The Unitarians have a problem. Known for progressive ideals and a history entwined with the nation’s intellectual elite—from Abigail Adams to Oregon’s own Linus Pauling—their congregations have performed sluggishly, at best, in America’s competitive religious landscape. Since the ’60s, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has declined in membership relative to the nation’s population.
The dilemma is common to America’s traditional denominations. The attempted solution, less so: the Boston-headquartered UUA hired a Portland Zen Buddhist brand guru who says he doesn’t believe in God, per se, to attract a new generation.
Previously, Will Novy-Hildesley and his branding agency, Quicksilver Foundry, had tackled decidedly secular projects for clients like Ocean Conservancy, a South American microfinance program, and the Society of American Foresters. But the 44-year-old designer felt a connection. “Brands and religions are all about sense-making,” Novy-Hildesley says. “Am I an individual? And do I belong, do I have a community?”
Quicksilver sat down with 50 UUA core members in 2012 for a full-day workshop. “We don’t do research prior to our workshops because we want a blank slate,” Novy-Hildesley explains. “We look for patterns—for unexpected gold. Brands and religions don’t last long unless there’s truly something there. There was a lot of energy in the room. These guys can talk.”
Those chatty sessions eventually led to a memorable slogan: “Wanted: Brave Souls.” But Novy-Hildesley still lacked a tagline that would capture the UUA’s essence and call the “consumer” to action. Dejected and procrastinating, Novy-Hildesley began idly Googling his client. “I found something like, ‘ ... and then we light a candle or a flame.’ Light a Flame! That was it. The call to arms that was sitting there waiting for us in their DNA.” The Portland firm’s insights became part of UUA’s outreach efforts that began in early 2014.
Novy-Hildesley doesn’t think Quicksilver is “selling God” as much as defining the community Unitarians share. “Do I believe in God?” he says. “Nope. Do I believe in what the UUA has to offer their tribe? Hell, yes! We just lit the path for the right people to find their way to that tribe. And it was a blast.”