The Promise of Young Life

What do you know about someone you’ve just met who tells you they came to faith through Young Life? What about a college sophomore who says he served on summer staff at Saranac, or a parent who hosts WyldLife in their living room twice a month?

You know a lot. You can bet these folks have a quirky sense of humor, a love of fun and adventure, a casual disregard for household furnishings, and that somewhere they have encountered the grace, acceptance and love of Jesus Christ. We call that The Promise of Young Life.

There is an uncanny connection you have with a perfect stranger when you learn they “know” Young Life. This is the power of our promise, and what some experts call our “brand” strength.

Young Life has a decades-long history of honoring its promise. What is essential about Young Life hasn’t changed in more than 66 years. The consistency and power of Young Life’s “basics” are a God-given treasure that deserves intentional study and stewardship to keep it strong and extend its reach in a global community in 2008 and beyond.

The Promise of Young Life Initiative

Eighteen months ago, Young Life President Denny Rydberg asked Terry Swenson, vice president of Young Life Communications, to assemble a team representing all facets of the mission to study Young Life’s brand promise, asking two primary questions:

  1. What do people think of when they hear or see the name Young Life? What is the “promise” associated with our name and logo(s)?

  2. As a mission, what can we do to ensure that what we say about Young Life is clear, accurate and compelling?

Following a plan that included internal research and the engagement of a brand consultancy, what this team learned was overwhelmingly affirming and occasionally surprising. The outcome of the study, which is initially visible in a new logo and tagline, will help us communicate Young Life in new and true ways.

I Could Have Told You That

The Promise of Young Life team conducted extensive interviews with kids, donors, leaders, committee members, staffers, senior leadership and people unfamiliar with Young Life. They asked all types of questions to discover what Young Life is at its core and what makes it unique among youth organizations.

The team heard responses like, “Young Life is committed leaders, quality people, fun-loving adults who care about kids.” And that it is “leaders sacrificing a great deal for the sake of the call to love kids and proclaim the Gospel.” They heard that Young Life is more than superficially fun. It is, “joy and a freedom to be who we are.” It’s also, “someone’s really crowded basement, a wall with song lyrics projected on it and my leader being really sweaty.” Sweaty fun and sacrificial love — that sounds about right.

These responses, and hundreds like them, revealed that Young Life is essentially about leaders going to kids and sharing the Gospel with their lives first, and later with their words. It’s about a kind of fun and adventure that is both freeing and crazy. It is about relationships, and a gracious, persistent pursuit of every kind of kid. At its core, Young Life is Christ and kids.

So that’s news, you say? Maybe not. But intertwined with these affirmations were nuances about the Young Life brand promise that were surprising and, yes, news to us.

It’s All Young Life

One thing we’ve realized during this review process is that, as Young Life has developed its outreach to specific groups of kids, we have sometimes missed the opportunity to make the connection between a specific program and Young Life. When we present people with many different program names, we compete with ourselves for their attention. Simple is better; so while there is an important place for specific program names, we want to be consistent and disciplined about connecting those programs to Young Life. After all, the promise of our mission is there for every kind of kid, everywhere.

And, kids don’t necessarily think of the Young Life they experience in the program names we use. “What was interesting to me was how we came to terms with the way kids themselves see Young Life. They don’t go to Young Life Urban on Tuesday nights, or Urban camp, they go to Young Life. Just Young Life,” said Bebe Hobson, vice president for Young Life’s multicultural ministry.

We Have a Logo for That, Too

In a related way, and further complicating our message, is the number of Young Life logos that depict our many ministries and camps. Did you know Young Life protects and manages as many as 149 distinct logos? And, those are just our official logos.

“Whether I presented our team findings to the Board, or senior leadership, or to folks from the field, when I showed the slide revealing 40 of our logos in one array, the understanding was instantaneous. The ‘ah-has’ and moans were audible. In this case, 40 logos spoke a thousand words,” said Vice President of Communications Terry Swenson.

And so, senior leadership agreed that what the mission needs most at this time in its history is a bigger and simpler Young Life, and the tools to communicate clearly the heart of Young Life.

Life-Stage Ministries

Hanon-McKendry the Grand Rapids, Mich., brand consulting firm that guided the team through its strategic assessment, recommended that we identify ourselves foremost, with life-stage ministries. These exist already in the form of WyldLife, Young Life and Young Life College. As senior leadership works through the far-reaching implications of the study results, one thing is clear: Defining points of entry into Young Life by age will help kids and everyone else find and understand us.

Start Here

With that strategic foundation, Hanon-McKendry created options for a new identity system; or a framework of color, typography, symbols, naming conventions and messages that, over time, will help to create instant recognition of Young Life in a noisy and crowded global space.

This work started with a new logo and tagline for Young Life (understood here as both the “parent” brand and the high school ministry). The process will continue as Young Life introduces additional tools that will help the mission communicate distinctively and consistently the essence of Young Life.

The new logo (see above) is the first manifestation of that work. Its shape forms the familiar “YL,” but in a more abstract way, acknowledging that the letters “YL” may mean little in some of our international communities. The arrows forming the YL point up to God and out to kids; they point back to our past and forward to our future. And as Mike Ashburn, former assistant to Denny Rydberg, suggested at the All Staff Conference, the shape also represents a chalice, and a funnel that draws in many kids and leads them, each one individually, to the arms of Jesus Christ.

The logo’s colors, internally described as granny smith apple green and midnight blue, are youthful and outdoorsy. And the typography of the word mark, “Young Life,” mimics the logo shape and is itself a youthful expression. But what has resonated most with everyone who sees it is the new tagline.

You were made for this. TM

While some taglines help define an organization or product, Young Life’s new tagline points to an experience. It expresses what we hope kids (and others) feel as a result of their encounter with Young Life. The tagline begins with “you,” just like we do in Young Life as we go to kids, learning their names, meeting them where they are. And the phrase, like Young Life, invites people into something bigger, something that is just right for them. It says, “We hope that your encounter with Young Life attracts you, and draws you closer to the person of Jesus, because we believe all of us were made for this purpose.”

In a November meeting of the Board of Trustees, Denny Rydberg presented the findings of the Promise initiative, stopping just short of revealing the logo and tagline which had been presented, but not yet selected. Later in the proceedings, Rydberg said, “A high school student shared his experiences with Young Life. The Board members and I listened to his testimony and as he finished he said, ‘I felt like Young Life was made just for me.’ That was all I needed to be sure that the tagline that spoke to us would speak to others too.”

I Thought You Looked Familiar

Over the next months, Young Life friends, staffers and kids will see more of the logo and tagline as it appears in stationery, publications, signage and, yes, T-shirts. The Communications department is hard at work creating the tools that will equip us to “speak” our promise with one voice, clearly and consistently over time.

Our hope is that the next time you meet someone wearing a sweatshirt with an abstract YL in granny smith apple green, you’ll think, I know you. And should you have a conversation with that person, we hope that you’ll walk away having encountered something bigger than the Young Life promise, that is, Jesus Christ, the true “logos,” the final Word and perfect representation of the promise of God.

Stacy Windahl, the author of the article, is a former Young Life “kid” and current committee member who serves on The Promise of Young Life team. She thinks often about clear and compelling ways to share the Young Life promise with a variety of listeners.