Rebranding the Mormons

I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter on the Mormon grapevine these days about the new mormon.org, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’s just-released website and public relations campaign that allows site visitors to find and read thousands of profiles (searchable by gender, race, former religion, continent, or keyword) posted by individual church members. Member profiles rotating on the homepage feature an ethnically diverse mix of American Mormons including a woman artist, a women’s world longboarding champion, a happily married multilingual humanitarian couple and their three children, and a creative director at the Library of Congress pictured riding his bike to work. Site visitors can also click-through to chat live with Mormon missionaries.

The new Mormon.org campaign–described in internal church memos as a “massive research / rebranding exercise“— projects a hip, educated, friendly sensibility; it’s the image of ourselves and our community that young and urbane Mormons love. (Site designers describe the site’s design principles as “joyful, reverent, inspiring, authentic, and relevant.”) It’s also clearly an effort to address the major PR problems facing the Church as it continues to contend with century-old stereotypes about Mormons as clannish polygamists as well as with recent fallout from its heavy involvement in California’s Proposition 8 campaign. The Church is struggling to retool its approach to missionary work away from the time-honored tradition of door-to-door tracting as growth rates flatline worldwide, in sharp contrast with sociologist Rodney Stark’s famous projection that there could be as many as 265 million Mormons by the late 21st century. Retention of members too is a major issue around the globe.

How’s it working? Salon calls the campaign and its accompanying television adverts (running in Baton Rouge, Colorado City, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Tucson, and Minneapolis) “weird,” while suggesting that the ad campaign is actually a strategy to pave the way for Mitt Romney’s 2012 run. Unlikely. (And anyone who thinks Mormons are placing all their eggs in Mitt Romney’s basket hasn’t heard of Jon Huntsman.)

Meanwhile, progressive Church members themselves are trying to reconcile the new mormon.org image with some of the realities they’ve experienced in their own tradition. As John Dehlin asks at the blog Mormon Matters,

 

“Let’s say that a young, hip, progressive, yuppy, affluent, intellectual, artistic, and most likely pro-gay couple decides to join the church in an average LDS ward. Will their experience in the church, today, reflect the open, progressive, liberal, almost artsy sentiments and values reflected in this marketing campaign? Will they stay? Or will they feel that a bit of a ‘bait and switch’ has happened?”

 

Is this who we are? Dehlin concludes that the new Mormon.org campaign is “aspirational”: “May it be so. Dear God . . . may it be so.”

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.