Savvy mar­keters tar­get ‘faith and fam­ily’ flock

Crack­ing U.S. Chris­tian – par­tic­u­larly evan­gel­i­cal – mar­kets de­mands dif­fer­ing strate­gies, one ex­pert says, but the pay­off can be ‘a very loyal au­di­ence’

National Post (Latest Edition) - - Financial Post - BY PETER MOR­TON

Larry Ross is a man with a lot of pas­sion. A for­mer pub­lic re­la­tions spokesman for Gen­eral Mo­tors Corp., the Dal­las-based Mr. Ross has spent the past 26 years spread­ing the word about the Word, mar­ket­ing Chris­tian­based prod­ucts and films.

“There are 190 mil­lion Chris­tians in this coun­try and that rep­re­sents a largely un­tapped new mar­ket,” says Mr. Ross, who also acted as front man for Billy Gra­ham, the world’s most rec­og­niz­able evan­gel­i­cal preacher.

In the ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing world, it is called the “faith and fam­ily” mar­ket, and it is quickly be­com­ing the most sought-af­ter niche by U.S. cor­po­ra­tions look­ing for in­no­va­tive ways to reach con­sumers.

The “faith and fam­ily” mar­ket cov­ers a huge range — books, films, mu­sic, ra­dio and television shows aimed di­rectly at the de­voted at­tend­ing the 300,000 Protes­tant and 20,000 Catholic churches in this coun­try.

Chris­tian-themed ra­dio has grown from a hand­fulof sta­tions to more than 1,600 out­lets with a dou­bling of to­tal ra­dio mar­ket share to 5.5%. Re­li­gious CDs and con­certs gen­er­ate more than US$1-bil­lion a year. Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian au­thors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenk­ins are pub­lish­ing su­per­stars, fa­mous for the af­ter-the-rap­ture “Left Be­hind” thrillers that have sold more than 62 mil­lion copies in the past decade.

The Chris­tian Book­sell­ers As­so­ci­a­tion says Chris­tian-book sales are ex­pected to jump 15% a year with no end in sight. “Our sales are only lim­ited by our abil­ity to ex­e­cute,” says the Coloradobased as­so­ci­a­tion.

Pack­aged Facts, a New York­based mar­ket re­search com­pany, says the mar­ket for re­li­gious prod­ucts will grow toUS$8.6-bil­lion by 2008 from US$6.8-bil­lion in 2003.

And one only has to look at MelGibson ’s The Pas­sion of Christ, which grossed more than US$600-mil­lion for its bi­b­li­cally lit­eral in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the fi­nal hours of Je­sus.

“Films like Pas­sion fo­cus on value-added en­ter­tain­ment with a pur­pose,” says Mr. Ross, a de­vout Chris­tian.

Mr. Ross should know. He headed the Chris­tian pub­lic re­la­tions cam­paign that helped send Pas­sion to box-of­fice suc­cess — a cam­paign that es­sen­tially in­volved mar­ket­ing di­rect- ly to parish­ioners through their preach­ers.

“You have to look at the Chris­tian com­mu­nity as a se­ries of over­lap­ping con­cen­tric cir­cles — there are evan­gel­i­cals and all kinds of Pres­by­te­ri­ans and Catholics,” he says. “They all over­lap in the broader Chris­tian com­mu­nity, yet it is not one sin­gle ho­mo­ge­neous mar­ket.”

Tap­ping into the mar­ket, es­pe­cially the 70 mil­lion-strong evan­gel­i­cal mar­ket, in­volves a dif­fer­ent strat­egy than reach­ing main­stream mar­kets, he says.

“In the evan­gel­i­cal com­mu­nity, there is a very loyal au­di­ence,” he says.

Call­ing it “bell cow” lead­er­ship, Mr. Ross’s strat­egy to get­ting an in­spi­ra­tional­filminto the Chris­tian com­mu­nity is to screen it first pri­vately to the lo­cal pas­tor. (A bell cow is usu­ally the lead cow in a herd.) If the min­is­ter felt it ac­cu­rately rep­re­sented the bib­li­cal ver­sion, he would pass that in­for­ma­tion along to his con­gre­ga­tion. Then Mr. Ross would ar­range for the film to be shown to the con­gre­ga­tion at the lo­cal church. “Word of mouth will take care of the rest,” he says.

Mr. Ross is not alone in faith­based mar­ket­ing of the The Pas­sion of Christ.

Mo­tive Mar­ket­ing of Cal­i­for­nia is a mar­ket­ing com­pany that fo­cuses on the Chris­tian com­mu­nity and was also a key part in the mar­ket­ing suc­cess of the con­tro­ver­sial­fil m.

The strat­egy was so suc­cess­ful that Mo­tiveMar­ket­ing was hired by Walt Dis­ney Co. to pro­mote its own faith and fam­ily films, in­clud­ing C.S Lewis’ The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia, which was dubbed “ The Pas­sion of Christ for kids.”

Mr. Ross’s com­pany, A. Larry Ross Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, just fin­ished work­ing with Hol­ly­wood­based Gen­er8Xion En­ter­tain­ment’s film One Night with the King, us­ing that same church strat­egy. The com­pany is work­ing on sev­er­alother film­pro­jects.

“Now, we have a net­work of 3,200 churches in the coun­try show­ing films,” he says. “That is the largest movie chain out there, if you ex­clude the mul­ti­plex the­atres.”

The faith and fam­ily mar­ket has at­tracted the at­ten­tion of some of Amer­ica’s largest cor­po­ra­tions.

Coca Cola Co., Daim­lerChrysler AG and McDon­alds Corp. are among the gi­ant U.S. cor­po­ra­tions that have be­gun tap­ping into the Chris­tian mar­ket, largely through the “mega-church” phe­nom­e­non sweep­ing largely through the south­ern states.

Coca-Cola and McDon­alds have given away free sam­ples at the 25,000-mem­ber New Birth Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist Church in Litho­nia, Ga. Tar­get Co. won praise from the Chris­tian Cul­tural Cen­ter in Brook­lyn for do­nat­ing 2,000 back­packs to chil­dren in a low-in­come hous­ing project.

GM’s Chevro­let di­vi­sion has just spon­sored evan­gel­i­cal singer Michael W. Smith’s re­cent tour, while Chrysler ponied up for Patti LaBelle’s re­cent gospel tour that in­cluded her Dec. 2 con­cert at Jeri­cho City of Praise in Mary­land. GM also made do­na­tions to a can­cer cause for parish­ioners at the Mary­land church who test­drove their cars.

“We try to go out to our best prospects in their en­vi­ron­ment … andin the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity, one of the op­por­tu­ni­ties is the church,” says David Rooney, di­rec­tor of Chrysler brand mar­ket­ing.

But it would wrong to see this as just an­other cyn­i­cal way for cor­po­rate Amer­ica to sell prod­ucts.

“We don’t just want them to put up their lo­gos,” says An­thony Mey­ers, di­rec­tor of de­vel­op­ment at the Bishop T.D. Jakes’ Min­istries out­side Dal­las. Mr. Jakes’ Pot­ter’s House has a con­gre­ga­tion of 30,000 and is one of about 1,200 mega-churches across the United States.

Last year, Coca-Cola, Clorox Co., KF Hold­ings’ Kraft Food, Bank of Amer­ica, Delta Air­lines and oth­ers were spon­sors of the huge Me­gaFest con­fer­ence in At­lanta.

“Peo­ple don’t live in churches, they live in the com­mu­nity,” says Mr. Mey­ers. “Al­though we do church very well, what we don’t do is other things that peo­ple need in their lives.” That is where the cor­po­rate spon­sors come in, he says.

Since mega-churchs can of­ten ap­peal to con­gre­ga­tions that may not be fi­nan­cially well off (one-third of Amer­i­cans make less than US$30,000 a year), Mr. Mey­ers says they may not have all the life skills they need.

“There are three com­po­nents to a per­son’s life — spir­i­tual, phys­i­cal and fi­nan­cial,” says Mr. Mey­ers.

The church takes care of the spir­i­tual, Coca-Cola comes in to in­tro­duce peo­ple to its health­ier prod­ucts — such as its bot­tled wa­ter line — and the Bank of Amer­ica helps teach parish­ioners about ba­sic bank­ing, he says.

“Th­ese com­pa­nies are here not just to sell prod­ucts,” he says. “We want this all to be con­tent rich.”

Not ev­ery­one is im­pressed, how­ever, with this so-called “pros­per­ity gospel” di­rec­tion of cor­po­ra­tions try­ing to reach con­sumers through the pul­pit.

Whenacompany tries “to en­rol peo­ple’s sup­port for a com­mer­cial prod­uct in a set­ting that is sa­cred it can back­fire,” Christophe Van Bulte, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, warned re­cently.

Still, you have to feed the body. And even athe­ists have to eat.

Truett Cathy founded his “bib­li­cal-based” Chick-fil-A chain of 1,280 restau­rants in 1946 on the prin­ci­ple that ev­ery out­let must close on Sun­day for a day of rest for all work­ers.

“We have based our busi­ness prac­tices on bib­li­cal prin­ci­ples,” Mr. Cathy, the 85-year-old chair­man of Chick-fil-A, said in an in­ter­view from his At­lanta head of­fice.

Be­sides be­ing closed on Sun­day — some­thing he says at­tracts bet­ter qual­ity work­ers who know they will get a guar­an­teed day off even if they don’t go to church — Mr. Cathy says his train­ing pro­gram is based on ba­sic bib­li­cal themes.

“I tell my peo­ple to treat cus­tomers like you would like to be treated,” he says. “It’s un­usual in the fast-food in­dus­try to be treated kindly.”

He likes to tell the story of a wo­man who had driven 320 kilo­me­tres from her home, stopped in a Chick-fil-A for lunch, only to find she left her pock­et­book be­hind.

Not only did she get her meal for free, but the staff each do­nated enough money so she could buy gas to go on her way.

“Those kinds of things mean you have a cus­tomer for­ever,” he says, call­ing it “go­ing the sec­ond mile.”

“It doesn’t cost you any­thing to be kind and the Bi­ble teaches you that,” Mr. Cathy says.

The bib­li­cal busi­ness strat­egy ap­pears to be pay­ing off. In late Novem­ber, At­lanta-based Chick-fil-A re­ported an­nual sales of more than US$2-bil­lion, af­ter open­ing 76 new out­lets.

“I see no con­flict be­tween bib­li­cal prin­ci­ples and good busi­ness prac­tices,” says Mr. Cathy, who still teaches Sun­day School ev­ery week. “You’ve just got to stick to your con­vic­tions.”

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF NEW MAR­KET FILMS / ICON PRO­DUC­TIONS

Di­rec­tor Mel Gib­son’s The Pas­sion of Christ achieved box-of­fice suc­cess through a cam­paign that es­sen­tially in­volved mar­ket­ing di­rectly to parish­ioners through their preach­ers.

MIL­TON HINNANT / KRT

Bishop T.D. Jakes of the Pot­ter’s House mega-church, above, al­lows com­pa­nies such as Bank of Amer­ica through its doors while evan­ge­list Billy Gra­ham, right, con­tin­ues to be ama­jor draw in the “faith and fam­ily” mar­ket.

CHRIS GRAY / GETTY IMAGES

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