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’
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.”
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.
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.