19 December 2014
The Christian responsibility of creativity
The identity of a brand, and the way it communicates that, is key to good marketing. Amaris Cole caught up with Michael Gough, the founder of Sparks Studio, a branding and communications company that sets clients apart from their competitors by recognising their unique identity.
Basically, there are two aspects to good branding, Michael explains to me. It's about brand promise and brand experience. Brand promise is all about the client's shop window – what the world sees. "Brand promise is knowing who you are talking to and why you're relevant," whereas the experience is all about what the audience – the customers or the consumers – think of the brand. "Good brand communications bring brand promise in line with brand experience."
For Michael, listening is the first and most important part of his work with clients. Sparks identifies what the organisation does, and crucially why it does it, as it's usually the 'why' that helps to distinguish them from their competitors. But how do we, as Christians, juggle the challenge of finding our identity in Christ and setting ourselves apart from the world with the industry's need to make aesthetically pleasing design?
The early days of Sparks were heavily influenced by the writings of Calvin Seerveld. "Based in Canada, he's a Dutch guy who's written a lot on what it means to be an artist and a Christian. His most famous book, Rainbows for a Fallen World, talks about the redemptive role of art," Michael explains. His essay, The Freedom and the Responsibility of the Artist, is Sparks' manifesto. It explains what it means to be a Christian in the arts.
"What we were really struck by in that essay was his challenge not to settle for a subculture when it comes to making creativity, but to actually bethinking about the culture in a broader sense."
Michael believes the language used in the Christian context is inherent to the subculture, but doesn't translate well in the mainstream: "Our challenge always to our faith-based clients is to make them think about what the mainstream culture is. We think about how we can lift that from the assumptions of a Christian subculture, turning that into something meaningful, engaging and relevant to the mainstream culture."
For Sparks, it's all about helping clients see that opportunity to speak in a relevant way about an authentic Christian framework, but in a language that is engaging to a wider audience.
And they've had a lot of experience, working with organisations such as Christian Aid and OMF, as well as singer Duke Special. But their work is diverse, stretching to financial companies, the legal sector and entertainment.
This gap between the Christian culture and the mainstream is something Michael has thought about, in relation to both his work and his faith.
"I used to do artwork for the UCCF in 1990s and I always used to challenge the students, asking what the connection was between what you believe as a Christian, to the creativity that you're making. I think at a headline level, what we're interested in is an honest, authentic representation of a particular client." This honesty and transparency is rooted in the gospel, he says. "The gospel calls us to be real about ourselves and honest about ourselves. I think that's a direct extension of our business model. The client can be authoritative and genuine in what they stand for in their brand."
Sparks is also influenced by Francis Schaeffer, who spoke about the lordship of Christ, ruling over every aspect of life.
"What I get up to on a day-to-day basis is as useful and meaningful as what I get up to in my church context, my small group context, my evangelism context. There isn't a dichotomy between being missional or what I get up to as a business owner; Christ rules over all of it."
So let's imagine the Church as a whole became a client of his, what would he like to do to the 'brand'?
"The problem is the Church has an assumption about its culture, which sometimes gets in the way about people engaging and meeting with the true biblical expression of who Christ is. Lots of language we use in a church context is tied exclusively to this culture – it has little meaning outside."
I think the more we can do to help people outside of the Church to engage with the biblical text, the more we move away from this subcultural context and engage with the truth of the gospel."