a religion because the logo caught their attention. But I have repeatedly heard folks say that they joined a particular congregation because they saw its members marching in a Gay Pride parade, and that's when they knew it shared their values. Or joined because the UU minister happily officiated over their interfaith wedding, and that's when they knew they'd be welcome. Or joined because the UU church hosted a local jazz concert for the wider community, and that's how UUism first picqued their interest.

Ironically, the new campaign of which the logo is a part is supposedly geared towards the Millennial generation. I'm not of that generation, but everything that I've read and personally seen says that the current generation, on the whole, is distrustful of advertising/marketing and relies on word of mouth from their peers. (Witness the popularity of sites like of Yelp.) Everything I've read and seen says that as a whole today's young adults are distrustful of top-down, hierarchical initiatives and value grassroots movements that spring up from local needs. Ironically, this is the very thing that our congregations (and other types of UU groups) should be good at – responding to the particular needs of the communities in which they exist, openly as people of faith. This is the kind of thing that the Standing on the Side of Love campaign was designed to help congregations do, and not-for-nothing that it's been one of our most successful campaigns.

Comments

Thank you for this thoughtful essay! I've been wrestling with my dissatisfaction with the logo pretty much non-stop since it was introduced. I think many of us share a longing for a religious symbol that is recognizable, inspiring, and enduring. If we had that, then logos could come and go -- and all should be based on (and hopefully echo) the actual religious symbol, like the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc., logos do in incorporating the cross. No symbol of ours will ever have the "branding" power of a Christian cross, or Star of David, or Buddhist Wheel. But we should aspire some sort of coherence.

Last weekend I listened to a lecture by a scholar who identifies as a Heathen, a neo-pagan practitioner of a Germanic-style new/old religion. He estimates that there are about 30,000 Heathens worldwide. Their symbol is Mjölnir, the Hammer of Thor. Last year the US Dept. of Veteran's Affairs approved this symbol for use on tombstones in VA cemeteries. The symbol of Thor's Hammer is instantly recognizable, although it can be represented in a variety of ways and colors, ornately detailed or just an outline, with or without group names, contained within a larger image, or containing a smaller one. Just try googling it. I think it's entirely possible that more people in the general public could identify it than could recognize any given version of a flaming chalice. And that's just sad.

I want UUism to have a visible, recognizable presence. It's not enough to say "our symbol is the flaming chalice," when we have so many utterly dissimilar images floating around. Adding official "logos" to the mix does not help. Not only does the latest one destroy all accumulated recognition earned (at considerable price per impression) by the last logo, it adds yet another new color to our identity palette. Within ten years the UUA has branded itself with a corporate blue, golden yellow (SSL), and now carmine. It's like we don't want anyone to know who we are or to connect one congregation with another, let alone with The Association.

The version of the flaming chalice approved for grave makers by the VA is "the old one" that you and I both like -- the off-center curvy chalice set within two overlapping circles. I suspect many others prefer it, too, because I keep seeing it on newly painted church signs, stoles, current websites and orders of service, and lots and lots of jewelry. It may not be perfect, but it IS a genuine religious symbol, complete with a miniature story of our parent faiths. It's the closest we have to a Hammer of Thor. Imagine if for some reason the VA replaced it with the new flaming tulip. How would we show the world that our tradition is strong, old and unbroken, and that our members continue serving in the military and sacrificing their lives? How would our dead be counted, or even recognized?

(The 58 approved religious symbols for grave markers can be seen on the VA's website:
http://www.cem.va.gov/hmm/emblems.asp Inclusion of new symbols are the results of petitions by next of kin.)

Thanks Janet. I think you could have written a blog post yourself. :D While I was reading your first paragraph I was thinking, "But we already had an enduring symbol - why can't we go back to that?" So it was good to see later on that you agree. I heard about Thor's Hammer being added to the list of military-recognized religious symbols on an NPR segment last year. :) Can't imagine the UU chalice changing around on tombstones. You are right that our original flaming chalice does not have the same depth of meaning as the other religious symbols, but I think that is due to its relative newness. Multiple layers of meaning develop over time as generations of people add their thoughts to what has come before. And that can't happen if the image keeps changing dramatically. And as far as logos go, versus symbols, the new UUA chalice does make a better logo due to it being simpler/cleaner, but it makes an even worse symbol, due to it being, well, more logo-y. The flame is hard to recognize as a flame due to it being so static and the chalice is hard to recognize being made of two Us. As someone said, it looks like a college/university logo.

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