Once upon a time there was a brewery. This brewery had a proud heritage of contrarianism: when America drank dark beers with high alcohol, this brewery offered a light-bodied, low alcohol alternative.
It was called Budweiser.
Budweiser, along with a few other beers like Miller and Coors, grew into one of the great national brands. Because it was predictable and reliable, Budweiser grew to a point where it dominated the market. Even Americans who didn’t drink beer knew that Budweiser was a proud part of our nation’s fabric.
The brewery advertised Budweiser heavily. During the great American holiday of the Super Bowl, it rolled out award-winning advertisements characterized either by edgy wit or by misty eyed sentimentality.
There was, however, a problem with the advertisements.
The ads talked about the brand, not about the beer.
This problem went unnoticed, however; while Budweiser dominated the market, they didn’t need to talk about the beer. It was sufficient to focus on the brand. The ads said nothing about quality; they mainly presented an image. We heard a lot about Clydesdale horses. We heard nothing about the experience of Budweiser or the taste of the beer. The advertisements were made only to create an aura of emotion around the brand.
And then things changed.
People who loved beer began to experiment. They showed interest in different styles of beer, different grains, different flavors. Small, locally owned breweries opened all over the country. These upstarts offered wildly different beers: imperial stouts, double-hop IPAs, and fruit laden weiss beers. They treated their patrons to black lagers, session ales, rye beers, and coffee porters. The movement caught on. People loved the variety and the creativity in these locally run breweries. The craft beer movement ate into Budweiser’s market share.
And the Budweiser brewery became nervous…
Yet, the craft beer movement continued to grow.
Beer drinkers loved having a brewery in their community. They loved having a relationship with the brewmaster. They loved walking into a taproom and talking about beer. Not just talking about beer: celebrating, commending, arguing, expostulating, analyzing, kvetching, and otherwise expressing their enthusiasm for the experience of well made beer. At long last, beer lovers were finally able to unleash their geekery with a passion akin to science fiction fans at ComicCon, tech fans at Comdex, or aging intellectuals at Chautauqua. These beer drinkers didn’t just buy beer. They loved their local beer. It became a part of their identity
Budweiser’s market share drained like a pony keg at a frat party.
And the Budweiser brewery became nervous…
The Super Bowl came around again. Again, the brewery aired lovely commercials that leaned heavily on nostalgia. Most heartwarming was a cute commercial about a lost puppy finding his way home to his friends, the Budweiser Clydesdales.
But that commercial could just as easily have been a commercial about Alpo or PetSmart. No beer in the commercial at all.
It focused on brand rather than beer.
But in the third quarter of the Super Bowl, the Budweiser brewery went on the offensive. They aired a commercial that dismissed the rise of the local craft brewers. They mocked them as being “fussy” and not drinking “beer brewed the hard way.”
They had finally decided to talk about beer.
The problem was, they had been resting on their brand so long, they had forgotten how to talk about beer.
All they knew how to do was trash other brands.
The backlash came quickly.
It was a PR disaster.
Instead of looking bold and decisive and hardy, the Budweiser brewery sounded cranky, out of touch, and irritable.
It was the advertising equivalent of an old man shouting, “get off of my lawn!”
… instead of “Budweiser,” insert your favorite mainline denomination.
…. instead of “craft beer movement,” insert nondenominational churches of all stripes and varieties: house churches, intentional communities, megachurches, storefront churches, etc.
…. instead of “brand,” insert “institution”
…. And instead of “beer,” insert “Jesus”
What do we in the institutional church learn?
This: If we spend too much time talking about our institution, we forget how to authentically talk about Jesus. If we spend too much time resting on our heritage, we forget to look at what is going on now. If we spend too much time burnishing our image, we forget that people thirst for an experience of Jesus.
“[Christ] must increase, but I must decrease.” John the Baptist (from the gospel of John 3:30)
Bonus Lesson: Miller Beer quickly saw the error in Budweiser’s commercial. They released this advertisement:
In essence, Miller just said, “We’re glad people are excited about beer. Let’s talk about beer together.”
“But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” Paul the Apostle (from the letter to the Philippians 1:18)
You think about that.
Did you like this post? You might also like my new book Geneva Two: A Parable of Christian Community and Calling. Check it out on Amazon.
You might also like my free article on “Ministry in the Age of Design” It contains more thoughts on how to be less like Budweiser and more like Miller.
Thanks for visiting. RS