Marketing the Church

Over on Conglomerate, Elizabeth Brown links to an article about the “Scum of the Earth Church” as an example of niche marketing. The name is integral to the church’s mission of “reach[ing] out to our otherwise unreached friends…. Whether outcast by society (e.g., punks, skaters, ravers, homeless people…) or by the church itself, many who come can identify with the name ‘Scum of the Earth’ since they have been previously treated as such.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints invests heavily in marketing. In the U.S., that marketing consists of media advertising (including internet sites and television commercials), promotional literature (including, most importantly, free copies of the Book of Mormon or the Holy Bible), and direct sales (52,060 full-time missionaries). The media marketing emphasizes middle-class individuals and families, but my sense is that direct sales are pretty effective at reaching the constituencies targeted by the “Scum of the Earth Church,” even if the poor and downtrodden are not always a point of emphasis in the missionary work.

Niche marketing does not become a church that views itself as the “One True Church.” We must be a Church that transcends social and economic classes, racial lines, and cultural barriers. Though our efforts are not equally credible in all communities, I do perceive the effort to appeal broadly, and I appreciate it.

24 comments for “Marketing the Church

  1. This may be a threadjack, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that most new converts in most wards I have been in are NOT middle-class stable families, but individuals with some issues–whether economic, social, health, etc. I wonder if this is a natural result of the ‘humbling’ of these people or if it is a product of our missionary approach.

  2. Julie, My experience is the same. We tend not to target such individuals, but missionaries find them, and they seem more willing to accept baptism than the middle-class folks portrayed in our television ads.

  3. If we’re doing okay reaching those who are not middle-class, then maybe it only stands to reason that we would have certain efforts more targeted at the middle-class folks we don’t do as well reaching!

    Plus, the people portrayed in our media ads aren’t particularly more middle-class than the people in the general run of media ads are they? Maybe then they actually count as generic, in media-speak?

  4. Targeting a message either too high or too low is pretty dangerous – it either turns off or offends people if not done very carefully. In particular many of the signs of a lower class environment are not simply unfortunate circumstances, but rather outright aberration, deliquency, and despair. Or on the other hand how many sincerely aspire to the lifestyle of Frasier Krane?

  5. I think the church’s polished presentation is too glossy for it’s content. Traditional big advertisers (P&G, Coca-Cola, Budweiser) have moved away from “over-packaged” marketing methods in order to project “authenticity”, and it’s a shame that the church wasn’t in that corner all along. (The PR opposite of authenticity is “impressive,” which is what the church public face still yearns for.)

    Because people tend to think God wouldn’t feel like he had to impress anyone — or at least if he did, he wouldn’t have to rely on fancy photographers and graphic artists — and would therefore be completely authentic. For that reason I think the slick stuff coming out of the church’s PR machine is counter-productive, as straining for “impressive” undermines our claim to be God’s “authentic” church. People expect the capital-T truth to speak for itself. There’s only one reason to guild lilies. (Dead lilies.)

  6. nonsense! the reasons to guild lilies include rallying for a living wage, defying the proletariat, and starting the revolution! lilies of the world unite!

    or are we talking about gilded lilies?

  7. #6 But you have to get someone’s attention before you can teach the capital-T truth, right? Not every one will respond to the “glossy” stuff to which you refer, but some people DO. I get the feeling there is a wide range of approaches, with the hope of meeting people in different circumstances with varying needs and interests.

    Alma 32:2, 7
    “And it came to pass that after much labor among them, they began to have success among the poor class of people…Therefore he did say no more to the other multitude; but he stretched forth his hand, and cried unto those whom he beheld, who were truly penitent.”

    This is definitely what I found on my mission, and why I think European missionaries have such a hard time, etc. Unfortunately, it’s more difficult to find those who “truly humble themselves because of the word” (Al. 32:14). Without a felt need for change, or a felt need at all, it’s hard to convince someone that they should embrace a new religion and new life.

  8. The most effective marketing of the Church would of course be –conversion stories: real people telling how they found the church, the feelings they feel due to it, what they feel they’ve been able to accomplish in their lives due to it. That’s always the best advertisement.

    [Readers BEWARE! (or just please be aware?) — the above unsolicited comment is being brought to you by a longtime disaffected of the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS).]

  9. I find it interesting that most of the church ads I’ve seen (or, more likely, heard) aren’t aimed at proselyting, at least not directly. Many of them encourage people to live good, more family-centered lives, regardless of which church (if any) they belong to. And that, I think, is a good thing.

  10. I remember a comment attributed to Mitt Romney in the Newsweek article about the “Mormon Olympics” which appeared in the Fall of 2001
    to wit: … when asked if well-heeled Olympic visitors will encounter Mormon proselytizing (sp) efforts, Mitt Romney replied: “They aren’t our target audience”….

    Perhaps as most consumers buy A-1 Steak sauce for hamburger, the depiction of a Northern-European looking Jesus and Healthy, wholesome Caucasian families appeals to those who see this as an ideal; maybe one they can’t claim membership to just yet, but one they can strive to imitate, and perhaps the cultural group portrayed will also be slowly re-defined in upcoming Church media to include them.

  11. I don’t agree that the media commercials are targeting middle class Americans. In the DC media market, LDS TV commercials run exclusively on UPN and WB. Those are not middle class stations.

  12. I don’t think UPN targets class per se, but they openly specialize in shows that appeal particularly to minorities, especially blacks. It caused a little friction here in Utah because while the Hispanic audience is large, the black audience is very small, and apparently the local UPN affiliate wanted more generic programming. The WB doesn’t seem to be targeted to any particular audience, except of course young people (with money to spend).

    On a program by program basis though, narrow targeting by social group (class, race, age, orientation, etc.) appears to be on the rise, especially in comedies.

  13. Here you go, John: UPN and WB.

    That’s a good point, Mark. I also agree with your characterization about the ethnic targeting by UPN and WB. I would bet though that the bulk of the viewers on those channels are within the fifteenth and fortieth percentile in terms of household income and educational attainment. That would qualify as middle class in many western countries. In the US, however, there is a substantial underclass, essentially living under third world living conditions below the working class (remember Katrina).

    We also need to consider that television as a medium has always been skewed towards working and lower class audiences.

    Adding these factors up, it is not plausible to assume that LDS TV commercials target the American middle class. The target audience is working class people with a high school diploma and may be some college. Essentially the same crowd that the US military approaches to for enlistment.

  14. I just wanted you to give you the opportunity to get a feel for these networks yourself, John.

    UPN is mostly cheap sitcoms. It’s cash cow is probably America’s Next Top Model, which is fascinating in an exhibitionist sort of way. So after one watched the aspiring models stabbing each other in the back, you can order your Book of Mormon.

    WB has a lot of series reinventing soap operas Gen X style, or whatever generation it is right now. Occassionally, their shows display a streak of cleverness.

    Neither UPN nor WB have a news division.

  15. In the corporate world, the fastest way to grow is through mergers and acquisitions. If our church leaders would just buy a whole bunch of other religions. We could double our membership overnight, and it would allow us to piggy-back off of the effective branding of other churches. I think that the church described at this link is a really good candidate for an acquisition target–they even have an online donation setup.

  16. Hellmut, Interesting that the Church is running ads on those stations. Are the people in the ads minorities? Or are they just “order a Book of Mormon” ads, with no actors?

    DKL, What happened to the old days, when whole congregations would convert? I don’t know how often that happened, but I kept looking for that congregation on my mission. Alas, only Roman Catholics as far as the eye could see.

  17. Of course if one targets people young enough (e.g. in their twenties) they will typically have a considerably lower standard of living, unless they are still living with their parents… The WB is definitely a youth oriented station, where the networks seem to particularly target shows at upwardly mobile thirtysomethings these days… And of course though due to various practical considerations it might be healthier if there were a broader age balance, most converts tend to fall nicely in The WB’s cohort.

    A look at some of the missionary films from a few years back shows some rather different strategies. “Together Forever” focused on a pair of families that were a little too upper middle class for comfort, in my opinion. “Labor of Love” and “Our Heavenly Father’s Plan” on the other hand dealt mostly with much more “down to earth” investigator types – a farming couple, a minority basketball player, a much more clearly middle class couple, and an “outdoorsy” male in his early twenties.

  18. Does the Church use outside ad agencies for this, or is it all produced in-house?

    Here’s a question: If you could produce a new ad campaign for the Church, what would it be like? Describe the TV commercial, print ads, etc. What would you emphasize?

  19. A new campaign:

    The local Methodist church congregation where my wife works has grown from 1700 members to over 4000 in the last 5 years. Across the street the larger Baptist church is also growing but more slowly, not loosing too much ground to them. This is in a moderate to affluent area with 30-40 year old homes that is being repopulated by young families. (What brings in the young families? Good schools and good churches.) Both churches are drawing members from entirely within the wide boundaries of our ward. How do they do it?

    It isn’t about doctrine, it isn’t about spiritual experiences; most of their members could care less about the difference between Calvinism and Wesleyanism. It isn’t about saving their souls directly, not their own, rather it is about the moral salvation of their children.

    First, the Methodists have an excellent preschool. It took them years to build it and it is not just a place to dump your kids while you go sit in a beauty salon to gossip. They actually try and help young mothers with all the usual issues and provide a supportative network of experienced women for young mothers who may not have their own mothers close by to help them through the rough spots. Second, both have an excellent athletic program with over 1500 kids in half a dozen sports and the Methodists seem to have hit a balance between being too competitive and too lame, in my experience, I’ve coached at both churches. Third, they have excellent scout troops. Fourth, they have excellent music programs for many of the usual instruments kids play. Music is another great way to discipline children and teach them respect, hard work, and other values. And these churches have several other “ministries.”

    These programs, offered as genuine service to the community, result in real church growth. This is without missionaries and hard sales tactics. People come to activitites, then they come to Sunday meetings and then the kids experience real conversions and sometimes the parents. Mostly professional young families come, those who may not have been very interested in religion until they had children and are struck with the awesome moral responsibility it is to raise them correctly. Then they seek and come back to church, family oriented churches. This Methodist church I am familar with gets new members as follows: about 70% from the preschool, about 20% from the sports, and a few from the scouting, music, etc.

    As long as we only convert the “Scum of the Earth,” which is a rather derogatory but painfully true description of what we see in my ward, it is increasingly difficult to raise children in this church. If you are not growing you will be dying. Fortress Mormon, keeping only our own youth of the noble birthright active and blind to the world does not work here. Especially when that surburban world is not all evil, or even better than the local LDS world in many ways. We have not converted even one family with mon, dad and children in 10 years. (Although we have one such family investigating right now, and we are all praying and keeping ourtfingers crossed). Our ward is dying, with numbers of youth in the single digits now. Sacrament attendance is still over 150 so it may not be so obvious yet.

    It becomes increasingly hard to raise children in this church. It is hard on the kids to be poorly treated by these new inept converts. Itis hard to only have one or two kids in ech age group. We constantly have to go to these other churches for decent programs for our children; like their sports, music, scouting, etc. This sends the message to them that their LDS church is lame.
    It seems the only people who make it in the Mormon church today are those who are so ram rod strict that they are even harder on the youth than the wacky new members. They produce children who either stay hyper- active in a nutty sort of way, or else have enormous problems adjusting to life outside the fold. OCD and addictive personality disorders abound.

    I think the decades of missionary abuses we endured (the baseball baptisms as one but not the only exampl), from excessively zealous missionary tactics have caused an over reaction in our vision of how to convert people, to the point that we now shun most methods of conversion that might actually work (in the communities far from the intermountain strong holds). Those hypocritical pseudo-conversions that inflated our rolls by the millions have damned this church in more ways than you might expect. They damaged many missionaries (see previous threads about bad missionary experiences), and they saddle all future priesthold leaders with impossible home teaching and reactivation responsibilities. They created an enormous hidden reservoir of ex-Mos who may not speak very highly of us. Now they are offered as the basis for excuses of why we don’t have sports programs and schools and such.

    Instead of talking about what a great church we have, spending millions in various advertising campaigns; why not start doing something for the communities we live in that will allow people to see that we have something to offer. That coupled with the Field of Dreams approach, if you build a good church they will come will work.

    This comes down to a week-by-week choice of what is done at youth activities. Do we focus on things exclusively and hard-core Mormon, like the personal progress goals and reading scriptures outloud to each other for an hour? (Making the walls of Fortress Mormon thicker).Or do we have good fun activities that our Mormon girls feel excited about bringing their numerous non-LDS friends to? Can we strike a balance?

  20. The courage to make these observations and the passion you display in making them is commendable. Your the type of member that the Church cannot afford to lose.

  21. Wow Mike!

    Anyway — since within another thread the gadfly in me got all pie-in-the-sky about the Community of Christ’s maybe coming up with a spin off for disaffected Mormons — and since the Methodists are utterlly famous for the professionalism* of their paid ministry:

    I hereby would nominate for the paid ministry of my proposed, ahem, conservative (viz., “Utah Mormon-ish”) branch of the Reformed Restorationist movement to be trained, if at all possible, at Methodist seminaries.
    *(As an aside, surveys also show Methodist ministers are inclined to be much more liberal on numerous issues than their congregants too.)

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