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What’s the logic behind the rebranding of the Mormon Church?

Lindsay Says

When reading about the rebranding of Mormonism to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I was initially puzzled – on a couple of levels.

It’s impractical.

First, the new name is waaaaaaaaaaay too longgggggggggggggg.

During a conversation among new acquaintances, one says, “I’m Catholic,” and another says “I’m Muslim.” Another says “I’m Jewish.” You say “I’m Mormon.” These are all two-syllable, easy-to-pronounce, easy-to-spell words.

Now, instead of saying “I’m Mormon,” you’re expected to say “I’m from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” From 2 syllables to 11. From easy to tongue-twisting. Asking people to quintuple their effort to say your name is not setting the conditions for a name change that sticks.

It walks away from a coveted asset.

Second, Mormon is a high-awareness, highly-entrenched brand name.

Most organizations would kill to have this level of awareness and adoption and ease of pronunciation. It’s astonishingly difficult to gain broad usage of a brand name. And the Mormons had accomplished this among their 16 million adherents as well as the general public. It’s an enormous asset to abandon.

So why rebrand?

This New York Times article frame of reference offers some clues. In it, Phylicia Rae Jimenz of Dallas explains, “My faith has always been rooted in being a Christian, as opposed to, ‘I’m a Mormon.’”

Ah. I see. This rebranding could be about frame of reference. In a nutshell, a brand’s frame of reference is the set of options its audience would choose from if it didn’t exist.

The Mormon leaders may be trying to shift the anchor of their religion to be a form of Christianity, rather than its own isolated category. When you see books on Mormonism in a book store today, the article relates, they are in the cult section. The Mormon church would like books about Mormonism to be found with books about Christianity. That is what shifting your frame of reference can accomplish.

Broaden appeal.

With any brand positioning exercise, there are tradeoffs when choosing the frame of reference. For a cola business, is the frame of reference other colas? All sodas? Beverages in general? The broader you go (so long as it is still consumer-relevant), the broader your market might be, as there are more people you can bring into the fold. I am not a cola-drinker, but I do drink iced teas and kombuchas. A cola-only brand will not be relevant to me. A beverage brand WILL be relevant to me.

Ms. Jimenez’s quote reveals a similar dynamic in Mormonism’s frame of reference. The word Mormon was perceived as overly-specific – cola, rather than a beverage, if you will. By repositioning as a type of Christianity, Mormonism broadens the range of people who may find it relevant. Books about Mormonism might move from the cult section to the Christianity section.

What sparked this shift?

The Mormon church reports that the shift was sparked by a divine insight. Another way to think of it is that, implicitly, the shift in frame of reference stems from a shift in the values of the target audience.

When I worked on the Clorox Bleach business, we noticed that our target audience was aging. The segment of people who used Clorox Bleach to “whiten whites” was getting older and less active, and the new market of consumers did not wear all-white clothes, rendering our whitening promise irrelevant. What DID they care about? Cleanliness. We evolved our promise from “whiter whites” to “a higher level of clean,” thereby reinstating our market relevance.

In the Mormon case, the target audience is evolving as well. As younger people with more liberal values come to “church-choosing age”, Mormonism has baggage that could turn off that younger audience. Changing the name might leave that behind.

Is this rebranding credible?

Taking frame of reference into account, this rebranding away from “Mormon” makes logical sense. Update your relevance by leaving behind baggage and overly niche associations.

But here’s something that often gets lost in a rebranding discussion. Brand positioning is not only about the name. By changing the name but not the product (in this case, the canon of the church, the culture, the social norms), a simple name change feels superficial and disingenuous. I don’t believe the change if it’s just a varnish reapplied to make it appear broader, when the fundamental Book of Mormon text remains, and the church operates as it always has.

In my 9 Criteria for an Ironclad Brand, the final criterion is that the brand delivers – not just in name, but in substance. Not just when it’s easy, but also and especially when it’s hard. Renaming the religion while not changing the product” is the most shallow form of brand.

This name change was decreed by the president of the Mormon Church in 2018. Only time will tell if the entity will evolve in step with its new name. Goodness knows there are dynamics and stickiness differences between a church and a cola or laundry brand. Still, I’m going to be watching with interest.

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