I was browsing through a sports site the other day when up popped an ad inviting me to visit a church. “Find a place where church goes beyond Sunday,” it said. The only thing that tipped it as a Mormon ad was the ComeUntoChrist.org link address, which maybe one in ten thousand non-LDS viewers would connect to the LDS Church and maybe one in a hundred LDS would immediately recognize as an LDS site. That was when I realized what is really going on with this whole renaming thing: the Mormon brand has become so toxic that even the Church is running away from it.
Reloading the page several times, there were three similar Mormon ads that cycled through the ad box. I’m going to quote them below, just so you can see how generically Christian the LDS missionary message has become. Headline in bold print, followed by the blurb text in italics.
- Come and See, Come and Stay. Find a place where church goes beyond Sunday. And people who try to be better together.
- A Community of Caring. Come discover friends and fellow followers of Jesus.
- Worship with Us. Find a place where church goes beyond Sunday. And people who try to be better together.
All Mormon ads linked to ComeUntoChrist.org, which is the revamped Mormon.org. If you type Mormon.org into your search bar, it takes you to ComeUntoChrist.org. The site uses the “Believe, Belong, Become” slogan to organize the content, which is also borrowed from hip Christianity. The only place on the home page that the word “Mormon” appears is at the very bottom, a link titled “Free Book of Mormon,” nestled between “Meet with Missionaries” and “Find a Church.”
The problem, of course, is that just changing the name of a toxic brand does not remove the perceived toxicity. It might fool some of the people for awhile, but not for long. There was a time not too long ago when the term “Mormon” had a positive public perception. It was that short period after 1978, when the Church finally abandoned the priesthood and temple ban, until roughly the 1990s, when gay marriage become a public issue and the Church came out strongly against gay marriage and gay anything else as well. The year 2000, when the Church backed Prop 22 in California and strongly encouraged members to contribute time and money to supporting the proposition, is the definitive break.
So the Right hates Mormons because they are mostly Evangelical or Catholic, and that’s just what they do. And the Left hates Mormons because of the anti-gay crusade. (I exaggerate slightly for effect.) There just aren’t many neutrals in the middle anymore that would say, “Mormons, they’re nice people.” We’re either heretics or bigots, take your choice.
Now that’s a real problem for a missionary-minded church. It must be a tough time to be a missionary. Excising the word “Mormon” is hardly going to solve the problem, though. Investigators aren’t stupid; sooner or later, they’ll figure out it’s us, the Mormons.
To get a sense of the gravity of the problem, of how serious a problem it is when your brand becomes toxic, think about business parallels. Firestone tires. Audi cars. Most recently, the Boeing 737 (this might just sink the company). The business school case on crisis management that saved a brand is the Tylenol scare of 1982, when a few capsules in bottles on store shelves were tampered with, poisoning a few unsuspecting purchasers in Chicago with cyanide. Johnson & Johnson saved the brand by recalling every single bottle of Tylenol on the shelves across the whole country and beefing up the packaging by adding a foil seal to the top of the bottle so a purchaser could see the contents were not tampered with. That safety feature quickly spread to a wide variety of consumer products. J&J saved the Tylenol brand. It’s a rare success story for that kind of scenario.
So let’s talk about the Church and the term “Mormon.” How toxic is it? Is it just the term “Mormon” that is the problem, or is it the whole LDS apparatus that is the problem? Is the brand salvageable or does the growing exodus of Millennials and Gen-Zers herald the permanent decline of the Mormon Church?