Magazine article Marketing

The Brand of God

Magazine article Marketing

The Brand of God

Article excerpt

How can religious advertising get its message across without preaching to the converted.

It's odd hearing Church people discuss 'products' and 'brands' but, in a sense, marketing and the Church go hand in hand. They've been at it for nearly 2000 years - persuading, converting, and building the kind of 'customer loyalty' most marketers would die for. Some say the parables should be used as case studies in teaching classic marketing techniques. Others point to the Crusades as the earliest exercise in field marketing.

Why then, does every attempt by the Church to use more modern communications media create such a stir?

The latest fuss surrounded the Easter TV campaign by the dioceses of Birmingham and Lichfield, in which a yuppie in a BMW, a basketball player and a nightclub raver are seen silently praying. A voice-over says: "These people are doing something you've never seen in a TV commercial before. If you would like to find out more about Christianity, why not try a Church this Easter?"

The ad, produced by a group of London agency personnel working voluntarily under the guise of Christians in Media, attracted a level of media interest not seen since the Church's last advertising campaign.

Poster sites to cause a stir in the past have carried the lines: '"Surprise!" said Jesus to his disciples three days after they buried him'; 'Christians make better lovers' and 'Bad hair day?! You're a virgin, you've just given birth and now three kings have shown up.'

The Reverend Robert Ellis, communications officer for the Lichfield diocese, says: "It's an indictment of the Church that the fact that we are using a 20th century form of communication is such a major news item. For the Church, not using TV or radio is like saying we shouldn't use the printing press or the telephone."

The Church's main problem in embracing modern marketing techniques is that it struggles to pin down the 'product' it is trying to 'sell'. Is it trying to get people to convert to the faith, get them into Church or build the Christian brand?

The immediate reaction to the latest TV ad was that the Church was launching a desperate bid to get 'bums on pews'. True, the Church of England's Sunday attendances have fallen by an average 4%, but, according to the people involved in making it, the ad was not meant to address this.

Chas Bayfield, the copywriter, says: "We are trying to do a decent PR job on Christ, getting people to look at their faith differently. The image of Christianity at the moment is so terrible I'm embarrassed to say I am one. As it conjures up images of not being able to drink, smoke or have sex, nobody's going to put up their hand and say, 'Yeah, I'm one of those'."

As well as helping the Church to break out of its stuffy, institutional, thou-shalt-not image, marketing has to tackle the other extreme of the born-again happy-clappy. While doing this it must not offend the people within the Church who pay for the ads to be made. And, in the case of cross-denominational campaigns, it must not favour one 'brand' of the Church over another. This juggling of audiences has proved to be one of the major difficulties facing the Church's emerging marketing agenda.

Modern message

Kevin May, a J Walter Thompson director who has written on religious advertising, says this conflict is blighting the Church's attempts to modernise its message. "Every time that it advertises, it creates tension. What it wants to say is 'Come to Church and see that we're not all weirdos'. But it can't because it will offend all those in the fold. This is a conundrum not best fought out on the public stage of advertising."

The 'Bad Hair Day?!' ad tested this breaking point to its limit. The copy, though obviously targeting a young audience, was too racy for many Church stalwarts to handle. As Ellis says: "It wasn't able to take the Church with it. We have to try to target an audience and at the same time keep the troops at home happy. …

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