There is a bar in Boston, Massachusetts, called the Bull and Finch Pub. This is the bar that the TV series Cheers was based on. Here you can buy T-shirts, baseball caps, mugs and beer glasses adorned with the Cheers logo.
The problem with the Bull and Finch is that the inside looks nothing like the bar in the TV series. To make up for the disappointment that this experience creates in those who want to get close to the “real” thing, there is a sign by the bar that says that an “authentic replica” of the Cheers Bar has been created in a nearby shopping mall.
Only in the US could such a ridiculous oxymoron be touted without an ounce of irony. But then the country is, by and large, an authentic replica of itself. Anyone who has visited the US will know that the whole country has been themed out of existence. A few miles from Boston is Salem, scene of the 1692 witch trials. The entire town has become a monument, not to the horror of witch hunts, but to Hallowe’en. There is even a witch museum which sees the most significant event of the 20th century as being Nancy Reagan consulting an astrologer.
The US is a place where even the unreal worlds of television and cinema have their own replica theme parks.
In the US, every house seeks to be an authentic replica of an American house. Every town has a Main Street, every house has a stars and stripes (just to remind the occupants which country they live in) and everyone dutifully obeys the rituals of (over)consumption on every major holiday.
This is also the country that gave us that other great oxymoron – reality television.
But the US does not have a monopoly in being an authentic replica of itself. There is an institution much closer to home that has been one for rather a long time – the Church of England.
The CoE is the classic example of a monolithic brand which has completely lost touch with reality and become an authentic replica of its former self.
The jockeying to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury has become a bizarre sideshow, a clerical fisticuffs over the issue of who will be the best person to manage the CoE’s inexorable decline.
Trying to turn the CoE around would make VW’s rehabilitation of Skoda seem like running a vicarage jumble sale. VW had the relatively simple job of making the Skoda brand more appealing to car drivers. It did not have to convince a steadfastly pedestrian populace that they should be driving cars.
It is a sobering thought for the CoE that more people shop in London on a Sunday than regularly go to church in the entire country.
If you really need convincing that religion has been replaced by shopping, I recommend that you visit Oxford Street this Sunday and stand outside the main entrance of Selfridges at one minute to noon.
There you will find gathered a throng of people, standing in reverential awe, as they wait for the bells on the Selfridges clock to call the faithful to worship. If shopping malls are today’s cathedrals, then Selfridges is the modern day St Paul’s.
Some may argue that replacing religion with consumerism is no bad thing – no one ever crashed a plane into a building full of people in the name of Nike. But that’s just an aside.
The problem is not that a huge rise in secularism in this country has caused the CoE to lose its grip on the people who are turning atheist, but the fact it is losing its grip on its core market – God-botherers.
Many have turned to fringe religions and New Age philosophies as an alternative to what is perceived as the monolithic, unwieldy, “Establishment” Church.
One way out for the CoE could be to develop “mini-brands” to attack the problem of fragmentation, but this is not likely. One of the first moves of the new Archbishop will probably be to bring in an advertising guru, or to hire an ad agency to come up with a witty slogan – M&C Saatchi’s “Crystals aren’t working”, or Lowe’s “refreshes the parts other sects cannot reach”, perhaps.
This would be all too ironic, as many of today’s commercial marketing techniques have been taken from organised religion.
Organised religion developed some of the first truly great global brands. They created powerful, globally recognisable symbols such as the cross, told great brand stories, used the mass media of churches, used brand ambassadors (clerics, missionaries), created a sense of identity by attacking rivals through various holy wars and created a sense of awe and spectacle through grand cathedrals and major festivities.
Now, all of this has gone – at least for the CoE – and the established church has become an authentic replica of itself. It has entered the Merrie England theme park, along with other bygone English institutions such as bad teeth, manufacturing and warm beer. Anyone for a pint of Authentic Replica? As they say in Boston, “Cheers”.
Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook