December 20, 2006
Product Placement in the Pews
Secular companies want to market their products through your church. Will you let them?
A reoccurring issue on Out of Ur has been the effort of secular corporations to market to and through the church. But Leadership hasn't been the only one to notice the trend. The Wharton School of Business recently published an article outlining why companies are adding churches to their marketing strategies. Wharton's online journal, Knowledge@Wharton, was kind enough to allow us to repost the article for church leaders to discuss.
Church pastors last year had a chance to win a free trip to London and $1,000 cash - if they mentioned Disney's film "The Chronicles of Narnia" in their sermons. Chrysler, hoping to target affluent African Americans with its new luxury SUV, is currently sponsoring a Patti LaBelle gospel music tour through African-American megachurches nationwide.
Advertising has begun to seep into churches, and the phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down, say academic, religious and marketing experts. Among the wave of early adopters: the Republican Party, which successfully sold its platform to church-goers in the 2000 and 2004 elections; Hollywood, which discovered the economic power of faith when Mel Gibson's church-marketed film "The Passion of the Christ" became a blockbuster; and publishing, with Rick Warren's best-selling The Purpose-Driven Life, heavily marketed by a Christian publishing house.
Megachurches offer a particularly tantalizing opportunity for those intent on network or "word-of-mouth" marketing, a strategy that capitalizes on social relationships to spread product information and influence purchasing, according to Wharton marketing professor Patti Williams. "Megachurch members are drawn together by a strong common bond. Networks that exist naturally facilitate word-of-mouth marketing, because people tend to share information with those they are close to," she says.
Pastors make "great connectors," adds Wharton marketing professor Christophe Van den Bulte, "because they reach a large audience once a week, and their words carry extra weight." But the real potential for word-of-mouth marketing, he notes, lies in megachurches' micro social networks.
In order to create the intimate feel of fellowship in the midst of massive congregations, megachurches channel members into small groups. The affiliation groups can be based on any commonality, such as church-going neighbors, widowers, teens with divorced parents, home-schooling mothers and everything in between. In a weekly prayer group, says Van den Bulte, "you have the reinforcement of a dense social network. It's one thing to have a pastor saying something on screen, but it's a real turbocharger if you have a small group discussing it as well."
There is no doubt that megachurches - defined as churches with weekly attendances of over 2,000 people - offer advertisers some huge enticements. They reach more than seven million people every Sunday morning, an aggregation of potential consumers that secular advertisers have ignored until recently, according to Scott Thumma, an expert on megachurches at the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn.
Christian companies have long marketed through churches, but Thumma agrees that mainstream marketers are beginning to catch on. Every week now he fields calls from companies who want to buy access to his database of megachurches. (His list, though publicly available, is not for sale.) "For a long time, companies marketed to the ideal of American culture, which didn't have anything to do with Christianity or religion," he adds. But marketers paying more attention to cultural subgroups see that "conservative Christians represent a very large group, and if they want to appeal to them, they have to go directly to the source."
Outreach Media Group, a Christian marketing firm founded in 1996 to help churches reach potential members, receives "repeated requests from organizations wishing to get their message to pastors and churches," according to its website. While the firm was helping churches market to the unchurched, outside companies realized the process could be reverse engineered to reach pastors and church members. Though the majority of Outreach clients are companies selling faith-related products - like church insurance policies or donor management software - the list also includes Disney, DaimlerChrysler and other secular corporations.
Outreach's sermoncentral.com was the group that sponsored last year's sweepstakes offering $1,000 and a London trip to the lucky pastor who submitted proof of mentioning Disney's "Narnia" movie in a sermon. And as part of its promotion of New Line Cinema's 2006 church-targeted movie, "The Nativity Story," sermoncentral.com offers free sermons, PowerPoint presentations and outreach ideas based on the film. The website also allows pastors to sign up for free screenings of the film in 45 cities.
The Narnia sermon sweepstakes, first reported last December by the Philadelphia Inquirer, gave rise to the new term "sermo-mercial" - along with concerns expressed by blogging Christians that the pulpit was now open for product placement.
While the Narnia example struck many as crass commercialism, however, the concept of harnessing sermons for sales was not new. The engine driving the runaway sales of The Purpose-Driven Life was the "40 Days of Purpose" campaign, in which author Rick Warren signed up 1,200 churches to devote six sermons to the content of the book, while church members read a chapter every day for 40 days, says Stielstra, who was senior marketing director at Christian publisher Zondervan when it published the book.
"That simple process created an army of 400,000 customer evangelists whose word-of-mouth recommendations sold 18 million copies in 18 months without a national advertising campaign," Stielstra says. His 2005 book, Pyromarketing: The Four-Step Strategy to Ignite Customer Evangelists and Keep Them for Life, describes how non-religious companies can use similar sales campaigns.
Part 2 of "Product Placement in the Pews" will be posted soon for discussion. You may also read the entire article at the Knowledge@Wharton website.