Religious groups have buying power and loyalty to offer
When The Passion of the Christ was first pitched, many Hollywood executives thought it was crazy. So crazy in fact that big budget studios, in the end, didn't foot the entire bill. And how it cost them. When the final tally was told, the box office receipts cleared $600 million, making independent investors extremely wealthy.
The same could be said of 2008's Fireproof, a film with religious themes starring 80's sitcom star Kirk Cameron which took in over $30 million. It's safe to say that marketers are finding religion - fast.
Brad Abare, founder of the Los Angeles-based Center for Church Communication, says the most important rule to remember is the religious sector needs to be communicated to in a way that appeals to their higher senses: "They are moved by something more than just the utility need for a product or service," says Abare. "It has to appeal to their sense of belief or something bigger than them." Abare also thinks a major problem is marketers try to just slap a religious symbol on a product, believing a cross or Jewish star will fool their audience. Greg Stielstra, co-author of Faith-Based Marketing, agrees. "If you want a church to come to your car wash, you don't ask the minister to mention it in his sermon," he says. "You ask if you can donate the car wash to a church fundraiser." He adds that getting this audience may mean giving up another one. "This group pays close attention to who your other clients are," says Stielstra. "If you're working with a casino ... that may not fly."
But getting to the decision-makers may not be as easy as in traditional business. In a time of emails, phone calls and Skype, many religious leaders want to meet face-to-face. They're sizing you up as a person, not just as a potential partner. "If you're looking for the quick deal, then this kind of business arrangement may not be for you," says Stielstra. "It may even take a few meetings so they know you're committed and serious about their cause. Their word is trusted so they don't want to just endorse anyone or any product."
The Path of the Righteous
But just because deals may not all be made in one IM, doesn't mean the Internet isn't a growing part of the religious sector. Actually, Twitter and Facebook are helping grow religious interests by leaps and bounds. "Many Christians heard about movies like The Passion of the Christ first through the Internet like everyone else," says Abare. "Religious people use the Web to connect with each other about subjects that are important to them: family, faith, community. If you create a Web site which opens up dialogue, religious groups will be very interested." In fact, Joel Osteen, one of the most famous ministers in the United States, has more than 40,000 followers reading his daily Tweets (twitter.com/Joelosteenmin), which include everything from messages of hope to media appearances. "The younger generation of religious leaders believes technology isn't something to be avoided," says Abare. Instead, they see it as "a pathway to a whole new generation of followers."
A pathway leading its followers not just to the virtual world but to conferences, as well. While most events are struggling in the tough economy - to the point of scaling back or even canceling altogether - Abare reveals the Christian Booksellers Association, for instance, has attracted around 12,000 members. "And many of them are in the more attractive demographic of 25 to 45 years old," says Abare. "They have the ability to mobilize what would be considered favorable groups for marketing very quickly."
Kevin Wright, president of the Lexington, Kentucky-based Religious Marketing Consulting Group, believes it's those large numbers that have made tourism a major marketing opportunity as well. It used to be pilgrimages were the main travel interest of the religious but now they're in competition with volunteer vacations. "People are excited about going on missions like never before and aren't afraid to shell out major money to be a part of these things," says Wright, pointing out that religious-themed locations such as Israel or Europe are giving way to the Caribbean or other more local destinations. "It's become less about where you go than who you go with," he says. "People want to come together with others who feel like they do. It's about a sense of fellowship. And maybe the most notable part is the demographics are consistent. The U.S. Travel Association did a study a couple years ago and found that one-third of the market is under 35, one-third is between 35 and 54 and one-third is 55 and above," says Wright.
And that's why Stielstra is surprised, more than anything, by how the sheer numbers have been ignored. "The marketing community gears up for Super Bowl Sunday and yet it's really every weekend," he says. "They wait for people to turn on their TV for one game when more people attend church every Sunday 52 weeks a year - and they're in buildings that are clearly marked!"
Many say calling this a religious movement would be like saying an Olympic runner had only one fast foot. They believe it feeds into the other tootsie - the conservative right -turning this crossover into a one-two punch. Some may laugh at Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, but no one guffaws at the marketing power that comes with an audience of millions of devoted followers. Still, experts are quick to call the generality of the right-wing religioso overblown, if not quite a myth. "Getting with a Republican candidate for marketing wouldn't be the worst thing in the world," says Abare. "But at the same time, there are many more religious Democrats than people realize. With younger leaders in the faith-based market, you have to know a decent amount voted for Obama. I think some of them get turned off when they're spoken to as if they're a Southern Republican. The faith-based movement is hitting all regions of the country."
The bottom line is that the religious sector is an important area on which marketers should focus because it has staying power. It's not a fad but a fact of life. Although the Christian market dominates, with more than 90 percent of the defined religious in the United States, the Jewish and Islamic population can also not be ignored. Still, whichever religion a marketer chooses to align with, if they bring an honest respect for the faith, fill a need and show they're looking for a long-term partnership, rather than a one-and-done, they may find customers for generations. "If there's one word that sums up this group, it's loyalty," says Stielstra. "They're not always the easiest to win over. But once you do, you've got a customer for life."