Marketing God

By Jason Menard

Far from being a sign of the Apocalypse, the United Church of Canada’s decision to engage in an aggressive, and surprisingly edgy, marketing campaign is just the Church using one of its traditional strengths – business acumen.

In an attempt to make the Church more appealing for the coveted 30-45-year-old demographic, the United Church will be unveiling a series of ads designed to challenge the traditional view of religious entities. By blowing off the dust and appearing to make the Church seem less stuffy, they’re hoping that they can penetrate a market ripe for exploitation.

Statistics Canada figures show that while 80 per cent of Canadians believe in some sort of higher power, only 19 per cent actually set foot into a place of worship. For many Canadians the only time they set foot in a Church is for weddings and funerals. The United Church’s aggressive $10.5-million campaign is hoping to change that.

And while traditionalists may lament the fact that their beloved Church has fallen prey to the evils of commerce, the truth of the matter is that the Church – with a few noted slip-ups along the way — has always been a savvy judge of people and has shown a willingness to tailor the message to make it more palatable for the masses. After all, what’s the point of having something to say when you’re shouting it to empty pews?

One could take a look at the way Christianity was founded as the perfect example of supply meeting demand. Developed around a Roman society built upon classes and slaves, many people were left feeling oppressed and worthless. As slaves, they had no rights of their own and they were forced to watch as a relatively small group of people enjoyed the spoils of riches – earning lavish lifestyles in the here and now.

For the average slave – or even someone in the working classes – hope was a concept that wasn’t even worth discussing. And, lo and behold, here comes a religion that professes that no matter how challenged you are in this world, if you live a good life and give yourself to God, you’ll enjoy riches and happiness beyond your wildest dreams in the afterlife.

What a great message! And it seems almost custom-tailored to the largest audience that was most willing to listen to it. Be a good person, don’t rise up in anger against oppression, ascribe to stoic faith, and the rewards will be plentiful once you shuffle off this mortal coil.

Whether it’s been through the Protestant Reformation or the two Vatican councils, the Church itself – or significant members of its hierarchy – has shown the willingness to listen to the will of the people and adjust its philosophies accordingly. For some faithful, the changes have been too much, moving away from their static view of the Word of God, while for others there hasn’t been enough change. They feel the Church is still stuck with outdated morals and beliefs that don’t mesh with today’s believer.

And that’s where the balancing act comes in for the clergy. How do you make a text written 2,000 years ago relevant for today’s environment? As the world has shrunk and the depth of our knowledge continues to grow, can we adequately say that concepts that held true then still resonate now?

Society has changed. Far more people are willing to admit that their Atheist or Agnostic. Other religions and belief systems from around the world have found their way to Canadian soil, giving people more pause for thought – and more options for their faith. It’s a competitive environment out there – and the prize is society’s souls.

However, old messaging doesn’t cut it any more. Like watching a commercial made in the 1970s today, the style and advertising tactics look out of date. To appeal to today’s media-savvy generations, you have to embrace the voice that speaks most clearly to them. And the United Church has recognized that with its new campaign.

Chances are there are some faithful who will be offended by the image of two grooms on a wedding cake followed by the words, “anyone object?” And for some the question of “how much fun can sex be before it is a sin?” is one that shouldn’t even be asked. But the problem is, if you’re going to keep preaching to the same choir, eventually you’re going to run out of ears. You need new blood, new passion, and new ideas to keep your organization stimulated. In business, you need to change with the times. You adhere to your key values and core principles, but you bend where needed to meet today’s needs.

For the most part, people aren’t willing to blindly follow any one religion any more. They want to have the opportunity to question their beliefs, to discuss the challenging topics, and to make their decisions with the support of a higher power – not just in blind adherence to a 2,000-year-old edict mired in metaphor and imagery.

The United Church gets that. And this new advertising campaign shows that the Church is more than just a place for spiritual enlightenment – it’s got a pretty savvy business sense to go with it.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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