Niche vs Starbucks – Local Church vs The Church™ Brand

kinnon —  November 20, 2006 — 1 Comment

Coffee&BiscottiI have a favourite coffee shop in Toronto. It’s only recently become my favourite. Before that, I really didn’t have one. I’d grab a coffee from one of the chains here in Toronto. Tim’s if I just needed a caffeine fix. The Second Cup if I wanted to order a large dark roast. Occasionally Starbucks, if I wanted to attempt to speak their peculiar dialect of coffee ordering (which reminds me a little too much of LA Stories). So why do I prefer Niche?

Well, first, the coffee is very good. Which is important when you want a cup of coffee, right? And the food and dessert are also good. Secondly, the staff is warm and friendly. Third, the owner is often amongst the staff – and she too is warm and friendly. It feels like a community. Because it is one. The staff and owner know their customers’ stories – and they share their own. Commerce seems secondary in this Third Place.

So what does this have to do with Church? Other than coffee seems to be a component of both.

Skye Jethani, regular contributor to Out of Ur and a writer I enjoy states in Burned by Branding:

Believe it or not, not everyone loves Starbucks. The Wall Street Journal’s Janet Adamy has written about the growing resistance the Seattle-based coffee cartel is facing in many communities. The issue—Starbucks ignores local culture in favor of maintaining its brand-identity.

The already omnipresent Starbucks has plans to triple its locations worldwide to 40,000, but Adamy says the plan has alarmed some communities. “The proliferation of [Starbucks] stores has prompted a small number of cities to block it from opening out of concern the chain will erode the local character.”

I’ve attended a number of conferences and read many reports in recent years about the popular multi-site church model. Invariably these sources will reference Starbucks as an example for churches who wish to establish themselves in multiple communities. But what should the church be learning from the rising anti-Starbucks sentiment?

After telling an entertaining story of a church consulting Yoda, Skye says:

But the Oracle didn’t have the clairvoyance to see what Starbucks is now facing. Its strategy of vigorous brand management is no longer working. In fact, the coffee giant is now learning from the little guys’ play book. New Starbucks stores are opening that do not reflect its well-established corporate identity. They are trying to personalize their stores to resemble local cafés that fit in with the community. One Starbucks in Denver has even abandoned the green mermaid logo of the brand.

The lesson—people don’t necessarily want to be connected to a massive corporate identity. An increasing number want to identify with local, accessible, and human-scaled institutions. My own experience affirms this. I am writing this post in a local coffee shop. At 8am there is not an empty table in the house. This is where community happens in my town. Directly across the street is a Starbucks. That store sees a steady stream of people pass through to get their morning fix. But the tables are empty. It isn’t a place people gather, converse, or write blog posts.

What is the church to learn? That’s what the comment section is for, but I’ll start with this thought. If the church is to be merely a dispenser of spiritual goods and advice, a place people pass through to get their religion fix, then we should follow the example of brand-driven corporate giants. But, if we hope to form meaningful communities of Christ-followers we shouldn’t neglect the power of being local. Rather than reading the latest branding book, why not gather mature leaders and listen for the Holy Spirit? How is he advising us to be the community of Christ in this unique place at this unique time?

We are consumers – trained by our culture to look for the next great acquisition – the goods and services that will fleetingly give us a sense of contentment. But we are never content. We visit the branded Third Places in the hopes that we might belong. But the longing remains.

We are hardwired for intimacy not acquisitions. Our basic needs are to love and be loved. No goods and services will meet those needs. But the intimacy of relationships in community just might. And that intimacy of relationships should be taking place in the Body of Christ – the church.

UPDATE: Leadership Network Books blog has a response to this post in Multi-Site Church Critique and Misperceptions

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A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

One response to Niche vs Starbucks – Local Church vs The Church™ Brand

  1. Bill,

    Thanks for this insightful post. reflecting on this line of thinking, I keep coming back to the issue of simplicity. Simplicity is found in the local, meaningful and the relational. I think one of the reasons that there is a backlash to the corporate identity branding so prevelant is that it’s not a place where people know your name. Local is where people know your name, like the show cheers. The big brand era reaks of comodity and people don’t want to feel like comodities anymore…



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