The power of perception: Creating a brand called ‘Joel’

Even if you’re not Joel Osteen, there are five key principles that make a dramatic difference in using media in ministry.

By Phil Cooke

I’ll never forget the phone call I received from Joel Osteen to let me know his father — long time Houston pastor John Osteen — had passed away. It was January 1999, not a great way to start a new year. John Osteen birthed Lakewood Church on Mother’s Day 1959 in the most humble possible way — a rural feed store outside of Houston.

The first church members literally had to step over bales of hay to find folding chairs to sit on that first Sunday. About 10 years ago we recreated that scene on film, and in striving for accuracy I was constantly surprised to find out just how primitive that first sanctuary was back then.

But from those early days, John Osteen built the small congregation into one of the largest churches in America. Now, 40 years later when I received that phone call, John Osteen was gone.

It wasn’t totally unexpected. For months, he had been in the hospital with failing kidneys, and although we hoped for a miracle, I knew the phone call would soon come.

New to preaching

When Joel called me at my home in Los Angeles, I had to ask the question, “What now ? Where do we go from here?” The only time Joel had ever preached was the previous week. Even though his father had asked him multiple times over the years, he always evaded the issue and had never stepped into the pulpit. Joel considered himself a media producer and was perfectly content to stay behind the scenes, leading the church from the background.

But as his father’s condition grew worse, Joel finally relented, and on the Sunday he preached for his dad, they wired up a phone connection so his father could hear the message from his hospital bed.

The first sermon Joel Osteen ever preached was the last sermon his father ever heard.

The next week John Osteen went to his reward, and suddenly Joel Osteen was facing a completely different future.

Up to that point, Joel was the communications director and producer of his dad’s global television program, and we had been close friends for a long time. Over the years Joel would ask for my help with many of the bigger events, and we had produced Christmas TV specials in the mountains of Colorado, live prime time programs and many other major concerts and TV events. He was a consummate producer with brilliant instincts and I was the creative guy. Together, we made a good team.

Forming a new strategy

But now, Joel was the pastor and we had to completely change our thinking and our strategy.

I flew to Houston and we had a meeting with Joel’s family and the Lakewood leadership team. We decided that while we wanted to honor the legacy of his father, at the same time we had to recognize a new era was dawning in the history of the church. Just as you can’t pour new wine into old wineskins, we focused on the future, and how to capture this unique story for the city, the state and the nation.

After numerous meetings and brainstorming sessions, we created a campaign called “We Believe in New Beginnings.” It was symbolic of the new beginning at Lakewood, but also of the new beginning that Jesus Christ can bring into your life. It was designed to express Joel and Victoria’s change of leadership to the people of Houston through television, radio, billboards and print advertising, and by extension, to the national television audience as well.

Led by Joel and Victoria, I wrote and directed the campaign, while Lakewood’s television producer Jon Swearingen coordinated the project. Joel always understood the impact of quality, so we created an original song, shot the campaign on 35mm film, and created something that made a remarkable impact on the city.

Our challenge was to create a campaign and TV program that would capture Joel’s unique gifts and brand story, and by all accounts, it worked very well. The perception in the community was indelible, and the Houston press would later call it one of the most successful marketing campaigns in the city’s history. It launched what we know today as Joel’s television ministry, which has become the most successful inspirational program in history, based in the largest church in America.

Elements of success

Looking back, I’ve often considered the elements that went into the launch and why it became so successful. So many churches and ministries are faced with similar challenges, examining what worked in that situation might be a good lesson on getting to the next level. Besides God’s blessing of course, here are five key principles that made a dramatic difference:

The power of a great team. Perhaps Joel’s greatest strength is his ability to assemble a qualified team to help accomplish his vision. Too many church leaders are insecure and need to be the smartest guy in the room. But that only lowers the collective I.Q. overall. Joel understands that you can’t be an expert in everything and he isn’t afraid to bring together a great team in pursuit of an important goal. After all, with only 11 people, Jesus changed the world. Who are the 11 people on your team who could help you do the same?

Strong relationships with the city. Early in his life, Joel’s father taught him an important lesson: A strong relationship with local city leaders can make a significant difference. Take the time to meet city leaders and make them aware of the work you’re doing in the community. It can reap unexpected rewards when you need it the most.

The importance of quality. In a media-driven culture, when the competition for the hearts and minds of the public is at its peak, quality makes a difference. Whether it’s a higher quality media ministry, a more creative Web site or print materials, or even sanctuary construction, perception matters. The first thing people talk about when they see Joel’s TV program is the quality, and that opens doors for people to listen to the message.

Brand unity. Make sure every expression of the church or ministry is telling the same story. Your website, media outreach, print materials — even the church’s design — should have a similar look and feel. People should see anything you create, and instantly recognize it as belonging to your church. “We Believe in New Beginnings” began on TV, but filtered into local billboards, advertising, church videos and even bumper stickers. When we were done, nearly everyone in Houston knew what it meant.

Reach people through multiple levels. In the age of cell phones, Facebook and Twitter, it’s not how you want to talk to your congregation or donors, it’s how they want to talk to you. Make sure you’re communicating on multiple platforms. Today Joel is one of the most watched podcasts on iTunes, and his brand presence extends across all media.

In a media-driven culture, perception matters. While the last generation of Christian leaders discounted the value of perception, it all comes down to the fact that no matter how powerful your message, if no one’s listening, you’ve failed. The question you should be asking is, “What do people think of when they think of you?”

If you don’t work to shape that perception, you’ll spend the rest of your ministry at the mercy of other people who will.

Phil Cooke is a media producer and consultant at Cooke Pictures, Burbank, CA, and author of Branding Faith: Why Some Churches and Non-Profits Impact Culture and Others Don’t. []


If by now you think I’m anti-traditional media or even anti-religious media, you’ve missed my point. I’m anti-bad media. I’m anti-stupid media and anti-pointless media; entertainment, information, education, ministry, inspiration — regardless of what type of media programming you create.

I’m against media that isn’t honest and authentic, doesn’t accomplish a purpose, doesn’t express your values, and doesn’t find an audience.

Traditional media will always be with us — after all, I may spend my days on the computer and iPhone, but Kathleen and I still cuddle up in front of my widescreen TV (my Christmas gift to her of course) for a good movie.

The key is finding the right media mix for the right message and the right audience.

— From The Last TV  Evangelist by Phil Cooke  (Conversant Media Group, 2009)


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