Rebranding a Religion

The "Mormon" Tabernacle Choir is no more, begging the question: Can you change the identity of a faith?

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir - now known as The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square

We have witnessed many rebranding efforts in the annals of marketing history. Some have been spectacular successes, while others, well, not so good! 

According to a recent Forbes article on the subject, writer Jayson DeMers ranked the most successful corporate rebranding efforts in history, citing among others:

  • Old Spice: Changing its image from a brand for "older" men to one of hipness and sexiness;
  • Burberry: Rehabilitating a brand associated with gangs—and thus crime—in the early 2000s to a luxury brand today); and yes, 
  • Apple: Steve Jobs' second stint at the company turned its reputation from a failing brand to one that represented cutting-edge technology that could command premium prices—seemingly in perpetuity!). 

All of these rebranding success stories had a common denominator though —in that the companies repositioned themselves and their products, as opposed to attempting to actually change their name and their brands. 

Now, actually changing the name of a company or its major brands is a far, far more difficult proposition. While there have been some successes (as when the company, Research In Motion, changed its corporate name to the brand of its major product, BlackBerry, in 2013), more often than not, such a transition has been difficult—at best. In fact, there have been far more failed complete rebranding efforts than there have been ones that can be said to have worked. For instance, after a series of well-publicized safety incidents, culminating in a 1996 crash in the Florida Everglades where all the passengers on board died—and yes, some were eaten by alligators—the management of ValuJet Airlines chose to rechristen itself as AirTran Airways in a bid to restore public confidence in the carrier. Ultimately however, AirTran was acquired by Southwest Airlines, and the names are now part of aviation lore. Likewise, as RadioShack encountered a great deal of market turbulence and declining popularity—and sales—a few years ago, company executives tried to rebrand its stores as rebrand themselves as “The Shack”—even bringing in Shaq—Shaquille O’Neal—as its spokesperson. However, consumers didn't buy the rebranding, and the chain went bankrupt and closed all but a handful of stores. Finally, we have the Philip Morris example. In 2003, in an attempt to lessen the company's association with its primary product—namely cigarettes, the parent company changed its name to Altria. And while the name still exists for its American operations, Philip Morris International goes by its original name in all its operations outside of its U.S. base. 

And so now, we are witnessing perhaps the ultimate test of whether rebranding can work coming from an unusual source—the world of religion. And this is perhaps the ultimate repositioning—an attempt to rebrand an entire faith

Being "Mormon"

When you hear the word "Mormon," what's the first thing that comes into your mind? For many, it will be the image of young missionaries—out on the road—in your neighborhood or somewhere in the world—spreading the news of their faith. For others, it will be the sports teams of Brigham Young University, many of whom are in fact older players, having served their two year missions before playing football, basketball or other sports for the church-affiliated college. And yes, for many others, it will be images and sounds the Book of Mormon, the Broadway play that has both helped—and hurt—the perception of the religion.

"Hello" from the 'Book of Mormon'

And so it should really come as no surprise that the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints realized that they had a problem—an image issue that was—at the heart of the matter—a marketing problem. So, in a bold move, they are attempting something that has not been attempted before—to rebrand their religion.

Rebranding the Church—and the Choir

In August 2018, the leader of the sixteen million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 94-year old Church President Russell M. Nelson, who is in fact—believe it or not at 94—new to the job as of January, issued a sweeping edict. The president of the church is considered to be a prophet from God who leads by revelations shown to him, so—one would have to assume that the instructions came from "on High."

As of that date, Nelson asked that the church and its members no longer use the term "Mormon" as an identifier for the church or its members. Citing that the church's founder, Joseph Smith, had been given the name "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" by God himself (or herself) in 1838, Nelson said that the word "Mormon"—taken from the "Book of Mormon," the church's principal scripture—had become an "unofficial but inoffensive nickname for members." As such, Nelson banned its use by the church and church members, and he asked that the media and others adhere to these new "style guidelines" for the church. He also banned both "Mormonism" and the widely-used acronym "LDS," but allowed "Latter-day Saints" to be an acceptable shorthand for identifying the church and its members.

AP: Word Famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir Changes Its Name

In perhaps the most public move yet in the wake of the August proclamation, just last week, the world famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir announced that it would be changing its name to fit with the new identity—i.e. branding—of the church. Henceforth, arguably the world's most famous musical group—one that has performed for many Presidents and in many places on earth—making it perhaps the most identifiable symbol of the church, would have a new name: the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. The massive, 360 member choir dates back to its founding in 1867, and the group has served as ambassadors for the church since it officially took on the name "Mormon Tabernacle Choir" in 1929 when it began broadcasting a radio program first nationwide and later worldwide. Now, the choir would take on the new moniker immediately, and its social media presence would have to change as well.

  • Website: thetabernaclechoir.org
  • Facebook: facebook.com/thetabernaclechoir
  • YouTube: youtube.com/TheTabernacleChoiratTempleSquare
  • Twitter: @thetabchoir.

By whatever name you might call them, their work is outstanding—as exemplified by the performance below.

The Now Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square Performs "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"

Analysis: A Smart "Branding" Move?

So, is all of this branding—and if so, will it be effective? Quite amazingly, at least to this outside observer, church leaders are amazingly honest in both the marketing and branding aspects of the name change and their appraisal of how difficult a task they will face in changing the popular perception—and the vernacular—used both within and outside the church. In fact, Church President Nelson was quoted in an article on the matter saying:

"We're not changing names. We're correcting a name. Some marketers change names hoping to be more successful—that's not our point. We're correcting an error that's crept in over the ages."
-------- Russell M. Nelson, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Likewise, the President of the choir, Ron Jarrett, had the following observation:

"It (the choir) is a huge brand for the church. It's been there for a long time and people recognize it. I don't think we'll lose people. In fact, we may even gain listeners. ... It will look and feel and sound just like always, but maybe even better.
---- Ron Jarrett, President of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square

Photo by Joe Cook on Unsplash

This can be characterized as nothing less than a bold move—yes, by a 94 year old leader and a church with almost two centuries of tradition! Can you rebrand an entire religion? And if so, would you want to? It's certainly audacious. It's certainly bold. However, it is also unprecedented. And thus, it's going to take some time to see if the rebranding is successful. 

However, one thing is for sure. That is the fact that the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its most "sacred" brand—its choir—is embarking on a journey that may, in fact, enable the 16 million member strong "brand" to rebrand the faith in a new, old label - one that yes, they believe, was preordained for them. Certainly, there are stereotypes and perceptions about those heretofore known as "Mormons" that have gained traction throughout society. And again, these can be both positive and negative. If this rebranding is indeed successful over the long term, whatever the impact of Mormons and Mormonism in popular culture has been—both intentional and unintentional, the church may be able to build a new identity if these guidelines are generally accepted by its membership and by the wider public. In doing so, they might just pull off one of the greatest marketing miracles ever!

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