5 Character Branding Tips for Your Children’s Ministry

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We’ve all seen the power and appeal of an iconic character, and we all know the importance of effective branding for the world of specialty coffee and niche computers, but what does all of this have to do with my children’s ministry department? Well, more than you may think. Whether intentional or not, your ministry has a brand which can either help, or hurt your ministry’s mission. First, let’s define what a brand is.

Look up brand in the dictionary or on the internet and you’ll get several different versions. Traditionally, a brand is thought of simply as a type of product, or a logo (aka “brand mark”). It has commercial or pop-culture connotations. But a brand is much more than that. Those are pieces of a brand. Seth Godin, famous marketing expert (just google “Seth”, and his blog will be first on the list) defines a brand as, “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”

You’re not selling a product or service. You are creating an experience…a touch point based, relationship driven experience. For what’s it’s worth, here’s my “Children’s Ministry Brand” definition: A children’s ministry brand is the totality of the story, vision, mission, promises, and goals of a specific local church expressed experientially thru the children’s ministry department.

A brand is much more than a logo. It’s the totality of what you stand for. It’s the essence of your mission. A brand has many visual touch points (like logos and collateral) that help convey your brand, but it is really experienced by all 5 senses. It’s about the total experience. How people are greeted, how easy the check-in process is, how safe the environment feels, how fun the visuals look, how connected your ministry feels to the rest of the church. The list goes on. But is branding Biblical? Obviously the term “brand” is not in scripture, but all of it’s components sure are.

Remove your modern day brand connotations for a moment. Now use your imagination to go back to the time of the book of Exodus. In chapter 31 we see where God called and appointed a man named Bezalel to be the chief artisan of the Tabernacle. Everything about how the tabernacle was made including the materials, colors, types of wood and precious metals, production of statues, priestly utensils, layout of the structure, and many other details were specifically dictated by God and performed thru Bezalel and other artisans.

That’s branding! Even things like, incense, the smell of burnt offerings, the details of the priestly garments, all were part of the tabernacle’s experiential “brand”. Knowing how the 5 senses impact humans, God wanted the Israelites to build a structure that accurately conveyed God’s character, mission, purpose, values, and promises. At the risk of sounding irreverent…that’s a brand!

If God went to that much trouble to impact those who came in contact with Him thru the old testament system, shouldn’t we go through that much trouble to leverage our ministry brand to facilitate the great commission? Our ministry environments should be well thought out touch points that support the mission of our church. Many churches do a great job at this and have taken the time to be intentional about how their brand impacts children and parents. But many have not. It’s well worth the time and effort to peel back the layers, think thru, plan, and execute an intentional brand for your children’s ministry.

Now…what about the character part? How do you “brand with character”? It’s no secret that in the realm of children’s merchandising, once an iconic character is established (think Disney, Pixar, or popular TV cartoon characters), companies line up to license the character(s) for use in their products. For example, Sponge Bob Square Pants is an $8 billion licensing franchise. He shows up on everything from clothes, to toys, to band-aids and macaroni and cheese.

I’m not suggesting that we attempt to license a children’s ministry character, but I’m pointing out the underlying fact that children connect with characters enough to drive a multi-billion dollar industry. What if children’s ministry leaders developed characters that helped support the brand (i.e. vision, mission and goals) of their church, while facilitating spiritual formation in the children that come in contact with their ministry?

Well developed cartoon characters have a long shelf life and multiple applications from outreach events, environment graphics and t-shirts, to motion media and curriculum. Well developed KidMin characters can positively change the trajectory of your ministry.

If this peaks your interest at all, I want to share 5 character branding tips for your children’s ministry. These are chronological steps with one step feeding critical information into the next step.

1. Perform a “Brand Audit”
This is a discovery process. It is a detailed analysis of your current brand and typically includes: internal and external surveys, a collateral audit, a language audit, and time spent with core leaders and stake holders to discover the vision and history of the ministry.

2. Develop a “Brand Guide”
Using the results from the Brand Audit, a 10-25 page Brand Guide is developed to establish key entry points to your brand. Brand Guides typically include: brand story, vision, mission, brand mark (logo), personality, color palette, typography, photography, and other key brand components.

3. Develop Brand Characters
Using the Brand Guide, you can develop characters that support and facilitate the brand. It is key to focus on concept and personality first, and visuals second. The development of characters for a brand typically includes: research and brainstorming, gathering reference material, concept art, settling on a direction, written descriptions of the character personalities and backstory, designing the characters, turnarounds (how each character looks from all angles), pose and expression sheets (to show the characters personality and range of emotion), final color art, character packs and exported art for print and other usage.

4. Plan an Internal Brand Launch
This is very important. To effectively roll out a new or updated brand, you must launch first to your team of staff and volunteers. Many of them should be involved in the entire process, but this is your in-house event to unveil the final product, talk to them about how to effectively communicate the brand, cast vision, and share the purpose behind the new brand. It also prepares your team to communicate the brand to the parents and children in your ministry.

5. Plan an External Brand Launch
This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. This is where you get to unleash the wow factor. You can launch the brand at strategic events such as a back-to school night, promotion Sunday, ministry orientation, or during a key holiday event like Christmas or Easter.

You might be saying. “Ok. This sounds awesome, but I don’t have the time or resources to pull it off. What am I supposed to do?” Well, there’s no doubt it will take some intentional planning, vision casting, and some effort, but don’t let that stop you. I have a saying that I use to motivate myself and others: “Anything is better than nothing.” Whether forming healthy eating, work out, or Bible study habits,…or intentionally branding your children’s ministry, “anything is better than nothing”. If this proposition seems overwhelming and out of reach, here are a few suggestions which may help:

Look first in your church body. You may have volunteers in your church with the exact skills and experience needed. Or, they may have key connections to companies or people who can help. God has a way of putting the right people in the right church body. I’m currently volunteering to help the children’s ministry at my church rebrand all of their environments with custom wall murals and branded characters. Find artists, or creative business owners in your church and ask them to help. You might be surprised at what you find.

Talk to other ministries that have gone thru rebranding or branding with characters and ask them about the experience and what resources they used. Study ministries you admire to see how they handled branding, and ask them for an informational interview. You would be surprised how willing people are to share information.

Plan for a rebranding phase as part of next year’s budget or as part of a new building campaign. There are logical times to walk thru a rebranding and/or character development process. Leverage those opportunities and plan effectively for the next decade and beyond. It will generate momentum and create a buzz about your ministry, attracting more people to your church to hear the message of Christ!

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What are your thoughts on “branding with character”? You can leave a comment below.

How To Stay Motivated As An Artist

As artists we are our own worst critics. We see other artists in the same field who are more talented than us and we wonder if we have what it takes. We read amazing books like “Good to Great” and we seriously consider where we could be the best in our field. A fellow creative, and good friend of mine, stated that he didn’t “feel professional”. He felt that his career was a hobby. I reminded them he had a successful career of over a decade in the creative field. If you get paid for what you do, than by definition, you are a professional.

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The fact is most of us feel that way to one degree or another. We are so used to seeing the high level accomplishments of other incredibly talented artists. As a pastor said recently, “We compare our behind the scenes footage with other people’s highlight reel!” Of course we’ll feel inadequate whenever that is the case.

Comparison kills contentment and when we begin to compare ourselves to other artists, we lose every time. We lose interest. we lose our passion. We lose our creative edge. We lose our drive. We lose our vision. We all want to be the best, and we should strive for excellence, but I think a more productive focus is to ask this question: “What do I have the best chance to be successful at within my creative field?” For 99.9% of us, there will always  be someone better. That should not be the measure of your success. The measure of success is defined by what you do with the gifts you are given.

We all have strengths we need to further develop but that’s part of the creative journey. Let that drive and inspire you,…not squelch your passion or destroy your confidence. Our focus determines our outlook. If you focus on your recent successes you clearly see your marketability. Based on what you know right now, where is the intersection of  your skill set, passion, and marketability? Pursue that, and never stop growing as an artist. Celebrate every step forward and shut down the chatter in your brain that makes you want to give up.

Skills are honed over time and with great effort. Yes, some artists are child prodigies with an insane amount of natural talent, but most are average Joe’s and Jane’s that have to put in the work. I have one of Stephen Silver’s books called “The Art of Silver”. In it he included a page of his mediocre drawings from high school. He purposely put them in the book to show that with interest and hard work, you can become a great artist. Even the great animator Chuck Jones famously said, “Every artist has 10,000 bad drawings in them that they have to get out.”

I’m behind on some creative goals and began to question my ability recently, so I did something  to shift my focus. This may sound like bragging but that is not my intent at all. I needed to remind myself that I have what it takes to be a thought leader in the creative field because, much like my friend, I wasn’t feeling very professional or qualified. So, I sat down and made this list for myself and my perspective changed almost immediately.

In the past 6 months:

1. One of the largest LA animation production studios has hired you as an illustrator and hired your company to produce animation.

2. The worlds largest Bible App Developer hired your company to produce animation and interactivity for their kids app.

3. One of LA’s most successful boutique branding agencies hired your company to produce a 3 minute animated spot for a national brand.

4. The largest housing rental agency in the southeast just hired you to audit and update their brand and lay the groundwork for their national push.

That’s my recent highlight reel. People hire me to do what I love. Well, the truth is, for every one of those highlights, there also exists behind the scenes footage with a list of projects we lost.

For example, we did some very promising animation tests for the popular pre-school show “Lalaloopsy” last summer. We thought we had it in the bag, but guess what. The studio changed directions and kept production in-house (or possibly sent it to another studio…gasp!). I also had a great pitch meeting in LA with top executives from “The Hub”. It was our second time meeting in person with them, followed by requests for additional development, storyboards, and some animation tests for our show concept called “The Beefy Adventures of Jerky and Jim” (seen above). But things change fast with Networks and the timing wasn’t right, so they moved on to other initiatives.

Both lists are important. One keeps us motivated and excited while the other keeps us humble and pushes us to get better.

Make your own highlights reel list today. Depending on where you are in your career as a student or professional, you’re list will look different. Keep in mind what stage of your career you are currently in. Celebrate your wins!

So, don’t ask, what you are the best at doing. Ask what you can do that intersects your passion, skills, marketability, and positive impact. The best thing you can do as an artist is just be you. Don’t complicate things. Don’t worry about being the best. Work hard for sure…figure out your best strengths, yes…but focus on being the best you. That’s what the world needs.

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What other ways have you found to motivate yourself as a creative? Feel free to leave a comment below!

How To Release Your Inner Creative B.E.A.S.T.

A group of British authors called “The Inklings” met together in the 1930’ and 40’s. They connected over the years to challenge and support each other. This group included famous authors C. S. Lewis, who wrote “The Chronicles of Narnia” (and other famous literary works), and J. R. R. Tolkien who wrote “The Hobbit”, and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

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So, if you want to be a successful artist, you must take up pipe smoking and start using your initials instead of your name. Seriously though, it’s worth taking the time to study this group and think thru the benefits of being part of such a group in your creative field.

I meet with 2 other creatives a few times each month for encouragement and accountability. We help each other to pursue our creative calling, serve our families, and live out our faith. It’s also a great way to talk out our creative ideas with people we trust. It’s never convenient to get together (the tyranny of the urgent has a way of crowding out what’s important if we let it), but it’s always worth it.  Without fail, we walk away each time with renewed passion and clarity on what we are called to do.

Typically this is referred to as an “accountability group” but it’s much more than that. We’re helping each other fight battles to pursue our creative calling. This acronym will help you remember 5 ways having a group like this will release your inner creative B.E.A.S.T!

1. Balance
Creatives need social connection. Hang time. This is a place to be refreshed. It needs to be an unregimented but purposeful space in your time budget. It may seem counter productive, but you’ll find your productivity, passion, drive, and creative clarity will increase.

2. Encouragement
This word has comforting and soft connotations, but the core meaning of encouragement really means to “spur on to courage”. The prefix “en” means “to cause”. We need to cause courage in each other. Sometimes that comes via a pat on the back. Sometimes it’s a kick in the pants. There are 1000 road blocks to fulfilling your creative calling. You need courage to keep up the fight, and you need others who will push you toward courage and perseverance.

3. Accountability
Good friends follow up with you about past struggles and stated goals. They remind you when you are veering off course, not honoring your commitments, or not fulfilling or pursuing your life’s mission.

4. Sharpening
Artists are not islands and we need each other to accomplish our goals and pursue our calling. By seeing excellence in a particular area of another artist’s life, you will rise to the occasion as you spend time with them. If you want to be a better artist, leader, athlete (or whatever), surround yourself with excellent people who raise the bar. You will naturally grow toward the caliber of those around you.

5. Trusted Input
Creatives collaborate by nature. One perspective heightens another. Thoughts and ideas are untangled by talking them out. This is vital for creatives. Having a few other artists speak into your ideas is priceless. This will help you gain confidence in a direction, or see areas that need to be course-corrected.

Whatever stage you are currently in regarding your creative journey, finding a B.E.A.S.T. group is guaranteed to help you go further faster.

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What are some other benefits to being part of a group? You can leave a comment below.